Best of Vancouver communities: Design scene takes shape

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      Compared to the design capitals of the world like New York and Paris, the scene in Vancouver is a small affair. But that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of cutting-edge activity going on in our little neck of the woods.

      “In many ways, I think it [Vancouver’s design community] is the undiscovered territory,” remarks Steven Cox, a principal with Cause + Affect, a local multimedia-design firm he founded with wife Jane Cox. It curated the Museum of Vancouver’s 2008 Movers and Shapers exhibit (the third in a series of Movers and Shapers shows) and the travelling Vancouverism: Westcoast Architecture + City-Building exhibition currently on display throughout Europe. “A lot of people don’t necessarily know it’s there until they’re part of it.”

      The reason, he explains, is that the local community is made up mostly of small companies all busy just trying to get work. So in a bid to foster dialogue and exchange of ideas, Cox’s firm began holding regular Pecha Kucha nights just over a year ago. The idea is simple: 12 local creatives are given six minutes and 40 seconds to present a maximum of 20 images of their work, each shown for 20 seconds each. Having had its seventh incarnation September 17 at the Interior Design Show West, Pecha Kucha—a global phenomenon first started in 2003 in Tokyo (the name is Japanese for the “sound of conversation”)—has proven to be wildly popular with designers and the public alike. “For a lot of people it’s just a big kick in the ass,” explains Cox. “They go, ”˜Oh, man, I’m going to do the thing that I keep saying I’m going to do.’”

      As for what common thread binds the city’s creative people together, Cox notes an environmental mindset. Given Vancouver’s reputation as one of the world’s greenest and most livable cities, it’s not surprising that much of the city’s design—from fashion to architecture—takes an ecoconscious approach. (Think of the city’s green roofs, which top the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch and the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, and are featured in the May 2009 issue of National Geographic. There is also the variety of natural-fibre fashions from such labels as Elroy Apparel and Adhesif Clothing Company in just about every Main Street boutique.) It’s a trend that is sure to intensify, according to Cox.

      “I think what you’re going to see over the next 10 years is a combination of innovative technology and natural materials,” he observes. “You’re going to see more innovative stuff that’s going to look at ways to use natural materials in a very futuristic manner.” And that’s precisely how Vancouver is going to make its mark on the international design stage, he predicts. “If anything, that’s what we want Vancouver to be known for. As the younger generation of Vancouver, we’re all trying to escape this resort-town brand that the tourist industry has labelled on the city”¦and bring forth this brand of innovation and technology.”

      Best architectural legacy

      Vancouver’s grand Pooh-Bah of architecture, Arthur Erickson, passed away in May at the age of 84. The concrete poet’s legacy lives on, however—not just in his buildings, which include the famed UBC Museum of Anthropology and the less-than-universally appreciated SFU campus—but in those whom he taught, nurtured, and influenced. Think former Erickson student Bing Thom (whose portfolio includes the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts and the Aberdeen Centre addition), former Erickson apprentice James Cheng (known for his quintessential Vancouverist podium towers including Westbank’s Residences on Georgia), and young hotshots Oliver Lang and Cynthia Wilson of Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture (whose ROAR_one 10-unit housing complex in Point Grey, a collaboration with stalwarts Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects and Urbanistes, won a 2008 Governor General’s Medal in Architecture).

      Best way to wear arton your sleeve

      Hajnalka Mandula, the Hungarian-born visionary behind fashion line Mandula, is gaining notoriety for her avant-garde use of certified organic textiles, recycled materials, and found objects. Her clothing is as likely to be constructed from boiled silk as it is to feature repurposed bicycle inner tubes or brass safety pins, and is stocked by boutiques across the U.S. and in her own shop, Mandula (214 Abbott Street). Also creating a buzz is Heather Martin, former protégé of local couturier Yumi Eto, whose work blurs the line between art and fashion (in a 2007 collaboration with Douglas Coupland, she encased machine guns in pink lingerie). Her clothing line, mono, is available locally at Eugene Choo (3683 Main Street) and the Block (350 West Cordova Street).

      Best stackable furniture

      There are foldable deck chairs, and then there’s the totally collapsible installation work created by molo design. The design studio’s chief innovation is the use of honeycombed paper that unfurls into seating, flexible walls, and even lamps. And it all folds right back up neatly for easy storage, which gives you the thrill of being able to blow your guests’ minds. The firm’s “softwall” is being featured in New York’s MoMA exhibit Rough Cut: Design Takes a Sharp Edge, while its “softseating” is currently on display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s new modern wing. Luckily, locals can see the work of Stephanie Forsythe, Todd MacAllen, and Robert Pasut up close at their design studio (1470 Venables Street), by appointment.

      Best approach to waxing poetic

      What do Taylor Swift, Ashton Kutcher, and Jodie Foster have in common (apart from paparazzi)? They’re all fans of Pyrrha Design, a local jewellery line, which makes sterling silver, bronze, and 14-karat gold castings of 19th-century wax seals that have been spotted on the necks of countless celebs. Each has a special meaning—Brad Pitt’s leaf pendant, for example, is inscribed in French with the words “I change only in death”. Last year, the firm branched out with a collection of freshwater pearl jewellery. Pyrrha is carried in Manhattan’s Conran Shop, L.A.’s Fred Siegel, and the gift shops at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Andy Warhol Museum, as well as on-line at

      Best wooded bliss

      At this year’s Interior Design Show West, acclaimed local artist Brent Comber displayed a delicately shaped 3,500-pound piece of wood, carved from an 800-year-old red-cedar stump—just one of the many examples of his less-is-more approach. Comber’s work—which includes Salt Tasting Room’s tables (bundles of cross-cut alder branches set under glass)—reflects and enhances the natural beauty of wood. At the other end of the spectrum is 2009 B.C. Creative Achievement Award winner Judson Beaumont. His Straight Line Designs firm is notable for its whimsical, cartoonish designs, such as his Beaver Cabinet (a dresser that appears to have been virtually gnawed in half).