For Kaly Ryan and Bram Sawatzky, the development of sleek, multifunctional furnishings is more than an aesthetic exercise—it’s a practice in resolution. “As industrial designers, we kind of like design to solve a problem,” Ryan tells the Georgia Straight by phone.
In fact, it was an issue of space that first prompted the duo to found their woodworking startup, Willow & Stump, in 2014. Six years ago, Ryan and Sawatzky made the move to Vancouver fresh out of the University of Alberta’s industrial-design program and quickly discovered the challenges that the city’s increasingly tight residences presented.
They began designing compact, multi-use furniture and décor items for the home, offering residents a selection of space-saving objects that were at once cool, smart, and unobtrusive. The pair’s first project was the Ballast nightstand, a walnut bedside table that can be adjusted to suit various bed frames. “The idea was to create a modular unit that could change height, change functions, and still look really good,” Sawatzky explains.
In 2014, the Ballast landed Willow & Stump the People’s Choice award in IDS Vancouver’s—then known as IDS West—Prototype, a design competition among next-generation makers. Ryan and Sawatzky followed up that hit with lighting fixtures, shelving units, and even growler carriers, each crafted from locally sourced wood and showcasing a distinct Scandinavian-influenced vibe.
Most recently, the twosome launched the Traverse series, a collection of playful ash furnishings that incorporates textile patterns from local surface designer Lemonni. Vibrant cushions adorned with geometric prints and fish motifs lend childlike whimsy to a convertible coffee-table-ottoman, for example, while fabrics splashed with shades of pink, blue, and orange tie together hanging shelves. Elsewhere, wall lights carved in the shapes of whales, mountains, and clouds—their fronts illuminated by Lemonni’s fanciful critters—may be Willow & Stump’s most tot-friendly design yet.
“The focus of this collection was collaboration,” Ryan says, “not only between us designers but also how you marry wood and pattern.”
For Vancouver Design Week(end), Ryan and Sawatzky will be welcoming residents into their workspace at Yew WoodShop (1295 Frances Street)—a woodworking studio they share with four other makers—from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday (May 13). There, curious design folk will be able to view Willow & Stump prototypes, completed objects, and a few flubs, too. “We have a museum of failed experiments,” Ryan reveals with a laugh.
However, when it works, it works. Take the Lua Pele Pendant, for example, which began as an exploration of how to transform large slabs of wood into a functional lighting fixture. The result is a conical chandelier crafted from delicate strips of fuchsia-coated ash and Corian; a circular piece of LED-lined wood—softened in a steam box and then carefully bent—radiates from within.
Traditionally employed in the construction of canoes, that same wood-manipulation technique is also used in the Fluyt Bench, a storage-and-seating unit that features a beautifully curved base. “It was another one of those products that began as an experiment,” Sawatzky recalls.
It’s this probability of success—no matter how small—and the opportunity to address the lingering challenges of urban living that keep Willow & Stump driven. “When you’re sitting there with all these constraints…and you can think of an idea and are able to make it immediately,” Ryan explains, “that is a great feeling, to be able to do that.”