Pharrell Williams is perhaps best known for two things: producing ultra-catchy earworm songs like Happy, and that enormous, Mountie-esque hat he wore to the Grammys hat a few years back. But he’s also a design nut, having tried his hand at furniture with a chair called the Tank; shoes, with sneakers for both Chanel and Adidas; and fashion, including sweaters made from upcycled ocean plastics for G-Star Raw. Recently, he unveiled his largest design project to date, a two-tower condo development in Toronto, done in collaboration with architects IBI Group and interior design studio U31, called Untitled. The Globe talks to him about the difference between making music and buildings, the power of curiosity, and why diversity makes design better.
Palm trees in Montego Bay, Jamaica
I passed by many things while walking from my grandmother’s rental apartment in Montego Bay, Jamaica to visit her in a hospital three kilometers down the road. A Hard Rock Café. Five-star hotels with aspirational names like Secrets, Breathless and Sunscape Splash. An old yacht club with abandoned boats sinking into a scum-filled bay. Luxury villas locked like prisoners behind steel bars. A taxi rank with drivers offering rides, drugs or both. A cruise ship terminal with idling jeeps and buses about to whisk vacationers on eco-tours. A police station with a long line of women and girls waiting to see their husbands and fathers who had been arrested in a recent wave of anti-gang raids. A restaurant where I once sat and listened to the pop pop pop of a nearby semi-automatic and tried to pretend it was fireworks. Fragrant gardens. Rank garbage. A gas station. People sitting in the shade of royal palm trees, trying to escape the heat of the day.
Despite all the things I saw, I mainly felt one thing. Fear.
Spotts Beach, Grand Cayman
Grand Cayman is perhaps best known as a Caribbean tax haven where the world’s rich and infamous stash their zillions. But not all visitors come for banking. For a long time, I’ve been going for the beaching. For good reason. My grandmother used to manage a hotel on the island, but even though she’s long since retired, I keep going back because Cayman has the Caribbean’s best coastline, with miles of bright white sand next to turquoise water. Under the sea is even better: wildlife — turtles, eels, barracudas and rays — can be seen a short swim offshore, flitting between sea fans, shipwrecks and tons and tons of coral. The best part: I don’t use a pile of Scuba gear to take it all in — just a simple snorkel mask and flippers that I bought in Toronto. Here, my six favourite places to snorkel offshore in Grand Cayman.
Filipe Pantone in his studio in Valencia, Spain
Felipe Pantone, the trendsetting artist from Valencia, Spain, knew that the tattoo on his left forearm was a mistake even before sitting down to have it done. The design, which he got in 2017, features a kneeling lady, naked except for a lightning bolt flashing across her insanely curvaceous body.
“It’s my worst one,” the 33-year-old confesses before noting a design on his right arm that’s much cooler: criss-crossed lines that create a rippling moiré effect.
View from my cabin at Lake Manitou
I remember the exact moment when I decided that I would never go back to my family’s cottage ever, ever again.
It was August 2000. I was 16 and sick of visiting the dusty, drafty old place in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. Its incessant mothball smell was getting to me, especially because it never seemed to keep out the moths.
My new couch
Four years ago, when my partner and I bought our first condo, we decided not to spoil our new space with the old, worn-out Ikea futon we had in our rental apartment. We were both happy to leave the couch on the curbside when we moved, but it was a full four years before we agreed on the style and budget for the replacement. He likes Danish-made, authentic mid-century-modern furniture, whereas I like affordable.
We didn’t actively search the whole time; no relationship needs that kind of aggravation. In fact, in most of our sofa-free days (during which we still had chairs – in case it looks like we spent years lolling haplessly on the floor), we were similar to the 15 per cent of Americans who avoid visiting furniture stores with their other half because they know that they’re more likely to come home frustrated with each other than toting new decor,
Zac Posen pays extreme attention to detail. I know this to be a fact. Not from the fashion designs which brought him fame. The 38-year old New Yorker hand-crafts clothing for beautiful women — Uma Thurman, Claire Danes — to grab best-dressed headlines at the Met Gala and the Oscars. Whereas I’m a not terribly fashionable man.
Instead, I gleaned his commitment to precision when I tried to follow the chocolate chip cookies from his debut recipe book, Cooking with Zac. The first indication was that I had to brown the butter in a pan until it looked like “deep mahogany with a hazelnut scent,” he writes — a necessary extra step because “with so many cookies in the world, it’s the fine touches that count.” The second indication was that I had to hand-press the chips into the top of the dough to achieve “a polished and professional look.” Clearly, this is not a recipe for a lazy baker.
Quetzal. Photo by Arash Moallemi
On first impression, the new restaurant Quetzal, a high-end Mexican eatery in Toronto, seems conspicuously lacking in Latin American flair. The long, linear and distinctly low-ceilinged space is composed of 12 modular bays, each about two metres wide, that create alcoves for seating – plus a striking canopy over the bar-slash-kitchen. The palette has a minimalist, art gallery vibe: The bays are crafted from fibreglass-reinforced gypsum and the bar is a geometric jigsaw of lightweight Ductal concrete and Canadian maple.
The local wood species, also used for the floor and banquettes, has been left blond except for the dark-stained dining surfaces, which include a trio of two-person tables that ingeniously cantilever from the bar. “It’s our most restrained space so far,” says Pooya Baktash, a co-founder with Alex Josephson of the Toronto firm Partisans and the principal who oversaw the design. “But we still found a way to be expressive.”
Le rocher très percé at the International Garden Festival. Photo by Martin Bond
Recently, before I made a 12-hour drive east from Toronto to Grand-Métis, Que., I was warned by several people that cell signal would be scarce. The tiny village – population 237 – sits at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and has many amenities for summer tourists, including clapboard cottages and quaint inns along the coast (the Centre d’art Marcel Gagnon is a nice auberge). But a surfeit of cell towers isn’t one of them.
Rather than being a point of frustration, though, the lack of digital connectivity is something that the area’s main attraction, the enchanting Reford Gardens, seems to be revelling in. There is no WiFi in the park (whose French name is the Jardins de Métis), all the better to appreciate the groves of purple lilacs and fields of blue poppies.