When we first set out on this great Modern Karibou adventure, one of our main aspirations was to work with Canadian designers that had strong social and environmental consciences. Peter Wehrspann from Holtzundmetal certainly fits that bill. He recognizes that our era requires a new way of looking at design and he tackles the unique problems we face today by challenging our traditional methods to solving them.
Whether it is through sourcing materials from local Forest Stewardship Council approved suppliers, using reclaimed wood from the Greater Toronto Area, serving as a role model for young people through the Boys & Girls Clubs, provoking discussions around consumerism, or collaborating with like-minded designers from other fields, Wehrspann’s holistic approach encourages change through information and education.
If you are anything like us, you might be curious to find out what drives this promising furniture designer. Enjoy the Q & A!
You’ve indicated that you love working on custom pieces. What’s your dream commission?
I believe I have had a couple dream commissions already. One was a collapsible chair custom designed for a member of Juno nominated band Elliot Brood. It was a wonderful project mainly because the client gave me a couple design parameters and the rest was up to me. It is best when the client knows somewhat about what they want i.e. they have a clear problem that needs a solution. A confident client helps guide the design process. Otherwise a designer might be left flailing in creative doldrums. This project allowed me to flex all my creative capabilities. It was one that needed not only aesthetic consideration but it also became my most bold engineering feat to date. Another exciting thing about this commission is its utility. The user sits, sings, and even stands on the chair while playing an energetic set. Once done the chair folds up in a tight package to fit neatly in the band's touring van.
Another project comes to mind as the 'dream' commission. Directly out of my studies in 2005, The Haliburton Development Corporation awarded me a bench commission. Shortly after, a family who's beloved daughter passed suddenly endowed my bench in her memory. No words can describe the gravity of this honour.
You’ve travelled, lived and studied abroad. How have those experiences influenced your work?
Toronto, in some respects, can be compared to an awkward adolescent kid who is desperately trying to find his or her style. When travelling abroad to such locations as Japan, Sweden, Zurich it becomes like hanging out with the successful, cool kids. Their attitudes, style, and experience are passed on to this gangly teenager. He or she is able to refine their lifestyle.....Bad habits included. I am referring to rowdy, sotted football crowds.
I spent 3 months studying in Copenhagen. For the first 10 days of the course we took a bus trip that shuttled us to iconic design locales all across Scandinavia. Our professors made sure we catalogued, through hand sketches the architecture, furniture, and industrial design right down to floor mats and door hinges. It was an incredible experience. It was like downloading files into a computer. You can imagine the effect this would have on one’s creative sensibilities. Jorn Utzon--Danish Architect, Sydney Opera House--said something like: "...you take experiences in and slowly, over time they seep out." My work doesn't as much as seep as it does oozes Scandinavian influence. Something I am very proud of.
Would you say Canadian design has a distinct flavor?
I think regionally this question is easier to answer. For instance, in Durham, Ontario there will be lot of rustic country furniture and architecture. Enough of it to label it a 'distinct' flavour. In Toronto with all the cultures represented, the only distinction is eclectic design. Mainstream flavour still seems to be defined externally rather than internally. Not to say there isn't many wonderful unique work being done, it's just that they have to find a market elsewhere such as in Europe or the United States to be successful. Foreign corporations who hit the right price point and a safe aesthetic still dominate the market. That being said, the numbers shows sales of modern furniture design is on the rise. More and more people are moving from rural areas to urban centers leading to higher density and smaller living spaces. Furniture is in need of being compact and multi-functional. The environmental push for greener solutions is leading to a lot of repurposing of used materials. The reclaimed rustic-modern furniture aesthetic to me seems quite prolific. It is this 'ecotone' that the Canadian market can snuggle up to with firm understanding.
Whose work do you admire?
Most of my work at this point is produced in a Co-operative shop in downtown Toronto. I admire my colleagues' work a lot. It is custom, original and it’s what puts food on the table for their families. Peter Fleming, furniture designer/maker, was a professor of mine at Sheridan where I attended design school. I hope my work at some point in my career can resemble his work's level of intelligence and resolve. There is a lot of talent in Toronto at this point. I believe young Toronto designers have a worldly empathy and class that allows for original and inspiring design.
Marcel Breuer was the first designer whose work I fell in love with. Others include Poul Kjærholm, Hans J. Wegner, Arne Jacobsen. I have been reading works by Janine M. Benyus, Christopher Alexander, and Jane Jacobs.
What outside your field inspires you?
Modern architecture always gets my blood flowing. I have been keen on new technologies lately. The latest robotics, electrical engineering, and transportation technologies projects such as the Maglev train. Lately I have been delving into biomimicry. Where nature is model, measure and mentor. I am applying for a masters in industrial design and 'biomimetics' has been at the core of my thesis research. Any design process or idea creation that encompasses a holistic approach, I am fond of. When biologists work with architects or engineers work with psychologists, you can be sure to get interesting solutions. My father is a psychiatric doctor and I think that has influenced the way I view the world. Thus, psychology and neurology always finds some way into my thought process.
Sunny days do wonders for inspiration also.
What would you want to be if not a designer?
I always wanted to be a professional athlete. I excelled at a few different sports, but being Canadian, hockey would of been my sport of choice. People I grew up with and I haven't seen for 10 or 15 years are always surprised to find out my current profession. I was a very physically and socially active teenager. I loved contact sports and I was the social convenor for my student counsel in my graduating year. I think people have trouble picturing an athlete as an artist. I try to use this element of surprise to my advantage.
My father is a doctor and my late grandfather was too. I guess part of me feels I should have followed in their footsteps. I believe this didn't happen for two reasons: I was never pressured by my parents--thank you--and I enjoyed my free time a lot.
Where do you see your profession in 20 years?
In a way I am still defining my profession so it makes it difficult to define where it will be 20 years down the road. But I believe that’s just the struggle many young Canadian designers face today. A struggle that includes questions such as: How does one make a living dealing with such a small scale? Should I design for the mass market? If so, is going to the mass market selling out? If I go to the mass market does that mean overseas manufacturing? If I go overseas, am I being environmentally and socially irresponsible?
I view designers as problem solvers. I believe furniture and industrial designers will need to adapt to a rapidly changing playing field. There is a saturation level to every art. Independant designers will have to be on the edge of that change to make a difference and get noticed. As is needed in today's environment, designers in the future will have to be dynamic entrepreneurs with their fingers on the pulse of society.
Below are samples of Peter Wehrspann's beautifully crafted pieces, which are a testament to his skill and unique creativity:
Now available through Modern Karibou.