With its vast, craggy coastline, Arctic winters and heavily forested and sparsely inhabited interior, Canada has largely been known for its natural rather than cultural charms. Canadian writer and artist Emily Carr summed up the country’s wild attractions when she wrote in 1937: “It is wonderful to feel the grandness of Canada in the raw . . . she is a great rugged power that you are a part of.”
Today, a number of young Canadian talents are beginning to tap into that rugged power and a Canadian design scene is starting to emerge with an approach and aesthetic that has a strongly Scandinavian feel.
Craft-based, handmade, and with a predominance of wood and elegant modern lines, Canadian design is taking on a Nordic style but adding a natural twist of its own.
Shauna Levy, president of Toronto’s design museum, The Design Exchange, says the reflection of a Scandinavian aesthetic is in part due to the country’s youth. “We’re still very young, we only became a country in 1867, so our designers have very multicultural influences,” she says. “Scandinavia has a similar access to natural resources, in particular wood, and that has been a big influence on Canadian design.”
Lars Dressler, designer, maker and co-founder of Toronto-based Brothers Dressler, agrees. “Scandinavian design has a large influence here,” he says. “Maybe it’s a northern thing. [Like Scandinavians] Canadians are generally aware of where materials are from and want to use them to the fullest. That dictates a lot of our design aesthetic; there is a prominence of wood and we don’t use too much plastic or injection moulding; it’s more craft-based.”
Brothers Dressler creates lighting and furniture using local materials. It also manufactures its pieces by hand, such as the Branches chandelier, and the simple, almost puritanical, Bare sofa. The Scandinavian influence is visible in this group’s pieces but is perhaps more evident in the work of Toronto-based MSDS Studio — its 2015 collection is called Stockholm and was previewed at Stockholm Furniture Fair in February this year.
The collection, which will go into production in the autumn, features pale wood furniture with pastel-coloured metal detailing and simple Scandinavian-style lines. Indeed, so closely does the work correspond to the Nordic region’s style that it is hard to believe it originates from the other side of the Atlantic.
Yet there are also distinct differences to the work that is now emerging from Canada. In part, there is an appealing rough-hewn, untouched element to the country’s design products that has been refined from the Scandiaesthetic, such as the river-swept Sycamore root that forms the base for Brothers Dressler’s Root table.
This aesthetic is also evident in the natural feel of furniture by Vancouver-based craftsman Brent Comber, whose pieces include the T-Cup stool, which celebrates the life of each tree by displaying growth rings and emphasising the unique grain pattern.
“I’m inspired by how each of us interprets and connects to nature,” says Comber. “I encourage people to touch the wood, pound it with their fist to hear the mellow resonance it can offer [and to] allow a sense of smell and touch to be activated upon encountering a beautiful piece.”
Riley McFerrin is founder of Hinterland, a furniture design practice based north of Vancouver. The group’s work includes Scatter/Gather, a pendant made of beach-found wood, and Little Gem, a side table created from cast-off blocks of wood from local paper mills.
McFerrin says Canadian designers are inspired by the country’s huge natural wilderness: the world’s second-largest country (after Russia) with a land mass roughly equal to that of Europe, Canada is home to just 35.7m people.
“The influence of the great wild north affects our design decisions,” says McFerrin. “So much of Canada is still wild that you always feel that tug; the wilderness is always at the back door. Most people around the world no longer have that.”
The vast majority of furniture designers operating in Canada run small practices, hand-crafting their pieces in-house. This approach is not simply down to cultural preferences. Alan Elder, research manager and curator of craft and design at the Canadian Museum of History, says it is also driven by commercial reasons.
“We don’t have a large population or a large domestic market for design so contemporary design here tends to be limited edition, small production runs rather than mass produced,” he says.
McFerrin concurs. “It’s not easy to find somewhere to mass produce in a cost-effective way. Mexico is the nearest place and that’s a long way away and not viable on a small scale,” he adds.
It is not just the smaller makers who struggle to find manufacturing capacity.
Niels Bendtsen is founder and designer at Vancouver-based furniture design group Bensen. Employing 50 people and with its own manufacturing facility and two stores taking up 50,000 sq ft of retail space, it is one of Canada’s biggest design groups. Its pieces, which include the minimalist Homework desk, are highly functional with a lean contemporary aesthetic.
“Europe has an infrastructure for producing and retailing furniture. Here you don’t have that. We sew, veneer, cut and make all our furniture and have to sell it too,” says Bendtsen.
Toronto, Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, Quebec, have large populations and a notable creative industry — according to Levy, 25,000 people are employed in creative roles in Toronto alone — but there is still a sense of isolation among designers.
Canada is a country of enormous distances: the flying time from Toronto to Vancouver is only about two hours less than that from Toronto to London. And although Canadian designers benefit from proximity to the large US market, the country’s relative distance from Europe and Asia poses a challenge to growth.
To overcome this problem, Bensen has opened an Italian subsidiary to handle European demand and other companies are now following suit.
Omer Arbel co-founded the Vancouver-based glass and lighting specialist Bocci in 2005. The group creates vast contemporary glass chandeliers for spaces such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and Canada House in London. Bocci has 45 people working in its Vancouver head office and has recently acquired a 2,000 sq metre site in Berlin, due to open in September, to handle its European commissions, which now make up the majority of its business.
“Today, 60 per cent of our business is in Europe and 30 per cent in North America,” says Arbel. “We are really on the periphery of the global design scene here in Vancouver. Canada is not a big market and it doesn’t have a sophisticated design economy.”
Despite these challenges, Canadian designers are slowly starting to emerge on to the international scene, with work that reflects the country’s image and moves it forward into the 21st century.
“Canadian design seems to reflect our national identity,” says Comber. “I’m not referring to products that rehash the Canadian myth of wildlife and lumberjacks but rather the strong, understated quality that a relatively young and adventuresome nation can provide.”
Photographs: Gwenael Lewis; Janis Nicolay