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Ken Montague Thinks Good Design is the Beastie Boys, Bad Design is Vanilla Ice
Ken Montague Thinks Good Design is the Beastie Boys, Bad Design is Vanilla Ice

Ken Montague is a dentist by day, an art and design collector and curator by night, and a firefighter at 10:45 a.m. this Wednesday, when I called him at home to talk about his passions. Turns out it was only a smoke alarm, no fire; still, it seems like a good time to lame-joke that Montague’s work is hot.

The man launched Wedge Curatorial Projects in 1997 (“when you were two years old,” he kids me), showing his collection on Sunday afternoons to friends and friends of friends; some, back then, were dismissive of his Afro-Carribean influences and tastes. Now it’s another story. “First there was tolerance, then there was acceptance, now there’s celebration,” he says, speaking not just of Toronto, but also of the cultural sphere vis-a-vis black art at large. “Around the time that Barack Obama came into power, people stopped saying blah, blah, blackness, that’s all been done. Suddenly all the notions of race and integration that had always been in my thinking were in vogue.”

On Thursday at the Interior Design Show (on through Sunday), Montague spoke with shooting-star industrial designer Stephen Burk. With his New York studio, readymade projects inc., Burk produces objects that bridge the gap between first-world bougie taste and third-world authentic craft. He’s collaborated with Cappellini and designed for Missoni (if his work seems reminiscent of that vibrant fashion house’s output, consider: it might be the other way around). Burk’s prominence at IDS, and Montague’s, too, signals an important shift in the Canadian collective aesthetic. Only a few years ago, the feel of Toronto design was sleek, Euro-y, neomodern; in a hashtag, #condolyfe. With the arrival of Castor, the revival of Canadiana as it never was, and the craze for all things “heritage,” IDS began to resemble a very expensive barn. Now, “heritage” is becoming inclusive, and the show’s offerings look a little more vibrant, reflect a wider diaspora, than before.

“I feel certain that a change is upon us,” says Montague. “I think that a sense of social responsibility, and giving credit to things that used to be seen as exotic or eccentric by the mainstream, is catching on.” He adds, though, that it’s only the “10 or 15 or 20” per cent of high-end consumers who are “pushing the envelope.” And I would add that those consumers are often faddishly conscientious and culturally dilettante-ish, congratulating themselves on their open-mindedness when they buy a Stephen Burks vase even though–nay, because–it’s “exotic” (plus, they saw it in the Globe).

Stephen Burks: Manmade Toronto at the Design Exchange.

Montague, though, has a bonafide obsession. Born in Windsor to Jamaican parents, he calls himself “Ja-fake-an,” but has for-reals travelled to most of the places in Africa and the Caribbean from which he gets his art and inspiration. His loft, which you can see in the latest DesignLines, makes the most of his hybridity. “I’m sitting on an Eames sofa but beneath me is the African fabric collection I’ve made up over the years, from Ethiopia, from marketplaces, from those countries. I look at this stuff I’m sitting on and I think yeah, that’s where we’re at right now.”

How does Montague feel about Western curators and designers who are “into” the same Ethopian-marketplace stuff, but never go farther than GoogleImage? Fine, actually–as long as they cite their sources.

“Christopher Bailey’s collection for Burberry is a good example,” he says. “As much as Burberry is part of the machine, I like the new collection, with all the African-inspired belts. They used actual African waxed cotton, and they didn’t just knock off a so-called tribal style. They made it something new, beautiful, and hybrid.” (Hybridity, again, is what this Ja-fake-an is all about. He utters variations of the word no less than eight times in 20 minutes.)

And then, Montague delivers an analogy for the ages: “Burberry is like the Beastie Boys in hip-hop; they’re not trying to be black. I appreciate that. It’s always so clear and so easy to discern what’s real and what’s fake. It’s always about sincerity. It’s Beastie Boys versus Vanilla Ice.”

KEN MONTAGUE’S DESIGN WEEK PICKS

Stephen Burk’s Manmade Toronto. This Design Exchange expo features the indelible work of Burk and his company, Readymade Projects. The super-saturated, high-craft pieces were developed by basket weavers in a village near Dakar. Exhibit runs until April 1 at the Chalmers Design Centre inside the Design Exchange at 234 Bay.

Natural Light by Williamson Chong Architects. At IDS, the architects highlight the creation of new technology with traditional methods of construction.

Boat House by Rhed built by Poliform. Rhed’s collaboration with Italy’s Poliform resulted in a handmade power speed boat, as seen in their Boat House Pavillon at IDS this weekend.

Ursa Major installation by Moss & LamPart of an exlusive group of designers showcased in the “Offsite/Onsite” area of IDS, this piece shows two 12 foot tall dancing polar bears embracing each other. It will be shown in the North Building Lobby all weekend.

DesignGenNext showcases the works of industrial design students from Ontario’s top colleges and universities. View stuff by Ryerson students in the “Offsite/Onsite” platform on the main level at IDS.

Bulthaup‘s contemporary kitchens rethink the cooking area as a workshop. Also at IDS.

MADE‘s Radiant Dark. In their annual alternative-to-IDS exhibit, local design-booster MADE makes it all about the details. Runs through Sunday at 859 Dundas Street West (four doors east of MADE).

Snob Stuff, back at IDS, has a rich plethora of goods made by the talented hands of craftsmen in Southern Africa.

And finally, Patti Johnson introduces her “Vodunuvo” line, inspired by one of the world’s oldest religions. Featuring a behind-the-scenes look at her creative process, her exhibit is intended to make the consumer feel part of it. On display all weekend in the Offsite/Onsite section.

With files from Christina Welton.

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