If art is a form of self-expression, then Jonathon Litchfield is, without doubt, an artist. The owner of Litchfield, his eponymous Gastown boutique at 38 Water Street (website) isn’t a painter or a dancer or a photographer or a woodworker, like his four younger siblings. Where, say, Thomas works wood and Eden captures life’s fleeting moments on film, brother Jonathon’s gift is more curatorial, collecting pieces that interest and challenge, and presenting them to the public.
“I’ve always been quite creative, and, it seems, my knack is for spaces,” the 35-year-old says, sitting on the midcentury modern leather sofa that, along with an antique Japanese table and a grass-cloth wall, creates a cozy conversation nook at the back of the shop. Contained within the understated concrete space is Litchfield’s collection of objects—from ultralight titanium mountain climbing mugs by Japan’s Snow Peaks and a single Martin Margiela pony-hair bookmark in the shape of a traditional Japanese tabi footprint to faithful American reproductions of the famous German Blackwing 602 pencil. The only thing to expect is the unexpected.
Wearing artfully battered leather boots and a chambray work shirt, this former president of Martha Sturdy Inc., the corporate arm of the iconic Canadian artist, embodies the polished, high-end hipster vibe of Gastown, right down to his close-cropped blond fade and slightly shaggy beard.
“It’s not just the visual that I’m attracted to, it’s the feeling,” he continues. “I can appreciate a beautiful thing or space wherever, but it’s the feeling you get when you’re in a well-balanced space. Beautiful spaces don’t always feel good, and I like places that feel good.”
Form and function play out in Litchfield’s clean, concrete space like a zen mantra, harking back to the years he spent growing up in Japan. “That was one of the more formative experiences in terms of developing my aesthetic,” Litchfield says of his family’s move from Calgary to a town outside of Osaka when he was 10. “Japan has a very refined feel, and the way things work there is very specific. I came away having learned to appreciate that intrinsically.”
But for all its owner’s reasoned selection and harmony of purpose, the store’s stock in trade couldn’t be more eclectic. Litchfield the shop is not so much a destination as a discovery—much like Litchfield the man’s relationship to his own boutique.
“It [opening a store] wasn’t something that I’ve always dreamed about. A number of things fell into place as it was time for me to exit Martha Sturdy: conversations with friends and family, finding the right spot. It was in the back of my mind for a year, but it all came together pretty quickly,” he says, pausing and looking around the room. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
With such an unconventional origin, the overarching concept is also eccentric. Like an old-school emporium, Litchfield only brings in a limited number of “something”, be it alpaca scarves from Peru, hand-hammered Japanese kitchen knives, French upholstery brushes, or organic, pine-and-juniper scented body wash. When it’s gone, he gladly moves on to the next thing. “But,” he explains, “whatever it is, it’s something I own or like something I own.”
Litchfield doesn’t sell an aesthetic so much as he sells the Litchfield aesthetic, a philosophy very much dependent upon and intertwined with the others who share his family name. The space itself, industrial and sparse juxtaposed with warm wood and natural elements, is reminiscent of a house his grandfather built in southern Alberta in the late 1970s. His mother, who informed her son’s sense of space and proportion, moved to Vancouver from Calgary for a month to help him open the store last fall. Both his brother and brother-in-law secured the wood-and-metal shelving along the cinderblock walls. His sister’s black-and-white photographs adorn the space. Another brother’s decorated (but fully functional) axes have become the store’s most talked about sales items. Litchfield even sells his own house line of Nanking cherry jam, a family recipe made from a relatively obscure, tart fruit that grows in his parents’ yard.
It all amounts to a sense of permanence rarely found in a new store. And that’s exactly as Litchfield would have it. “We are well beyond the point in our society of being able to use something and then throw it away. When we buy stuff at a big box [store], being surrounded by those disposable things affects you and the way you think and move and talk.
“I wanted to have a place that gives people not just beautiful things they want to hold on to, but beautiful things that are well crafted with purpose and place and have some humanity.
“After all, we are not disposable,” he adds. “Life isn’t disposable.”