From outside of Sumer Singh’s home base in an industrial park in northeast Calgary, your first indication that This Is Not Your Average Machine Shop is the shingle hanging above the workspace reading “Mercedes and Singh”: CNC-laser cut from raw black steel and naturally patinated, it’s a modern beacon in amongst the autobody shops and car dealerships.
The shop is the custom-fabrication business that Singh and his wife, Karen Matharu, operate as the go-to spot for custom work in wood, metal and concrete for designers and architects across the city. It’s also home to Singh’s avenue for artistic expression paired with technological innovation: his furniture and accessories line, Mtharu.
The New Primitives lamp explores geometry and working with waste materials.
You could say our Maker of the Year is a mad scientist type, but that makes it seem as though the experimental process behind his designs comes from chaotic, unplanned, lucky accidents. In fact, just about everything Singh does is measured, thoughtful and deeply immersed in a constant pursuit of study. He started his career as a mechanical engineer (and left that gig to focus on Mtharu in 2015), and that background means he innately understands the structural strength and design requirements for an oversized concrete table, for example.
But he also holds a master’s in architecture from the University of Calgary, where he’s now a sessional instructor, and he’s in the process of completing a second master’s, this time in advanced computation for architecture and design from Barcelona’s prestigious Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. (He jumped on the rare opportunity to study there once instruction moved online during the pandemic.) And when we speak in late June, he’s just wrapped up a stint with DigitalFutures, a program from USC and Tongji University in Shanghai, studying artificial intelligence in architectural design.
The Jouir bench is designed with a visible weld of melted bronze, celebrating the idea of ornamenting scars through the welding process.
The focus on architecture may seem incongruous for a creator of functional art, but Singh sees the field as much larger than just building design. “Architecture as a discipline now is so undefined—if you ask new graduates coming out of architecture school, ‘What does architecture mean?’ they don’t have a simple answer,” he says. “It’s not just about buildings and spaces anymore.”
Architecture also speaks to his multi-faceted interests, he explains. “I have this artistic side, but I have a very technical side as well—and I have an industrialist side that comes from my engineering background,” he says. “I want to be able to combine all of that.”
Many of Singh’s designs are constructed from materials of his own invention, including the Plot and Prov tables (seen here) and the Kamino lamp (next photo).
And so when artistry meets technical know-how, you find projects like his New Primitives lamp, the result of Singh’s experiments with materials research and an exploration of geometry. He hacked a 3D software program used in architectural modelling to fuse standard geometries—cones, spheres—into a new shape altogether. And from his custom fabrication shop, he gathered bags of aluminum dust (a waste material from the CNC machine) and started playing with mixing the dust first with concrete, then plaster and, finally, with a water-based sculpting material called Paverpol from Europe.
When the latter was combined with the dust and hand applied over a CNC-milled form of that sphere-cone—along with curving, inset LED lights—the result was a sparkling standing light fixture that’s unlike anything out there. As judge David Keeler of Provide noted, “At times Singh’s work appears to be somewhat straightforward, but under more scrutiny you discover that it has been created in a very technical and thoughtful way.”
The Kamino lamp.
And each of the projects from Mtharu comes from the same thoughtful place: the Kamino lamp is made from a proprietary material composed of cement, basalt fibre and latex; Prov, a sculptural coffee table, again plays with a mash-up of geometries (an offset oversized sphere and a cone). For the latter, Singh studied the ancient Italian technique of scagliola—the creation of imitation marble—and developed a marble-like material composed of waste paint, cement and basalt fibre that took over a month to perfect.
Each piece moves beyond what might be thought possible for its standard function: floor lamp, coffee table, seat. As judge Jody Phillips of 1stPlace noted, “With material exploration at the centre of Mtharu’s design practice, it’s no wonder they are comfortable pushing techniques and processes to develop pieces like Prov and the Kamino lamp.”
Singh is now working on a home in Calgary, and the master scientist will bring his experiments in materiality to shape that space, too. “I think the biggest handicap for architects is not putting their hands on materials and tools,” he says. “You’re not designing to maximum potential without understanding how the materials will work.”
Sumer Singh of Mtharu is photographed in his Calgary shop; behind him is a privately commissioned outdoor sculpture that’s near completion.