For Vancouver painter Zoë Pawlak, the foray into the world of rug design was a change of medium... but familiar, all the same. “I’ve dealt with the rectangle every day for 12 years,” she laughs. What is a rug but a canvas of another kind, after all?
Our Industrial Designer of the Year is a classically trained painter (“I studied the nude as a nerdy hobby for 10 years,” Pawlak admits) who’s long been known to the design community for her dreamy abstract landscape paintings and dynamic representations of form and movement—flip back through the Western Living archives and you’ll see her work pop up regularly on the walls of our featured homes. (Former Canuck Trevor Linden and actor Cobie Smulders are among her clientele.)
Photo by Carlo Ricci. Not every creative person has the hustle and organizational skills to pull off a multifaceted creative operation, but Zoë Pawlak has the rare ability to thrive with business and brush
But when the opportunity arose in 2013 to branch out beyond the canvas with a Burritt Bros collaboration, she jumped at the chance and, three collections later, she’s gone on to team up with some of the West Coast’s top makers (including our Furniture Maker of the Year, Jeff Martin) to find a new mode of artistic expression through painterly credenzas, spray-brushed mirrors and sculptural bronze wall hangings.
It’s not too surprising that she’s found herself thriving in the world of product design, though: she’s always been savvy about finding new ways to reach an audience. In 2007 (a year when “we just learned the word blog,” laughs Pawlak), she emailed 125 design websites to introduce herself and her work. DesignSponge posted about her landscape paintings, and the sales started rolling in.
For some, the demand might have been daunting, but as a painter, she’s known for both her gift and her prolificity: Pawlak produces about 120 original works a year on average. “I’ve always liked making stuff and moving it into the world,” says Pawlak. “If I made a friendship bracelet, I’d sell it or give it away. I was always doing craft fairs. I was into not just the private practice, but also the activity where it would be shared and brought into someone’s life.”
Rugs from her Burritt Bros. collaboration all maintain a painterly feel. “The medium feels like the thing I intend,” Pawlak explains. “Poor Ainsley from Burritt Bros is sitting on the computer designing the rugs with me, and I just kept saying, ‘It has to feel like a painting,’ and she was like, ‘...Okay, should we make it more rough or knotted?’”
For that first flooring collection, Pawlak didn’t look at any other rugs as she worked on her design. “I wanted that freshness, curiosity, sincerity and naiveté that helps you ask good questions,” she says. In fact, she didn’t look at her own final product until it was hanging on display at the collection launch party. “I saw it for the first time in the most trippy way, hanging on the wall. I’ve never made a painting that size—eight by 10 feet—and the scale was just overwhelming. I honestly couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”
Pawlak’s collaborations with another Designer of the Year winner, Jeff Martin, have resulted in dreamy furniture pieces that blend craftsmanship with artistry
Her inexperience with product design allows her to look at the process with a fresh perspective. “I think unfamiliarity with a new medium is helpful. You ask different kinds of questions,” says Pawlak. This curiosity pushes her collaborators to new discoveries: ceramicist Stephanie Flowers, along with the brassworker at La Fonderie d’Art d’Inverness, had to figure out the physics of representing curving, figurative line drawing for a bronze wall sculpture; the team at Burritt Bros followed her urging to make the hand-knotted silk-and-wool rugs “feel” like a painting. And the results are beautiful: pieces that are still works of art, yes, but ones with function.
“One of the things I love about her work is that there is a diversity to it in how it can be used in a room, in how it can be displayed, and how it can ‘support’ a room,” says DOTY judge Tim Antoniuk, professor at the University of Alberta’s Industrial Design program. Fellow judge Shawn Sowers, industrial designer for Ikea of Sweden, agrees: “There is an incredible sense of depth and space in her work. She’s blurred and transcended the art/design boundaries.”
Pawlak’s mirror designs feature figures laser-engraved right onto the smoked glass.
And in that blurring of boundaries, Pawlak finds a deep respect for the physical work that goes into these products. “I really have a reverence for the process. There are 100 knots in one square inch of these rugs and it’s just incredible,” says Pawlak. Craftsmanship is a key value in all of her collaborations. “I don’t want to make posters for Target. Not participating in planned obsolescence is really important to me,” she says. “The goal is for things to last as long as possible, made by humans, doing the least environmental damage possible. I want to work with the best people, people who make things with excellence.”
Pawlak’s bronze wall hangings are a direct reaction to the hard angles and heavy materials she spotted at shows in New York and L.A. These pieces are metallic, but also light, organic and sensual.
Q&A with Zoë Pawlak
What classic object is most in need of a redesign?
The toaster always has all those burnt crumbs at the bottom. What can we do about that?
Who do you admire most as a designer?
I’m a big Brâncuși fan. Alive? I’m a huge Egg Collective and Omer Arbel fan.
Which Western Canadian designer is one to watch?
Metric or imperial?
Metric’s a band, right? I love them!
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal; Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel; and The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.
Is there a famous project or object you wish you’d designed?
Goldfish crackers. They are so gross and every kid has them in their lunch! They must be billionaires.