Right smack in the middle of fine art and everyday utilitarian objects sits functional art, a rather broad term for well designed pieces destined for everyday use. For Vancouver-based Propellor Studio—whose everyday objects feel anything but everyday—the genre doesn’t perfectly capture their magic.
Take the design trio’s new hand-carved brushes. Conceived when the three Emily Carr sculpture grads—Nik Rust, Pamela Goddard and Toby Barratt—found themselves in constant need of the right tools with which to clean up, they sit at the nexus of everyday object yet look and feel distinctly artful. “When people come in and see them, they often say they have no idea what they’re for—they just know they love them,” says Barratt. Made with plant-based bristles, the brushes elevate a very mundane task. “It’s the power of the everyday object when it’s reconceived—in a way, we’re de-familiarizing ourselves with things and making them a little more special.”
The three designers, who’ve been working together since the early 2000s, recently hung out their shingle in a new spot—a perch on Granville Island that allows them more room for those brush “flights of fancy,” as Rust puts it. Perpetual nomads thanks to various previous digs (always housed in buildings slated for demolition), the design firm was finally able to lay down roots at the start of the pandemic. When a studio came up on Granville Island that featured a public gallery, they could not only continue their multi-disciplined studio work, but also have the opportunity to showcase other local artists…many of whom have found a use for those brushes like a neighbouring silversmith (who opted to use his own hair).
Having the new venue has sparked a number of new avenues for the team’s creative energies. “For us, collaboration gives us more range and makes everything stronger,” says Barratt. “Over the years, we’ve honed our own areas of expertise, but having those three voices come together always makes something greater than the sum of its parts.” The three designers have been busy launching their new light series, Stria, as well as carving vases and bowls from Vancouver street trees, along with further editions of those brushes. “There are very few things that come out of the studio that don’t have fingerprints from all three of us,” adds Rust.
The new Stria Collection in black walnut, alder, western maple or ash plays with traditional woodturning techniques. Both familiar yet new, the alternating smooth and striated surface plays with wood grain while different sizes lend themselves well to either utilitarian pendant or clustered together in varying lengths as art installation.“Some of our design ideas come by reference of nature; sometimes, it’s just our working with the tool or getting deeper into a tool—in this case, it was exploring the traditional craft that comes off the wood lays,” says Rust.
By contrast, the Kurinuki wooden bowls play with rough-hewn textures that bear the mark of the tools used to shape them. Part sculpture, part useful vessel, the objects are part of the experimentation currently underfoot.
In the new space, other artists are also explored and celebrated. Local artist Darrel Underschultz’s bird paintings evoke the old world masters and offer a counterpoint to Propellor’s modern lighting while fellow Emily Carr grad, now professor, Julie York’s modern ceramics explore the realm of functional ware (featured for the first time here). “It’s a work in progress with the pandemic,” says Barratt. “We haven’t been able to have regular openings so there’s no rhythm yet, but we’re really excited about more shows and interesting synergies.”
The team is currently working on two large-scale sculptural installations—a 30-foot by 30-foot architectural screen for a developer and a second one suspended in a three-storey lobby. "From small brushes to atrium-high…we’re having a lot of fun working on small- and large-scale,” says Rust.
1247 Cartwright St., Granville Island propellor.ca