Museum of Vancouver's Why I Design illuminates city's dynamic creative community

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      Think design and your mind likely wanders to the realms of interiors, fashion, and, perhaps for the technologically inclined, graphics. But the term (and practice) encompasses much more than this narrow definition—especially in Vancouver.

      At least, that’s the reality that the Museum of Vancouver will attempt to drive home with its fourth annual Why I Design. A one-night-only exhibition that will bring more than 20 of Vancouver’s brightest architects, artists, industrial designers, ceramists, and others together under one roof, the event aims to showcase the city’s diverse design scene while offering curious attendees an inside look at the development and thinking behind a range of innovative, regionally crafted goods. 

      “The idea here is to celebrate and present local designers’ work, though not in the context of a trade-show environment, which is what designers often get asked to do,” Lauren Marsden, a Vancouver-based video and performance artist who serves as Why I Design’s project lead, explains to the Straight at the Museum of Vancouver. “It’s more of an exhibition. It’s a chance for designers to talk about their process, to show a concept rather than showing a product they’re trying to sell.”

      Spread out across multiple rooms at the Museum of Vancouver, the display’s locally produced pieces include elaborate garments, floral installations, independent print publications, and upcycled items. Together, they illuminate the city’s dynamic design community and its championing of environmentally minded ethics that have helped distinguish Vancouver’s creative scene from that of other locales. “We have, I think, a pretty high concentration of designers who are looking at social responsibility, ecological ethics, material responsibility,” notes Marsden.

      Ceramist Julianna Zwierciadlowska Rhymer's "uddercakes" challenge viewers to think about the dairy products and livestock they consume, and where they come from.
      Lucy Lau

      Two of those designers are Cheryl Cheng and Mario Sabljak of Concealed Studio, a Vancouver-based firm that produces architectural and Mother Nature–influenced wall panels and lighting. At Why I Design, the duo will present a series of four three-dimensional standing lights crafted using paper offcuts from a local mill. The backlit objects are constructed without glue or adhesive, and are placed atop blocks of reclaimed cedar at different angles so that the layered, multi-sided lanterns appear different depending on what direction you’re looking at them from.

      “A lot of the time, people don’t realize they’re all actually the same shape,” Cheng shares during an interview with the Straight. “It’s nice that we’re able to use material that, normally, would be thrown out,” adds Sabljak.

      Other design goods that will be on display include pillows manufactured from deadstock fabric and naturally dyed, 100-percent silk pocket scarves from Daphne Woo, a Gibsons-based textile designer who is the founder of ecofriendly fashion business Amacata. Ceramist Julianna Zwierciadlowska Rhymer, meanwhile, will exhibit three large Pepto-Bismol-pink ceramic works shaped like three-tier, slightly deformed cakes that have cow udders protruding from them at all angles. The artist, who also produces functional ceramics like dishware and beer steins as part of her practice, wants to challenge viewers to think about the food they consume—particularly dairy products and livestock—and where they come from.

      “I love making sculptural works that sort of comment on the world around us,” she says. “I believe, as artists, that’s our job: to point out different things, like ‘This is a problem and I’m not sure what the solution is, but we need to address this.’ ”

      Local architect Claire Wood examines her identity as a settler on stolen Indigenous land with her intallation, which mimics an architectural survey site.
      Lucy Lau

      More abstract installations are featured at Why I Design, too. Local architect Claire Wood, for instance, has built a faux architectural survey site by sectioning off a part of the Museum of Vancouver’s floor using survey-marking stakes, flagging tape, and hot-pink mason’s line. Within this rectangular area are pieces of plaster that Wood has manipulated to replicate large broken egg shells. This debris represents the midden that Wood encountered during visits to her family’s Sunshine Coast home when she was younger. For her, the waste she came across was proof that Indigenous communities had called that land home centuries before her own family entered the area.

      “That’s sort of where this came from,” the artist explains, “this visceral understanding of walking on thousands of years of history that’s not mine.”

      The installation is a way for Wood to examine her identity as a settler on unceded territory, while drawing attention to the fact that site surveys—among the first steps in the construction of a architecture project—have played a part in the division and dispersing of First Nations folks through the creation of settler-owned private property. “We, as settlers, need to take more ownership and responsibility about those feelings and the results of our actions,” states Wood.

      Whatever their medium or subject matter, What I Design’s pieces are meant to connect with and challenge Vancouverites. During the event, attendees will be able to meet the designers behind each object, and ask them questions about their goods and practices. Earlier that day, from 1 to 3 p.m., a panel discussion will also take place at the Museum of Vancouver, where architect Richard Evans, product designer Wendy Youds, and landscape designer Lukas Holy will come together to discuss “theories of change” in design.

      “Design isn’t necessarily so separate from art,” emphasizes Marsden. “It has the ability to be playful, experimental, socially engaged.”

      Why I Design takes place at the Museum of Vancouver on Saturday (November 3) from 7 to 11 p.m. Tickets to the main event and panel discussion are $23 at the door.

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.