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Toronto By Design
Only two years ago, designers were fleeing recession-wracked Toronto. But thanks to a recent spate of studio openings and a collaborative culture, the local design scene is on the rebound.

Two patterns from Rollout’s most recent wallpaper collection (“Beat and Repeat” and “Le Corbusier”). Bitter cold and sweeping snowstorms greeted Anita Modha and Jonathan Nodrick of Rollout Custom Wallpaper when they arrived in Toronto from Vancouver last December. “Christmas was the only time where we could shut down the studio for two weeks,” laughs Modha. “We arrived to the worst weather of the season.” Modha and Nodrick, who founded the custom wallpaper studio in 2005, left a 1,500-square foot loft studio in Gastown, Vancouver – still in operation by a small staff – to set up shop in a 600-square foot space in Liberty Village. Carla Gusek and Wilson Loh of HeartBreakers Design Studio moved to Toronto from Alberta, after participating in the Gladstone Hotel’s annual Come Up To My Room exhibit and falling in love with the city. Brother-sister team Thien and My Ta Trung of Montreal furniture label Periphere opened a branch of their retail brand, called Domison, on King Street East a few months ago. Still based in Quebec, the duo plans to eventually expand Periphere to Toronto as well. “As we settle into Toronto, more and more work will be done in Toronto,” says Thien. Only two years ago, designers were fleeing the city. As the economy struggled, firms left in search of cheaper rents and a change of creative scenery. But the trend is reversing. Studios and firms are again either relocating here, or opening outposts, part of an impending resurgence as Toronto re-establishes itself as the country’s design centre. For many, that Toronto is the design capital of Canada appears to be a no-brainer. “If you’re going to expand, you go there,” says My. The city has the advantage of having both a forward-looking technological industry and a design community that thrives on hand-craftsmanship – and, perhaps, snarky wit. The result, among other trends, is a Canadiana kitsch that doesn’t make you roll your eyes: designers that aren’t afraid to show off their roots. “It feels like Toronto is booming,” says Modha, who previously spent time in city for a show at the Design Exchange and was impressed by the energy here. “All the designers we talked to were working on big projects.” Thien of Periphere agrees. “It’s living through some sort of renaissance,” he says. “We wanted to be part of this evolution of the city.” Locals aren’t quite as ready to call it a renaissance, but they agree the scene is changing. “People at the birth of postmodernism didn’t know they were in it,” says Jeremy Vandermeij, creative director at the Gladstone Hotel. “But it’s improving dramatically, and it think it’s going to continue.” Vandermeij is also the producer behind the new Toronto Design Offsite, an organization that aims to promote offsite events during the budding Toronto Design Week, the festival that has risen up around January’s Interior Design Show. While the expo offers a decidedly stylish approach to local and Canadian design, where heavy-hitter manufacturers and influential showrooms rub shoulders with promising young creatives, the offsite events have always been marked with a rowdier tone. At Come Up To My Room, for example, local designers transform the Gladstone Hotel’s second-floor rooms into everything from a human-sized bird’s nest to wall-to-wall tennis balls; the organizers aren’t even briefed on the concepts before they’re installed. It’s among the handful of events that have been taking place for almost as long as IDS itself. But as of late the events calendar is becoming far more complex; over twenty events took place in 2011 under the umbrella of the Toronto International Design Festival, which itself has only been around for two years. Vandermeij calls this a design “ecosystem”, where larger events spawn smaller, more specialized ones that foster collaboration and creation, without competition. When compared to other Canadian cities, scale remains one of Toronto’s obvious advantages; when there’s a large design scene, there’s a lot more industry to support it –and enough space for everyone to live in harmony. “The density of designers is high enough that they can create sub-cultures,” says Vandermeij. People come with specific design ideas, and have a better chance of finding others with similar mindsets. In other words, there’s also less competition. “It’s not a cold shoulder kind of place,” says Shaun Moore, who with Julie Nicholson runs Made, a showroom committed to groundbreaking Canadian design. “People share resources and contacts without the fear of being copied.” Rollout, for example, is already starting collaborations with contemporary glass manufacturer Tsunami Glassworks and the Design Exchange, while Periphere is forging links between the Toronto and Montreal communities by showcasing Quebecois designers in their Toronto showroom – and vice versa. “Toronto designers are very enthusiastic,” says My. “They just want the community to get bigger.” The city’s unique market is another catalyst: a design-interested public with more culturally saturated interests. “Consumers are open to what design is about, and what’s current,” says Nicholson, adding that a more sa vvyarchitecture and interior design market results in a stronger demand for other disciplines, like product and graphic design. Nicholson and Moore have heard complaints that cities like Vancouver aren’t as receptive to modern design: there’s wealth, but the clients aren’t responsive. Here, they see a city of design-lovers. What’s more, it’s a fast-moving market. “Toronto is very business,” says My. “It’s very quick. If they like a sofa, they buy it. Everything moves faster. In Montreal, people appreciate the furniture in the same way, but things move slower, more relaxed.” Similar sentiments about the city’s fast-paced way of life are echoed on the west coast as well, though it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain if it’s a compliment or a criticism. Not everyone is sold on the city’s recovery, but even those that have moved to arguably greener pastures acknowledge Toronto’s place in the global design world. Patrick Turner of Thout, the industrial design studio behind the Holey Stump and the Scribble lamp, left Toronto in 2009, when the economy all but shut down his furniture business. Though the company has since bounced back – it started re-taking orders from Quebec two months ago – he has no plans to move back. “But I never really severed my connection with Ontario. Whenever I feel like I need to reconnect with the community I call someone in Toronto – I turn there.” Todd Falkowsky, founder of branding firm Motherbrand and the Canadian Design Resource, left for Vancouver last year. “Canada had grown quite stale and people were looking for other opportunities,” says Falkowsky. But even he’s watched Toronto regain momentum. “In Vancouver, everyone’s looking for Toronto connections.” Beyond the business-focused need to be in the right place at the right time, there’s also the ever-present need to explore – something that any design community understands all too well. For studios like Rollout, a changing landscape is crucial to their creative output and keeping their ideas fresh. “We need to see and be in different places,” says Modha. Even if that means trading in the mountainscape for snowstorms.

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