For furniture designer Shawn Place, a gutsy move from central Canada to the West Coast offered more than a change of scenery: it was just what he needed to kick-start a new career, too.
Originally from Brampton, Ontario, Place relocated to Prince George in 2005 and was cycling through Gastown during a trip to Vancouver when he stumbled across a contemporary-furniture store. Intrigued, he stepped into the shop, and with a little bit of luck and some hard work, the rest has serendipitously fallen into place—pun intended.
“I’d been working as a bicycle-part designer, was looking for a change, and saw some of the furniture,” Place recalls, speaking to the Georgia Straight by phone during a stop in town. “And I was like, ‘Huh, I think I’ll be a furniture designer.’ ”
Though he possessed little knowledge of furniture-making, Place quickly began work on his first prototype: a strikingly simple wood rocking chair that he hoped would mimic the Danish-modern style—all clean lines, warm timbers, and scaled-back silhouettes—that he was so smitten with in-store.
The self-taught designer immersed himself in research in order to properly craft the entire chair by hand, from its intricate, cane-entwined seat and back to the smooth, exposed wood joinery. “I just assumed I’d be able to find people to do that for me, but no such luck,” he remembers with a laugh.
After receiving feedback for his rocking chair from the Gastown shop’s owners (his handiwork was ace but the proportions were off) and painstakingly constructing 13 more iterations, Place had perfected his prototype: a sublime vision of carefully carved rift-cut oak and hand-woven binder cane that has captured the attention of design blogs and publications both at home and abroad.
He’s since built an impressive selection of handcrafted furnishings from his Prince George digs, including a minimalist three-legged side table and a dramatic spindle-backed chair that takes after the ample shape of an owl, each showcasing the designer’s now-signature Scandinavian- and Japanese-influenced aesthetic.
“They need to have some sensuality to them,” Place says of his pared-down pieces, “things that you want to love and that sort of speak to you, not stark and with no personality.”
The designer’s latest project, a glass-topped dining table with a beautifully curved, structural walnut frame for Winnipeg-based design company EQ3’s new all-Canadian Assembly collection, extends this need for a tactile connection. However, design buffs may also recognize elements from renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson’s early post-and-beam constructions and coastal First Nations architecture embedded in the longhouses on Haida Gwaii, for example.
“I wanted to do something a bit more geographically influenced, being the designer for the West,” Place says of the inspiration behind the table, which joins 14 other pieces from Canadian creatives, like Mon-treal designer Zoë Mowat and Winnipeg-based artist Kenneth Lavallee, in the EQ3 Assembly line, now available at the company’s Vancouver showroom (2536 Granville Street).
The designer has another five or six pieces planned for EQ3 this year, though details on these works are being kept under wraps. But Place has no reservations about comparing his new passion to his previous, slightly more mechanical gig in the bicycle industry.
“There’s a lot more personality in furniture,” he notes. “There’s a chance of evoking more of a feeling and really having someone respond emotionally to your piece, as opposed to just focusing on the technicalities.”