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.
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.”
There are certain charms that North Americans hope for when visiting a Western European town or city: café-lined squares, gingerbread buildings, cobblestonedstreets that twist and turn in every direction.
Arriving in Rotterdam, then, can be unsatisfying, at least at first. Glass-and-steel skyscrapers shoot up from wide, razor-straight, car-filled boulevards. On the surface, everything looks distressingly familiar.
Photo by George Whiteside
Outside the Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County, one of Ontario’s most picturesque agricultural regions, an upright player piano sits halfway between the parking lot and the front entrance, its strings sutured to amplifiers and extended to reach the inn’s parapet. As guests arrive, the exposed strings vibrate in the wind and Chopin fills the air. The gentle greeting, conceived by sound artist Gordon Monahan, sets the tone for this new type of getaway: the country inn as an art-filled, hipster-friendly retreat.
The lodgings are built around the historical Wellington Iron foundry, which dates back to 1860, now with a new campus of barn-like additions surrounding it on all sides. Together, the cluster of buildings amounts to a 1,200-square-metre interior with 11 guest rooms, two suites and a dining room and bar that seat 75. Various other anterooms offer Ping-Pong, canasta or karaoke until dawn, and a covered patio functions as an event space and an extension of the dining room.
The Hanger chair by Umbra Shift and Philippe Malouin
Until recently, Umbra, the Toronto-based, cheap-and-cheerful housewares producer (a bit like Ikea, only more plastics than particleboards), held a very specific place in mind. It was the brand that made my first, grown-up, moving-out-of-mom’s-house garbage can – the Garbo, designed by Karim Rashid, which I got on my way to university. In my late teens, I thought its plump, futuristic curves were cool (especially as mine was a silvery-blue colour). And it was cheap – likely less than a movie ticket, which is probably why almost everyone else I knew had one, too. So for me, Umbra will always conjure memories of my freshman room – decorated, as it was, on a dime. Something to remember fondly, if not to repeat.
Sarah Eldershaw’s DIY shoes
Thanks to the growing Maker Movement, more people are enthusiastic about reclaiming once foreign-made, mass-produced consumables. Whether it’s something old school such as macramé plant hangers, or cutting edge and technical such as computer hardware, DIYers are becoming more prevalent. Not to mention profitable. According to a recent Economist article, Brooklyn-based Etsy, for example, generated sales of more than $1-billion (U.S.) in 2013, the vast majority of which was driven by small, part-time, at-home producers (of which there are over one million worldwide).
Pepe Heykoop’s paper vase project. Photo by Annemarijne Bax
It’s a familiar, often unfortunate equation: a designer (industrial, fashion etc.) from a wealthy country has a trend-setting idea, manufacturers it for pennies in an impoverished country and then sells it for a premium without sharing the riches with the labourers who made it.
Dutch designer Pepe Heykoop is trying to create a new paradigm. His paper-vase project is both aesthetically edgy and morally sound. It was recently shown at the largest furniture fair in the world, Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, Italy, where the influential design blog Dezeen called it a “a runaway success.” The business model for the vases is helping raise a community in Mumbai out of severe poverty.