Mason Journal recently spoke with Derek McLeod, a Toronto-based designer of furniture and objects, and joins the interview series with Toronto Design Offsite Festival contributors. We learn from Derek how Canada can develop a stronger international design identity, how local and national festivals compare to those internationally, and how Toronto Design Offsite Festival strengthens the design community.
Mason Journal: How do you describe your craft/discipline/practice?
Derek McLeod: My practice is the design of furniture and objects for production along with small batch manufacturing of some of my projects.
MJ: Tell us about your experiences that evolved you into your current practice.
DM: I studied Industrial Design at OCADU in Toronto, graduating in 2004. I followed that by working for Paul Epp, current chair of the Industrial Design program at OCADU, as a product designer and then working as a cabinetmaker for Builtwork Design, a high end millwork and cabinet shop in Toronto. Since 2008, I have operated my own practice as Derek McLeod Design, focussing on timeless, elegant pieces that work well.
MJ: What are the founding principles or values that define your designs?
DM: I am interested in making beautiful, timeless things. Archetypes are very enjoyable to design; things which appear as the essential version of something, whether it’s a chair that looks like it has always been there or a light that is so basic that it needs nothing added or removed. Comfort is a major part of any seating and is far more important than any formal decisions that may come into play. Cost is something I’ve been trying to consider lately in that it seems quite a bit harder to design something accessible compared to making flat out gorgeous things and trying to reduce the price after the fact.
MJ: How does Toronto Design Offsite benefit you as a designer?
DM: TODO benefits me by validating the exhibitions I choose to participate in. It is a young festival, yet it strives to bring a coherence and sense of structure to a disparate collection of shows and events. I have participated in the Interior Design Show, which is the ‘onsite’ venue and taken part in a number of the offsite shows and they are all interesting for different reasons, though TODO acts as a stamp of approval that what you are seeing in a gallery or store is worth seeing.
MJ: Are there any fabrication methods, techniques, materials or processes that you can define as your own? Can any factors mentioned above be defined as Canadian?
DM: My use of cast iron to make a single piece coffee table is rather unusual – most people who have looked at it from a fabrication standpoint have thought it should involve multiple pieces and fasteners. Aside from that, I suppose I tend toward tried and true things like wood, steel, concrete, and upholstery. I haven’t really capitalized on the high tech possibilities that exist today like rapid prototyping or 5 axis machining.
In terms of the Canadian aspect to these materials and processes, I would say that the access to quality hardwood lumber for furniture is easier here than it might be in other countries. One of my suppliers is routinely shipping lumber to Europe and Japan, and it happens that I can go pick out some maple for a new table there. Other than that, there are similar machines and skill-sets around the globe to make things happen.
MJ: In your opinion, what is the Canadian vernacular design language?
DM: At the municipal level, it seems to involve quite a bit of barnboard. Nationally, I think it is probably difficult to classify and I am not sure I could differentiate between a Canadian or American design language. I enjoy the work of people making minimal, thoughtful, well resolved things. Some of my favourite current Canadian works appear to be from Scandinavia in the 1960’s.
MJ: How can Canada develop a design identity on an international stage?
DM: It would certainly help to have funding to promote both Canadian design and the manufacturing of contemporary design products to Canadian audiences and those abroad. There is a funding model in place for various arts and craft based practices in Ontario and Canada, though they are specific about the works not being commercial, i.e. design. It would be fantastic to have the municipal government try to push local manufacturing & design or have the provincial or federal government aim to create more value out of some of the resources available here, i.e. wood that can be turned into furniture instead of being shipped away as planks.
MJ: What hurdles do you find most restrictive in penetrating the Canadian design market? Are there any strengths in Canada that allow your products to be more effectively received?
DM: My lack of marketing savvy is definitely restrictive in penetrating any market. I am usually too busy to spend an appropriate amount of time on building my brand, responding to interviews like this, and getting my work into retail stores. The strength in Canada, or at least Toronto, is that certain people know who I am now and look for my work, since otherwise I am below most radars.
MJ: From your experience, how does exhibiting at international fairs, such as ICFF or 100% Design, compare to that of Canadian based exhibitions and festivals?
DM: Having visited a number of fairs in Europe and participated in those two mentioned, I feel like the experiences elsewhere have greater potential, though I have had greater success by participating in local exhibitions.
There are large international companies and major media in attendance at international fairs which offer chances to have your work noticed and promoted or even produced. There are companies that I have spoken with that have no equivalent in Canada – they make some of the nicest furniture, in my opinion, in the world.
In comparison, Toronto’s design shows are represented by more national companies and media and are a great way to see your network over the course of a few days and show off new work. By participating annually, people have had a chance to see what I do and that I keep making new products, and I think this develops confidence that I am a designer that is around for the long term.
MJ: What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
DM: I am aiming to win an outdoor chair competition, make a batch of Frill tables (on display at Shiny Pretty Things, January 24-27, 2013), work more with MplusDc (works on display January 24-27, 2013), launch large and small cast iron tables to complement the existing model, produce more 15 Lights in a variety of finishes, get prototyping done on a series of wooden stools for a local manufacturer, and try to make an affordable wood chair.
To learn more about Derek, visit him at his website www.derekmcleod.com
1 – 15 Lights. Photography: Shanghoon
2 – Sum lounge chair. Photography: Shanghoon
3 – Associates. Photography: Shanghoon
4 – Frill table. Photography: Derek McLeod
5 – Tools. Photography: Shanghoon
6 – Low slat chair. Photography: Shanghoon
7 – Flit chair. Photography: Brian Sano
8 – Cast iron table. Photography: Shanghoon