Furniture makers Kaly Ryan and Bram Sawatzky of Willow and Stump create pieces that are thoughtful, fresh and sustainable.

Everyone knows “form follows function” and “design is in the details,” but we’d like to add our own design aphorism with a western twist: “Never trust a furniture maker who doesn’t have sawdust in their hair.” Looking back at the past winners in this category—like Steven Pollock, Sholto Scruton and Kate Duncan—I’m pretty sure you could get several cups of wood shavings if you shook their hands hard enough. In the woodworking collective that this year’s Furniture Designers of the Year, Kaly Ryan and Bram Sawatzky of Willow and Stump, share with four other artisans just off Vancouver’s Clark Drive, there’s one airborne constant: there’s sawdust everywhere, and they couldn’t be happier.

GET TICKETS TO WL DESIGNERS OF THE YEAR 2018 The Corian chair was designed to explore the material’s new colour, Deep Anthracite. The steam-bent ash ribs of the Fluyt bench are inspired by traditional canoe construction. Horizon series LED wall lights use offcuts from woodworkers’ projects. Another from Willow and Stump’s Horizon series.

The pair met at the University of Alberta’s legendary Industrial Design program in 2006, but it wasn’t until both had independently made their way to Vancouver—she from Edmonton, he from Lake of the Woods—that the idea of working together started to take root. Their first digs were in a garage behind Ryan’s house: “A cold, tiny, one-car garage,” Sawatzky is quick to point out. But the cramped quarters did produce the duo’s first piece: a modular, wooden nightside table named Ballast that they brought that year’s IDS Vancouver.

The wooden night table Ballast was the duo’s first design.

The deceptively simple design was a hit. It not only validated their design ethos, but it also enabled them to get out of the garage and focus on a partnership that shifted from custom furniture to creating their own designs that spoke to their sensibility. “I think of us as industrial designers who work with wood,” opines Sawatzky. The pair’s follow-up to Ballast, the visually minimal but technically complicated Fluyt bench, stretched their respective talents by requiring them to learn the art of steam-bending wood in order to craft the canoe-evoking rounded bottom. “There was a lot of expensive firewood that came out of that process,” says Sawatzky.

For the Traverse collection, the team partnered with Lemonni, a Vancouver-based pattern designer. The Traverse collection bench has a repositionable cushion.

But the duo does not live by wood alone. Their Darth chair was an exercise in working with a new shade of perfect black Corian, and its slick presentation couldn’t be further away from anything resembling a rough-hewn ethos. Their Perk light is a beautiful approach to a very West Coast problem: Seasonal Affective Disorder lights look ugly. Their solution? Pack all the healing blue light power into a compact, warm wood-based light that passes for a normal desk lamp—albeit one that someone with exceptional design sense would choose. And their latest project, Traverse, is a collaboration with textile designer Annie Chen of Lemonni, which judge Brent Comber says “clearly shows the trajectory this dynamic company is on. The progression in their design and business is thoughtful, fresh and sustainable.”

It’s all a long way from the unheated garage, but while the digs have gotten nicer and the accolades more frequent, there is one constant: sawdust makes these two smile.   

Kaly Ryan and Bram Sawatzky of Willow and Stump in their East Van shop. (Photo: Carlo Ricci)

2018 Designers of the Year ▸▸▸