Think design and your mind may conjure up building professionals in suits and hardhats, architectural blueprints in hand as they survey the site of a shiny new construction. Or perhaps your brain pictures graphic designers working diligently on MacBooks to dream up images that best represent some new cutting-edge brand. Still others may imagine decorators and contractors collaborating à la your favourite HGTV home-reno program to bring a client’s dream abode to life. And while it’s easy to interpret design as these very real, visual concepts, the term encompasses much more than that.
“I think often of a quote by [American architect] Michael Murphy....‘Design is never neutral: it either helps or it hurts,’ ” Jennifer Cutbill, director and cofounder of Vancouver Design Week, says by phone. “Everything that we interact with in our built realm has been designed either intentionally, thoughtfully, or not.”
Indeed, from the seemingly generic mugs that hold your morning coffee, to the T-shirts, jeans, and shoes that fill your wardrobe, to the road- and bikeways you navigate regularly to get to work—or anywhere, for that matter—design not only affects, but forms the very backbone of, every aspect of our day-to-day lives. And it’s a point that the volunteer-run team behind the interdisciplinary VDW, which returns for its third edition this year, hopes to convey with the fete’s adopted theme of “Impact” for 2018.
“The idea of impact has kind of been there since the very beginning; it’s part of why we created VDW,” explains Cutbill. “Making it explicit this year is a way to engage more of the general public in that conversation.”
For Cutbill, who is also an architect at Vancouver-based firm Local Practice Architecture + Design, this means viewing design as a creative problem-solving tool that anyone—not just those who specialize in certain industries—is capable of participating in. It also involves connecting Vancouver’s design communities with the public so that it can better contribute to and understand the work that such groups are doing to help make the city a more vibrant and livable place. These include artists examining our rapidly densifying urban environments, leatherworkers crafting upcycled shoes and bags, and landscape architects improving parks, alleyways, and other public spaces.
In this city, bridging these wildly diverse disciplines is a keen interest in the environment and a “regard for social justice”—characteristics that have long been “core to the DNA of Vancouver design”, suggests Cutbill. The young age of Vancouver as a city in comparison to urban centres such as Toronto, London, and Montreal affords our design scene more autonomy in the projects it carries out, too.
“We have this freedom that’s unencumbered by decades or hundreds of years of institutional memory or baggage that other cities might have,” observes Cutbill. “So we’re kind of free to be a little bit loose to do something in our own way.”
That creative liberty is a value that’s very much appreciated by D’Arcy Jones, principal and architect of D’Arcy Jones Architecture, whose work ranges from funky residential restorations to the construction of commercial and gallery spaces. The firm’s past projects include a revamped ’80s Vancouver Special that was ushered into modern times thanks to an open-concept layout and unconventionally placed skylights, and East Van’s Monte Clark Gallery, which was renovated in a way that retains the industrial bones of the 1963 concrete-block building.
“I personally get bored when I do the same thing more than once, and I think that’s a new-city thing,” Jones tells the Straight by phone. “When you’re from an old, established city, you just don’t rock the boat, right?”
Having lived and worked in Vancouver for most of his adult life, Jones considers the city’s design fields to be influenced by areas in Japan, California, and China due to our geographical position on the Pacific Rim. However, he says the scene shines the brightest when the design process reflects and addresses uniquely Vancouver elements such as the city’s natural landscape and climate. The renowned architect would also like to see local design professionals take more pride in their work—something that VDW, which will include over 100 design-oriented talks, tastings, and free tours of studios and landmarks around Metro Vancouver, aims to make a reality.
“The more you celebrate it, the more it’s valued…and it’s kind of a cycle that raises everybody up,” says Jones.
D’Arcy Jones Architecture is one of 40-plus design spaces that will be opening their doors as part of VDW’s Design Studios series, which will offer attendees a behind-the-scenes look at a firm’s work, perspectives, and practice. Other participants include multidisciplinary gallery MNSTR, bespoke optical boutique Mosh Framemakers, and SPACE, a collaborative coworking room on Clark Drive founded by local wood-product designer Pat Christie in 2015.
Home to artists, technical-apparel designers, painters, metalsmiths, and other creatives, the shared venue embodies the heart of VDW’s theme of impact through its emphasis on community-building and the process, rather than the result, of design.
“So often we’re concerned with design being a thing—an architectural piece, a furniture piece, design as a purchasable product,” Christie explains by phone. “And I think we need to shift design away from the consumerism label that’s really attached to it because when you say ‘designer’…it really separates people. I think, fundamentally, people are capable of coming up with ideas and solutions to better our world—and some of them may not consider themselves designers. So by having design take a back seat, it’s about understanding that we have a role in facilitating the emergence of a lot of things that are possible in this city.”
Above all, design—in its broadest sense—has the ability to empower everyday people as problem solvers, whether they’re tackling small-scale troubles like finding storage solutions for Vancouver’s spatially challenged condos or a crisis as threatening as climate change.
Cutbill hopes that’s a feeling guests at this year’s Vancouver Design Week can confidently walk away with. “Design is so, so beautiful because it can let all of these different issues fall away, and [allow you to] approach problems through an aspirational and ‘Hey, let’s do it differently and let’s do it better’ kind of lens,” she says. “So, really, I hope people leave inspired and that they think differently about design.”
Vancouver Design Week takes place from Monday to next Sunday (May 7 to 13).