MATERIAL ESSENCE


  • Text: Theo Mohamed
  • Photo: Stew Zong
  • Furniture, like garments, or food, possess the powerful quality of being universally understood objects. For Vancouver based designers Jeff Martin (Founder, Jeff Martin Joinery) and Henry Norris (Founder, New Format Studio), it is this sense of intuitive function that drives the creation of their designs. While Martin explores the familiarity of ancient materials through the distortion and reimagination of their identity, Norris explores modern utilitarian materials by manipulating them to the point of tenderness. Though the two approaches to the material aspect of design are different, the commonalities in the pair’s design language has further reinforced their close collaborative relationship. Jeff Martin and Henry Norris have worked together with Leisure Center to develop an installation, which highlights these commonalities in form while highlighting the material contrasts that permeate their work. The collection of carefully laid shelves and platforms serve as the stage for a popup shop by the online design retailer WallpaperSTORE* while bringing with it a sense of motion and continuity.

    WallpaperSTORE* was founded in 2015 as a collaboration between the iconic Wallpaper* Magazine and The Level Group. This special installation marks the brand’s first expansion to Canada, making Leisure Center the first destination for all things design in Canada. In the week leading up to its launch, I had the opportunity to speak with both Jeff and Henry to better understand the characteristics that unify and separate their work and gain insight as to why they were chosen to create this installation.


    To understand the relationship between Jeff and Henry’s work, let us first begin with the pieces the pair selected for this project. Jeff selected his ‘Neolith’ series: a truncated isolation of a column. Henry selected his ‘Mers’ series: a flat aluminum disc supported by a cross with a sort of window cut through its centre. In essence, each design can be reduced to a disc supported by a series of radial struts. The materials chosen were pigmented, cast concrete for the ‘Neolith’ series, while the ‘Mers’ tables are constructed in their standard aluminum sheets. Furthermore, the interweaving planks that form the shelves within the popup vary between dark stained exposed wood (Jeff Martin Joinery), and cleanly painted white (New Format) - though the contour of each is the same. Raw vs. refined.

    The ‘Neolith’ series, explores the universally adopted architectural form of the column. “We are focusing on are really culturally durable materials. So materials that have been used throughout the span of the modern era but even over thousands of years. We’re working with stone and timber, cast metals, blown glass,” Geoff told me. The focus on material longevity, in both a physical and emotional sense creates an intimacy in Jeff’s objects, though they are generally very heavy in appearance. He hopes to reach a broader audience by expanding the material array of the ‘Neolith’ series to more accessible options. “If you grew up from the 80’s onward, no matter what part of the world [you’re from], you’ve seen exposed aggregate [concrete] used in really civic projects like highway medians,” he told me over the phone, “It’s sort of our first foray into democratic design that’s meant for everybody so I wanted the material palette to also relate to everybody.” Jeff also told me, “[We want to] take this design and do it in recycled ocean plastics, [to shift it to] having a societal benefit, as well as being a beautiful piece of furniture.”


    The main point of focus within the ‘Mers’ series is the structure’s “translucence.” Though crafted from planes of solid aluminum, its cutout centre creates an object that is not solid in essence. To demonstrate the manipulating of designs through material alterations Henry proposed a version of the ‘Mers’ table with a vastly different essence. “What we have now is a planar form… but what if we were to make it out of glass or acrylic? Then the translucency of the form that creates this graphic silhouette would no longer exist.” Henry appears to have an affinity for object design with a contrast between structure and substance. The ‘Connect’ credenza is yet another example of this. “The form is… monolithic” he told me, “but when you actually look at what puts it together, it’s surprisingly light.” This incongruence then generates Henry’s underlying emotional drive for design: curiosity. “What I’m interested in is creating pieces that draw people in. A lot of our work is relatively simple in form - it’s not ornate - and sometimes the things that give it value are not readily apparent.”

    Site specific work, like their installation for Leisure Center, presents an opportunity to “expand beyond a table in a white void,” as Henry put it. Jeff mentioned in our conversation the “hive mind approach” that arises in collaborating outside of the studio, “We have really interesting people all contributing ideas and communicating in this sort of slurry where we’re then able to extract the best ideas.” Each of the duo bears in mind, throughout the process, that their work is meant to function, in this case, as a stage to other objects of interest. Henry stated the responsibility to “... form an installation of visual interest that didn’t overcome the work - which is why we selected some of our simplest work combined in a primary way.” Jeff mentioned how the pair had discussed special considerations in regards to “How people are going to walk through it and walk through the story of the WallpaperSTORE* products… A lot of our ideation was very much about how to walk people through the idea of the store.”


    The spatial inspiration comes in the form of the omnipresent bookshelf. As Jeff told me, “We decided to explode the bookshelves and explore how they could intersect and congregate around a 3D space as opposed to just being 2D on a wall.” This transforms the identity of the space from retail a popup with flat shelves to a fully fledged installation. Jeff and Henry’s work becomes fused with the products from WallpaperSTORE* creating a single, beautiful entity. The pair have not simply designed a retail space but created an interactive stage, viewable from several angles, with a fluid transition between product and space.

    Launched September 19th 2019, the WallpaperSTORE* popup will occupy the Leisure Center space until December 31st 2019.

  • Text: Theo Mohamed
  • Photo: Stew Zong