A/D/O by MINI | Toronto Design Week 2020

Journal

Product/Industrial/Furniture

Toronto Design Week 2020

Those who braved blizzards to explore Toronto’s small but impactful design festival discovered glowing rooms, dystopian signage, futuristic foods and more.

Spanning the city, from window displays to large-scale installations, seeing what was on view during Toronto’s design week meant braving the cold and trudging through a blizzard. In its 10th year, DesignTO has become an established annual fixture with a lot of support from the local community. Cafes, hotels, and local shops opened up to host shows or events, lending their walls and windows to the designers and artists of the city. 

The Gladstone Hotel, a functioning and funky hotel in the west of the city, offered its hallways and suites for an expansive multi-floor show, Come Up To My Room. The historical site, slanting floors, and woven antique rugs created a homey and casual backdrop to the designers’ work. Without a thread of a theme beyond their setting, the individual pieces felt like a collection of open studios rather than a singular show. 

At the Gladstone Hotel, resident artist Bruno Billio invited visitors into his glowing living room.

Resident artist Bruno Billio, who has been living in the hotel for 15 years, invited visitors into his neon green and black-striped living room where Donna Summer’s I Feel Love pumped, blacklights glowed, and fans blew silver tinsel across the room. It had a manic yet inviting Beetlejuice appeal. A few floors above, the Waterloo School of Architecture took over a hallway with a series of hand-crafted wooden chairs designed by imagining the needs of different celebrities, from Virgil Abloh to Sol LeWitt and Haruki Murakami.

This intellectual approach to craftsmanship initially seemed like a room full of chairs but was actually a collection of stories. Another room was darkened and a calmness took over me once I entered into what was a fragrant mini forest of fresh pine trees. Lights on timers pulsed on and off revealing creature-like pottery lurking in the constructed forest. With the exception of a few more solemn pieces on personal identity, the generally upbeat presentations made the Gladstone feel like an art funhouse.

Shipping containers at Stackt Market exhibited furniture by Müke (left) and dystopian signage by Radical Norms (right).

Another unusual setting was Stackt Market, a series of shipping containers turned into shops and galleries. In the height of the blizzard I took refuge in the showroom/open studio of Müke, a collaboration between furniture designer Michael Dellios and sculptor Michael John Vickers. Dellios was weaving with thick orange rope by the window amongst the sculptural yet functional pieces the two had created. The welcoming ease with which they carried on in their process made it feel like hanging out with friends, as they spoke about their ambitions working together to create weird yet practical work. 

They directed me to a group show of furniture artists displayed in two shipping containers, bound together to create a single gallery, a few doors down. Titled Themselves and curated by TheTheThe, it included handmade one-off pieces that studded the space like a sculpture park, with work from Canada, the US, and South Korea. The show seemed to be a gathering point for a community of young Canadian furniture designers. In another container the work became provocative. Radical Norms studio were actively making signs with dystopian messages about the future. They read “Drone Delivery Path. DO NOT BLOCK” and “No Human Driven Vehicles Beyond This Point,” and visitors were invited to generate their own signs that predict what might be regulated in the Toronto of the future. 

The Dying Dialogues show was a moving exploration of design and death.

In three locations across the city, the show Dying Dialogues was a moving and at times upsetting exploration of death. A team of researchers and designers interviewed patients and their families as they were moved from hospitals back home to end their life and provided tools for handling the difficult transition. Handwritten worries and wishes were posted across the wall: “I worry I will be a burden,” “I wish my children would not be sad when I die. This is life. C’est la vie!”

Beyond pulling my heartstrings, I was struck that there was no mention of money. I imagined the same project taking place in the United States and pictured entries like “I am worried I will be a financial burden” or “I wish I wasn’t leaving my children my debt.” In a country with free healthcare, concerns remained emotional. A daylong symposium exploring these themes is set to take place February 25. 

OCAD University students from the Industrial and Graphic Design departments teamed up for an exhibition titled Offcourse.

Having spoken to OCAD dean of design Dori Tunstall a few months back about her trailblazing curriculum to decolonize design, I wasn’t surprised to discover the intersectional work of the university’s students. The Industrial Design and Graphic Design departments put on Offcourse, a thoughtful exploration of identity, environmental systems, and visions of the future that made me excited for them to enter the workforce. From critiques of gender discrimination in the outdoor industry, to methods of reducing medical plastic waste through a pill bottle refill system, the students used design as a tool to respond to their conditions. Something I had seen little of in the shows until then.

Student Naoya Takahashi, concerned by textile waste, created a system where repurposed clothing is outfitted with an electronic label that told the origin story of the piece. The hope is that an increased connection to ones clothing will prevent the rapid consumption cycles fueling fast fashion. Graphic Design student Janet Cho responded to the decline of music education in Ontario schools, despite studies that show its positive benefits. She designed a collection of instruments that could be made with everyday items and on a low budget, from a finger piano made with bobby pins to a paper plate tambourine. 

At the Prototype/Studio North area of IDS, Cody James Norman presented furniture made from extruded recycled plastic.

Another set of provocative work was found inside the Interior Design Show, which takes place as part of the design week. Past the trade show tile samples and faucets were two noteworthy exhibits. Prototype/Studio North showcased emerging designers and independent studios, and a traveling Dutch show Edible Futures showcased potential food scenarios. Real artisanship was on display at Prototype/Studio North – hand-blown and cold-cut glass lamps, delicate wooden joinery, a coffee table made of coffee – and the designers were there to share their work and communicate their passion face to face.

While most designers I spoke with were Toronto based, Cody James Norman had traveled from Detroit to show his upcycled extruded plastic furniture collection, Growth. While he is not the first or only practitioner using extrusion as a means of turning plastic waste into desirable objects, the delicate organic forms he created were sculptural and weight bearing yet simultaneously wistfully light and dreamy.

Also at IDS, Dutch show Edible Futures included Fernando Laposse's corn husk material samples.

On the border of what is traditionally considered design, the Edible Futures portion of the show suggested speculative visions of what is yet to come felt like ominous warnings, calls to action, and uncanny concepts for how we might consume and produce food in the future. I recognized projects such as Hannah Alkouh’s Sea-Meat Seaweed, a bloody-looking butcher stand made entirely of seaweeds, and Fernando Laposse’s Totomoxtle in which he uses native Mexican corn husks to create multicolored designs. Other highlights included a device to condense water from air to make tea in water-scarce areas, and S/Zout Pantry, an exploration into food that can be grown with salt water.

Over the course of the week, many of the shows were accompanied by talks. One I attended was organized by the Female Design Council and brought Toronto-based practitioners together to speak on a panel about their experiences. They shared anecdotes about work-life balance, and also picked apart the uncomfortable reality of work being copied and replicated. It is a frightening reality for small independent studios that rely on social media to share their work, but can’t afford the lawsuits to protect it if it is copied.

Polish design was also represented at the trade show, with work by 100 designers displayed.

Other talks happening over the course of the week included Contextualizing the Future, a series on new materials; A Future Without Work; and Future of Sustainable Design – all pre-empting a changing landscape as new technologies, environmental scenarios, and social dynamics emerge in the city. 

The conversations that the show initiated were perhaps its most memorable part, as they provided insight into communities who were clearly galvanized to make change. Many people I spoke with lamented the unfortunate weather but spoke with an excitement around what is to come. While Toronto is not primarily known for design, there are definitely practitioners to keep an eye on. Especially the ones addressing the dynamics of their experience and using design as a tool to initiate new conversations.