Patty Johnson is a master furniture designer with a deep sense of social responsibility. At her Toronto studio, she crafts the kind of playful-but-sophisticated pieces — neon, rattan-style arm chairs woven from sustainable fibres — that make design editors and critics go goo-goo eyed. She also spends considerable time in places like Haiti and Botswana, helping to promote and develop local artistry and furniture production. Rather than being a sideline effort, her grass roots involvement is what gives character to her higher-end pieces. The recently released Haida chair was inspired by a year Johnson spent working with the First Nations group in the Pacific Northwest. The curved back takes its form from the Haida’s tradition of steam bending cedar; the structure — held together without any fasteners like nails or bolts — has the elegance of a traditional long house. Haida Chair. Price upon request. Mjölk, 2959 Dundas St. W., Toronto, 416-551-9853.
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, May 2, 2013.
A detail of Marie-José Gustave’s cardboard chair (photo by Stephanie Lamy)
When designer Marie-josé Gustave moved to Quebec from France 15 years ago, she, not surprisingly, hauled her stuff with a bevy of cardboard boxes. But, unlike most of us, Gustave didn’t give away, store or toss the containers when she got here. She started turning them into art and decor.
“I had lots of boxes,” jokes Gustave.
The Montrealer studied clothing production, was working in textile design and long loved tactile crafts such as sewing and knitting. Like an interesting fabric or yarn, she admired cardboard’s rich, versatile texture. Depending on how it’s cut, layered and woven together, it looks like wool, woven seagrass or clay.
Even if you’ve never heard of Giulio Cappellini, or the eponymous design studio he’s run for three decades, chances are you’ve seen some of the furniture maker’s quizzically shaped, brightly hued tables, couches and cabinetry.
Part of what has made the 59-year-old so successful is a singular ability for discovering, developing and collaborating with untapped talent: much lauded stars like Marcel Wanders, Jasper Morrison and Tom Dixon all got their first big breaks by working with the Milanese master.
When Cappellini was in Toronto recently to give a lecture at the Design Exchange, we caught up with him to talk about his sense of colour, humour and how he finds his bright young things.
You’ve got a knack for spotting fresh talent. How do you do it?
I travel a lot. I visit universities and schools. I meet a lot of people. Sometimes I just see a rough prototype or a sketch. Or sometimes I meet someone and I just think that this person can work well with Cappellini. The feeling I get for the person is very important, because sometimes it takes years between the first prototype and the final design. And I never just want to make one piece with a designer. So we need to build a strong relationship.
For devout foodies, scavenging through public parks and roadside ditches to pick wild, esoteric ingredients is an almost sacred ritual. Although the yields are small, the thistles, berries and greens they collect are nutrient-packed, deeply flavourful and, perhaps most importantly, not what the neighbours are eating.
But gourmands aren’t the only ones out foraging. Pioneering designers, including furniture makers and architects, are uprooting their own raw materials to make everything from cabinetry to structural columns. Turns out there are lots of aesthetic possibilities when working with forage. Roadside weeds can be boiled down to dye textiles, for example, while a naturally fallen tree can make a fetching coffee table.
As a movement, surrealism is most often associated with highbrow arts like painting, literature and film (the macabre image of ants pouring out of a wounded hand, from Luis Buñuel’s seminal movie Un Chien Andalou, is as unsettling today as it would have been when it was first shown in 1929). But it also lends itself well to more commonplace fixations like industrial design and home decor.
After all, in the original, 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, poet Andre Breton pointed to man’s general disaffection for the “objects he has been led to use, objects that his nonchalance has brought his way.” And one of the delights of surrealism is the way it electrifies the unremarkable with its strange colours, dream-like sense of possibility and irreverence for rules. The violin, for example, will forever be more beautiful because May Ray likened it to a ladies nude back with his 1924 photograph, Le Violon d’Ingres.
The Place: A 5-bedroom, $675,000 Victorian in Toronto’s west end. It has 2 kitchens, so it’s either a live-in/rent-out property or the home of a food-hoarding over eater. I wonder what kind of house it would be for me: a way to boost my income, or my waist size? Actually, why not both? I could use all the rent money to buy fancy snacks, like prosciutto…and chocolate-covered prosciutto. It’s win-win-win, because then I could use the rent money to get lipo when I’m too heavy to breath. Yay.
Thanks to a combination of factors — a deep-rooted fear of debt, my poor choice of career paths and an over-inflated real estate market — It’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll never be able to afford a house in Toronto. And if I did buy, it would likely be a bachelor condo the size of a hamster cage on the fringes of civilization (heaven forbid, somewhere north of the 401). I’m picturing a life where I’m too poor to hang curtains or buy any furniture, yet too stressed by my massive mortgage payments and claustrophobic digs to even care. So while I can’t buy a house, I’ve decided to torture myself with indulge in fantasy real estate — basically, from time to time, I’m going to be picking the places that I’d like to buy, and blogging about how I would decorate them to make them my own.
The Place:15 Crocker Ave., a two-bedroom, $519,000 Victorian townhouse near Trinity Bellwoods. It’s around the corner from Nadège Patisserie, which means I would get happily fat eating too many butter croissants and gin-and-tonic marshmallows. Overall, I like the neighbourhood and think this would be a fun fixer project.