Western Living Magazine
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Introducing Western Living’s 2023 Designers of the Year Award Winners
WL Architectural Designer of the Year 2023: SMStudio
From architectural lighting to 30-foot sculptural installations, the work of Propellor takes industrial design into the realm of the artistic.
The pure desire to create often defies easy categorization. People are more comfortable with a classification that can fit on a business card: you are a Lighting Designer, a Sculptor, a Museum Curator. But Pamela Goddard, Nik Rust and Toby Barratt—collectively Propellor, our 2023 Industrial Designer of the Year—count themselves lucky that they artistically came of age in a mid-1990s Emily Carr (then Emily Carr Institute, now Emily Carr University of Art and Design) that encouraged them to dive deep and explore a variety of mediums. “Our training was always interdisciplinary in nature, with us crossing back between design and art rather seamlessly,” recalls Barratt.
And while the approach nurtured their inner artists, it made work after graduation a little less linear. Barratt and Goddard did art direction for various festivals, while Rust was, of all things, a smokejumper. But the three of them knew they shared a design sensibility that was rare, so they reunited to work in a small space at Granville Island Woodworks, committed to the idea of a multidisciplinary approach to design.
Growth was steady, but the trio received a major boost when a local restaurateur approached them about doing some custom lighting. They said yes… and then quickly had to immerse themselves in the intricacies of the medium, right down to CSA safety standards. The experience proved pivotal, bringing their designs to a much larger audience that embraced their sculptural approach to a traditionally utilitarian exercise.
It’s an approach that continues to this day in their work: the Orée collection, for example—a series of repeating ovoid wood chandeliers that evoke peeking through a stand of trees at the forest’s edge—straddles the line between fixture and sculpture. That sculptural leaning likewise shines through in Stria, a series of linear turned-wood light fixtures that manage that most high-wire-y of modern tasks: combining clean, contemporary lines with the warmth of wood grain and the touch of an artisan’s hand.
And while these projects underscore how lighting is still very much key to their practice, increasingly this design team is being sought out for ventures that lean more to the artistic side. Their Rift project came about when a developer needed a sculptural focal point that would have the effect of dividing the stairs from the lobby (without looking like they were trying to compartmentalize the space). The resulting pair of 30-foot-tall architectural screens brings all of their talents to the forefront: there’s the sensitive use of wood in the white oak rails and the fabrication of the 4,200 bronze louvres attached to said rails, and then there is the overarching understanding of the interplay of light in our lives that shows in the way natural light is channelled into a never-ending series of daily combinations.
A further step toward “capital F, capital A, Fine Art” is Propellor’s Pastille, a three-storey Calder-esque hanging artwork that could just as easily anchor the foyer of the new Vancouver Art Gallery as it does the residential project it’s currently in. And while there’s no denying the broad exposure these projects bring, the trio juxtaposes it again with their Hewn line, a collection of studied imperfection that is a meditation on the nature of ceramics and wood (the latter carved with a chainsaw, naturally) and that channels the group’s desire to create handmade objects.
The breadth and focus of this diverse body of work was perfectly encapsulated by judge Simone Vingerhoets-Ziesmann of Ligne Roset: “Years of experience are visible in the execution,” she commented. “The projects and products are stunning and mesmerizing. They attract and become the centre of attention in the room.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Is there a famous project or object you wish you’d designed?
TB: Beau Dick’s masks are some of the most impactful objects I’ve ever seen—there are so many masterpieces to choose from. I don’t wish that I had designed these pieces myself… that’s an impossibility. Rather, I wish that I could cultivate in myself the deep reserves that it would take to create such resonant work.
What do people often get wrong about design?
PG: I think as designers we often forget that we are making things for others to put in their homes and spaces to live with on a daily basis. Sometimes it can be difficult to let go of our own design egos and listen to what a client needs. The best projects are the ones where our vision and the clients’ desires come together and we create something that surprises and delights both of us!
If you weren’t a designer, what job would you be doing?
NR: My interests are so wide ranging, I feel like as long as it involved collaborative, creative problem solving it could be in any number of realms, from wildlife research and parks development to urban planning and architecture. I also think it would be good fun to be a foley artist.
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