Durable by design

Sustainability steals the spotlight at the first Toronto International Design Festival

CONVERSATIONS IN DESIGN: A WORLD WITHOUT OIL at the Design Exchange (234 Bay), today (Thursday, January 21), 9 am to 6 pm. Full day pass $250, half-day pass $125. Interiordesignshow.com/world-without-oil.

Ame on Mercer Street is not your usual clubland spot. The Munge Leung-designed room is a gorgeous mix of industrial space and raw, natural surfaces that looks flawless in its cocktail-hour glow.


It bucks the trend of nightspots that last as long as the fickle attention span of weekend crowds, making it the perfect backdrop for an announcement last November that the first Toronto International Design Festival would focus on a sustainable approach to design. (See page 30 for a full listing of Design Week events).

Smart designers agonize over the conundrums involved in design durability. How do you create lasting products and spaces in a sustainable way while still encouraging consumption and earning a living?

An especially intense focus on that dilemma happens today (Thursday, January 21), when the TIDF kicks off with the symposium Conversations In Design: A World Without Oil at the Design Exchange, moderated by former I.D. magazine editor Jesse Ashlock.

“Designers must be thinking about how to deliver as much value for as long as possible to the consumer,” Ashlock said from New York last week. “The big problem right now is that this kind of pattern shift is, for the most part, not in the economic self-interest of designers or [because prices are higher] of consumers.”

A growing group of Toronto designers are up to that challenge. The Interior Design Show’s offshoots, Come Up To My Room at the Gladstone Hotel and MADE’s Radiant Dark exhibition, have been highlighting fresh, eco-smart work by local designers for years. And Toronto has a set of reluctant poster boys for the sustainable design movement in the Brothers Dressler.

The Dresslers' Onedge lounge chair

Jason and Lars Dressler are best known for their Onedge lounge chair, a sculptural wave of surprisingly comfortable plywood slats. The piece is admired for its form, and the Dresslers rarely hype its eco angles: segments cut from a single sheet of birch, a water-based finish, and scraps recycled into bracelets and other curious offcut products.

“Designing sustainably offers us constraints, and that makes the design process more straightforward,” says Jason. “Toronto has a large community of young, smaller makers who hold those ideals highly, but we’re just little people working in garages and wood shops.”

The Dresslers want to see big furniture companies take on the issues of fair wages, renewable and recycled raw materials and the carbon footprint of furniture that’s often designed, built, warehoused and sold hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres apart.

Some larger operations are creative with green materials. Umbra incorporates eco-friendlier plastics, bamboo and plantation wood into its products. Gus*’s Upcycle ottomans are upholstered with repurposed fair trade coffee bean bags.

But manufacturing locally is still a bit of a brainteaser for designers.

IMM Living, a Toronto-based giftware company that produces the work of design show regulars like Rob Southcott and Amrita Takhar, focuses its sustainability efforts on minimizing packaging and creating long-lasting keepsakes, but it needs to manufacture in China to keep prices competitive.

“People want nice things, but they don’t want to pay for them,” says Lars Dressler.

“A few years ago, we got a call from EQ3 about collaborating on a shelving design,” he says. The Dresslers turned down the offer when the Winnipeg-based furniture company said the piece would have to be made overseas to minimize costs.

“I said, ‘That’s your first problem right there,'” says Lars. “‘How many people are looking for work in Winnipeg? Have it made in Canada for Canadians.'”


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