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In part eight of the Mason Journal interview series with Toronto Design Offsite Festival organizers, we speak with Erin Mccucheon, a designer and curator of the highly anticipated Capacity show.  In conversation with Erin, we learn how Capacity is proving support to female designers, how Toronto Design Offsite is impacting the Canadian design industry, and why Canada’s currently undefined design identity is a waiting opportunity.

Mason Studio:How do you describe your craft/discipline/practice?

Erin Mccucheon: It’s always been my philosophy that if I can’t make it myself, I won’t design it.  Coming from an art background, I’ve always had a hands-on approach to my work.  I enjoy creating and building things and realized while I was at OCAD that I didn’t want to have someone else mass produce my work.  This usually means a small run production of most things but I’m happy with that.  It makes the object hold more meaning to me and for the consumer, almost a one of a kind feel.

My work has always been inspired by memories and history.  When I started in design, my thinking moved more towards what objects are and how humans interact with them.  A lot of work has been drawn from the idea that we either choose to use objects or we assign preciousness to them and only use them for decoration in fear they may be damaged.  I love the idea of taking those precious belongings and using them as they were meant to even if it means destroying them completely.  This is where my most recent work lays. Using the ‘wrong’ material to make something where breakage is guaranteed, yet the object has served its rightful purpose. It’s forcing someone to choose between having something that is useless but beautiful or to use it as intended and destroy it, action and consequence.

MJ:Can you tell us about the development of your craft and how you evolved into your current practice?

EM: I studied Fine Arts at NSCAD (BFA, 2000) then moved to Toronto to study Industrial Design at OCAD (BDes, 2008).  I felt after NSCAD that I wanted to move more into design, thinking there were so many more opportunities out there that I wasn’t aware of.  I knew I was never going to design cell phones or sneakers and that I wanted my art to be a big part of my design work.  It was a struggle at school, being pushed to make more functional objects than I was but I had some great professors who pushed me in the direction I wanted to be heading.  I made a lot of furniture and my dream was (still is!) to have a wood studio.  My studio at the time was shared between 9 other people, most of who made ceramics and left little space for big tools and dirty work.  So I started playing around in ceramics and I’m still playing around in ceramics. It’s a great medium; it allows me to work both in functional objects and sculpture. I don’t think I’ll be moving on for a while.

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MJ:Briefly describe your involvement in Toronto Design offsite Festival?

EM: Capacity has been involved with Toronto Design Offsite Festival since they started.  Co-curator, Katherine Morley, is more involved with the running’s of it than I am, for the past few years she herself, outside of Capacity, was part of the committee.  A few small independent shows, MADE, Come Up to My Room and Capacity decided it would be more beneficial to all if we cross promoted one another and this was all through Toronto Design Offsite Festival.  There was never any competition between the independent shows, it just made more sense that the more promotion and support we shared with each other, the more everyone would benefit.

MJ:What prompted you to create an exhibition like Capacity? What are the goals or expectations of the show?

EM: Katherine Morley and I noticed a lack of recognition towards female designers about 4 years ago. We questioned galleries and design shops in Toronto if they could name us some of their favorite female designers and most places couldn’t come up with more than a couple, if any at all.  Even showing and selling work designed by women, the names couldn’t be placed with the work. We worked for about a year and half organizing our first show and had no lack of female designers to choose from.  The past two years, we’ve received about 60-70 submissions both times we put a call out from women all over Canada and the United States.  Even a few men!

Our goal with Capacity is to give women a space to show their work and to be recognized as serious contenders in the design world.  Women tend to get lumped into the craft realm when the work is handmade or they’re using certain materials or techniques, such as textiles or ceramics.  We also wanted to start a network where designers could talk about their experiences or bounce ideas off of one another.  I think the show has been successful with this.  We’ve had amazing support from the press and public the past three years.  Our first year we had a group of elderly women who had driven in from out of town telling us they’d read about the show and came out just to support us, they had no idea about the design festival at all.  It was great.

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MJ:  Is there a fundamental process or perspective you try to maintain across all your personal work?

EM: As I mentioned earlier, I hand make all of my work.  I love finding objects that show the makers mark, I feel a personal connection with these things.  I try to incorporate that into all of my work.  I look a lot into my own past and draw from personal memories and experiences and try to incorporate that into the work to share with others.  There has to be a personal connection between inspiration and the finished piece.

MJ:  How do you feel being a part of the festival will affect your development as an artist/designer?

EM: The design festival has always been kind to me. I was first a part of it when I was a student and accepted into the IDS Prototype exhibit.  I’ve received great press and more importantly made priceless contacts through it.  The festival is a great experience for any designer; it opens doors and exposes great Canadian work to an international audience.

MJ:What impact do you see Toronto Design Offsite having on the local and national design industry?

EM: Toronto Design Offsite Festival is such an amazing network to be a part of.  It leads people beyond just the big show (Interior Design Show) to all these other incredible off site events happening all over the city exposing smaller independent artists and designers to a bigger audience.  It’s such a great benefit to the design community on a local and national level.  I think in the past lots of people didn’t know of the offsite events and with the support from Toronto Design Offsite Festival they’ve become a huge success drawing in thousands of people over 4 days. It’s run by artists and designers who are fighting to have Canadian design put on the map.

MJ:How do you see Canada developing a design identity on an international stage?

EM: I think we’re lucky to be Canadian designers.  There hasn’t been a big design identity in Canada’s past so we’re getting in on the ground floor and forming it ourselves free of expectations of the past.  I’ve seen a big change in Canadian design in the past 10 years; we’re growing so fast and are finally being recognized at an international level. Even in the past 3 years, Toronto has gone from having a handful of offsite exhibits to 15-20 or more and the number of viewers has been incredible, growing each year. I know more and more designers who are now exhibiting internationally and getting clients from all over the world.  I don’t think you can pinpoint a Canadian aesthetic but I feel most of the work produced in Canada is clean and fresh with a nostalgic feel. I’m not talking about Canadiana; bears and wilderness and plaid, but I do think we look to our surroundings and history for inspiration.  It will be exciting to see what happens in the next few years.

MJ: Can you tell us what we can look forward to seeing from you next?

EM: I’ve got a few projects on the go right now.  I’m working with a couple other artists, one a dancer the other a performance artist, to host a weekend pop-up shop sometime in the spring.  It’s called The Bad Day Pop-up Shop where people can come in and let go of some of their stress through dancing, breaking things, and howling at the moon.  Sweet treats and adult beverages included.

I’m also starting some projects with Base Camp X, a local company who makes handmade axes.  We’re in the early stages of planning as of now but it’s looking like a collaborative show could happen sometime in the next year.

In the spring, Garrison Creek Bat Co. will be hosting their third show in the past 12 months. They’re a local group of illustrators and furniture makers that have teamed up to make beautiful graphic baseball bats. They distribute bats to artists who are given free will to do what they want with the bat. I’ll be participating in the spring show as I did their fall show.  My porcelain baseballs and pitching station set up in the gallery has become a permanent fixture with them.

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To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinmccutcheon.com

All images courtesy of Erin Mccutcheon