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How Castor Designed Toronto
Our style editor sits down in the pro-smoking studio of probably the only Canadian designers who like meth jokes.

Left: Kei Ng; right: Brian Richer. “We take our own photos,” says Richer. “We do everything.”

Here is how you get to Castor Design Studio, home of our city’s most industrial–and possibly most important–designers.

1. Get lost trying to find a side street near, and yet feeling very far away from, Bloor and Lansdowne.
2. Look for the street number you were given.
3. Realize you are an idiot. Why would the guys who put a sauna in a shipping container and a restaurant in a Winnebago have anything like a “nice,” “easy to find” studio?
4. Maybe their studio is in a dumpster.
5. Nope, just behind the dumpster.
6. Step over a pile of concrete scraps and fire extinguishers.
7. VOILA.

Inside, the place is like some suburban metalhead’s huge-ass garage, and Brian Richer, Castor‘s founding designer, is dressed–as always–like the key grip on a Larry Clark set. He walks up grinning. “This is a smoking studio,” he says, by way of greeting or apology. Somehow I doubt it’s the latter.

Let’s just get this over with: anybody who makes $5000 lighting fixtures in a warehouse full of cigarette smoke is somebody’s idea of an asshole. This might be why, despite or because of the five-year love affair Castor’s had with the press (and I am just another notch on the recontextualized bed post, I’ll tell you that right now), Richer and his partner, Kei Ng, don’t always find favour among their Canadian designer peers. It’s also why they don’t give a fuck. Their sexy, ex-punk irreverence sells (in 10 stores in the USA, at and those lights–the Invisible Man-inspired chandelier made from 100 burnt-out bulbs, and the cylindrical one with recycled fluorescent tubes–are everywhere, from Terroni to the Chelsea Hotel in New York to the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto. (“We would never even have known that,” says Richer in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care, he just knows I’m impressed. “But then the electrician called. He didn’t get how to install it.”)

 

Like all Castor lamps (and unlike, they say, other locally made lighting) this is ETL certified.

Lighting is Castor’s fugue, and Deadstock, their new line of mostly ’70s-minimal lamps, hits a solid middle note. The sleek, but not slick, forms stand some ways apart from the rough-and-readymade aesthetic of Castor’s formative years (Richer founded Castor Canadensis with Ryan Taylor in 2006, and rebirthed it with Ng, a restauranteur and business-minded jack-of-several trades, in 2008). These pieces appear simpler; they’re not. “The Axis lamp is only three major elements, but it’s days and days of geometry and calculations,” says Johnny Sabine, a designer who started working with Richer six months ago and talks more in ten minutes than Ng does in fifty. “The angles have to be precise, like, perfect.” And it does look like a pure mathematical expression. Or a child’s drawing of a telescope.

The parts of Deadstock came mostly from a defunct lighting shop on Niagara Street. “Anyone could get these parts,” says Richer, “which is sort of the idea.” Commonness, elevated to rarity, is one of the first principles of Castor; the idea that “anyone could” do what they do just goes to show off how much better they do it. Besides, Richer–who trained and worked for years as a stonecarver, never formally studying design–retains a prole’s sensibility about his work, even while selling it to the grande bourgeoisie. Those two, conflicting halves and the resulting friction make up practically the whole gestalt of Castor: they’re both the scavengers and the gentrifiers, the prank-playing rebels and the proud sell-outs. When I ask what’s happening with the old lighting shop on Niagara, Richer says, “oh, Lightform is opening a showroom there”–Lightform being an upscale Vancouver lighting centre where Castor’s stuff is stocked–“and we’re designing the space.”

Designing spaces is the logical next move for Castor, who’ve already envisioned what feels like the entire west end. Parts and Labour, the restaurant they designed and co-own with Richard Lambert and Jesse Girard, is booming; the beaver-gnawed cement tree stumps that fill its front window have been equally beloved at furniture fairs in Milan. Oddfellows might’ve closed last February (I’m still in denial), but it remains the most radically designed restaurant there ever was on Queen West. The communal table, the genuine, Eastern Euro-y firepit, the “This Is Not a F***ing Droog Light” light, the jokey alphabet magnets on the chalkboard, the Winnebago you could rent for birthday parties (Richer: “Or to cook meth!”): Oddfellows summed up the welcoming, winking spirit of Castor, its best side. In that place, now, is County General, a restaurant that–like so many post-Castor establishments–steals from the feel of Oddfellows, from that “weird ’70s cult on a Manitoban farm” (my quotes) kind of thing. Of course, the reverse irony is that in all its floor-to-ceiling refurbished barn-wood, County General is kitschily doing what Castor cleverly mocks: Canadiana. (I find this much funnier than they do; on the record, Richer will only say that he has “heard the food there is pretty good.” [Ed note: yep.])

The BMO Marble Table is made from, yes, marble reclaimed from that bank. (They’ll be laughing all the way…)

“It’s the sincerity of all this heritage design that kills me,” grumbles Richer. “It’s crafty. We don’t make crafts. That’s what MADE is for.” He shrugs when he says MADE, referring to the Dundas West, all-local design emporium. It’s a withering shrug. Although Castor has sold small objects (like an antler-headed, limestone USB key) there, Richer says there’s only one good design shop in Toronto, and that’s Klaus by Nienkamper, which (surprise!) stocks Castor. “No, there’s also Kiosk and Plan B,” reminds Ng, gently. “Okay, fine,” says Richer. “Three good design shops.” Sabine seems keen to change the subject: “Would you rather be ironic or sincere?” he queries. Richer mumbles something about the Hegelian dialectic, and Ng stops him to say that, look, Castor takes its products seriously, but the whole culty mythical super-precious Canadian design thing? Not by half. “And you might as well say we hate Broken Social Scene, too,” says Richer, and then everyone’s laughing, but it’s probably true.

There will be nothing fucking twee about tonight’s launch of Deadstock at Parts & Labour, which will feature products on display and local legends like Teenanger and Mets taking it to 11 in the basement. It’s associated with IDS, although Richer and Ng don’t seem to like the colossal design fair-slash-trade show much more than they do MADE (they are, however, down with IDS director Shauna Levy). By now, this should shock no one. Castor will not only bite the hand that feeds it, but also chop it off with a rusty axe, cast it in raw concrete, put a bulb on it and sell it back to you for several grand. And you’ll like it.

“We could play up the environmental, the recycling, the Canadian aspects of our brand,” says Richer, “and we do have a PR now that does that, and that’s cool. But so much of this, of our best work, has been totally accidental discovery. It’s all recontextualization.” “And a bit of magic,” adds Ng. “It’s like”–and here Richer gives me the same line he gave Toronto Life, when Castor was profiled at the crest of the Canadiana surge–“the mullet and Mies Van Der Rohe. Business in the front, party in the back, some philosophy somewhere in there.”

Richer pauses; I think he might say something profound. Then he jumps up, like a kid who just remembered he has candy somewhere. “You wanna see this vinyl we made for the party?” he says. “It’s so awesome.” It is. The clear vinyl boasts a roster of Toronto rock heavies, and inside, there’s a newsprint poster. On one side, you can see Castor’s greatest hits, like the irreligious and incredible “Breton Brut.” On the other, there’s a Niall McClelland print, a Canadian flag. Nice, I say. “Look closer,” says Richer. “The whole thing is made of cigarettes. Canadian Classics! Isn’t that the fucking best?”

Sarah Nicole Prickett is the Style Editor at Toronto Standard and she’ll see you tonight.

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