A few years ago I participated in a juried design exhibition in central Europe. In addition to my project I presented a publication documenting the circumstances surrounding the first years of my studio practice in Toronto; the mundane elements of running a studio, the industrial nature of the city, and the friends who influenced my work. The title, Local Source¹, was purposefully tongue-in-cheek, questioning how we perceive locality and associate value towards it. My work did not have any sort of regional vernacular and was using materials that were industrial and globally sourced, but to me, it was deeply entrenched within the fabric of the city. Could this work still be considered local?
My indirect approach to constructing a local narrative was lost on some members of the jury. The message was clear; if you are to call your design regional it should be obviously following a (and better your) national design history. Although I was not surprised with the interpretation (design is a field which celebrates distinct classifications) it did make me reflect deeply on my own identity as a designer. Did my work lack meaning due to it’s vague international aesthetics?
The emphasis on design presented through a nationalist lens² is something that I have always struggled with. As a second generation immigrant I have never felt I belonged to one particular culture, country or place. Is design more valuable or authentic if it follows a historical regional vernacular but doesn’t represent or serve its contemporary locale? What is the relevance of regionalism within a globally transient society? As an ethnic minority must we resort to exploiting our cultural background in order to be given a platform within an imperialist system?
Ironically, internationalism, pragmatism and economic constraint is an unexpected thread between my work and previous Canadian designers. A few years ago I came across a book titled Modern Furniture in Canada 1920 to 1970. The curiously specific title by Virginia Wright, former decorative arts curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, chronicles the very short history of furniture design in Canada.
One passage of the book describes a 1954 furnishing committee that was assembled to dress the newly built Ontario Architects Association building in Toronto. During this process ‘the committee eschewed patriotism, looking at work from other countries as well as Canada, but announced that it had ended up being forced by ‘economics’ to buy Canadian ‘wherever possible’ ³. Through these constraints they found ‘ very little suitable Canadian-made furniture was to be found on the market’ ⁴, and ended up designing most of it themselves.
All of a sudden there was a strange lineage between my work and country of practice. The difference was this story was not about Canadian design, but simply design in Canada. This design history that was not told through nationalist nostalgia or the romanticized landscape, but through government, legislation and economics. If we must discuss design through ones identity we should also consider their other direct environmental circumstances and not simply ones country of origin.
For me, my introduction to objects came from two very different places. I was born in Vancouver to Chinese parents who immigrated to Canada from Zimbabwe and Malaysia. When my father’s family relocated from Zimbabwe, they moved with many possessions from Africa, small limestone carvings, a record collection of mostly British music, and furniture that had been imported from Hong Kong to Zimbabwe before moving with them once again. These artifacts were strewn across our house and mixed together with ubiquitous Ikea chipboard furniture set upon a 1980’s patchwork renovation (read: large etched glass swan room divider) done by the previous owner (when I helped renovate my parents’ house a few years ago we found that the original brick fireplace had been buried behind the wall and replaced by a black metal one set upon a mirrored ledge). All this is to say there was a mismatched landscape within our house where I gained a sense of the world outside and developed an understanding of migration at a very early age.
Born in 1990, I also grew up surrounded by peak 90’s consumer culture. I used to spend hours watching informercials for all sorts of useless gizmos and once convinced my mother to purchase a ‘3D Rake’ from the shopping channel as I was so enthralled with its design (imagine a rake where the flat part was replaced by a cage with a lever mechanism that allowed you to pick leaves up off the ground without bending over, it worked horrendously). If I am to credit my introduction to design it might have to be TV first and my mother second. A trained economist and later part-time book keeper, she is not a designer in the traditional sense, but her pragmatic sensibilities made her a constant fixer around the house creating numerous inventions and ready-made home solutions over the years (zap straps, rubber bands, tape). If it worked it was certainly good enough, functionalism over everything.
In my design practice I have always resisted relating my cultural identity to my work, instead looking towards my direct surroundings for influences. In hindsight my refusal to shape my work through my identity has been a way to help me understand my own. My obsessive documentation of place through receipts, photographs, emails served as evidence that I was rooted somewhere. Reflecting on my past 7 years in Toronto, my upbringing in Vancouver, and everything in-between it is easy to identify an obvious connection. Economics first, Functionalism to its core, no time for the superfluous. If it works it is good enough; I approach my design work with the same attitude as my mother: the pragmatic immigrant designer.
Chevalier, Fabienne, and Richard Wittman. "Finland through French Eyes: Alvar Aalto's Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937." Studies in the Decorative Arts 7, no. 1 (1999): 65-105. Accessed October 13, 2020.
RAIC Journal, December 1954 quoted in Virginia Wright, “Modern Furniture in Canada 1920 to 1970” University of Toronto Press, 1997: p. 165
Wright, Virginia, “Modern Furniture in Canada 1920 to 1970” University of Toronto Press, 1997: p. 165