There is always that one piece of work that comes to be synonymous with its creator. For me, Shawn Place’s Owl Chair is that piece. Its smooth lines and curves caught my eye and I slowed my step. “Try it,” said Shawn. At a design show, trying chairs is not a good idea; the sheer quantity will impede the progress of even the most fleet of foot. “C’mon,” said Shawn, and I’m pretty sure the chair’s spindles all echoed him … I was a goner. And so the conversation began …
SP320 owl chair
That was then and this is now: We met at IDS in Toronto a couple of years ago and then again in New York during ICFF; however, you are currently based in Prince George, British Columbia. Although it is the largest city in northern BC, Prince George does not spring to mind as a design centre. This made us think about the notion of place and how it informs art, design and making. How is your work influenced by where you live? What is it like to be a designer in northern BC?
I’d have to say that my work is directly influenced by the north. It’s not so much where I draw inspiration from or am influenced by, but, rather, being away from any sort of design community at large leaves me geographically isolated. I think this lack of connection to other designers at large means my work is less about being influenced by my peers and more about staying true to my own vision for a piece. So to be a designer in the north is a bit of a lonely endeavour with the trade-off being you get affordability of living which certainly frees one to concentrate on their work a lot more – many mortgages here are less than rent!
Do you ever see any of your designs in Prince George? Or do they all travel far away?
Nothing much stays here in the city, actually, it’s mainly custom work – the Auton stool is one such piece. It was commissioned by a local design aficionado and was so popular at IDS this past January that it’s gone into production. My furniture seems to make its way around the globe, my dealers have sold pieces to clients from Brazil, Vietnam and beyond. I’d love to see pictures of the pieces in their final destinations, I’m curious to see how other people integrate my work into their lives.
Perhaps that sense of isolation contributes to the spare lines of your work. But you probably take back various sights and sounds from your travels … some version of this must become incorporated into the designs. Or at least new insights and echoes. What have you taken back to your studio this year? How will your recent travels manifest themselves in your work?
I think the simple, or paired down aesthetic in my work comes not so much from the starkness of my isolated surroundings but rather from how I “focus” on them. I’ve always been a fan of the Group of 7, especially the work of Lawren Harris. The way he was able to take the vastness of the land, the sheer quantity of objects in view and distill them down into a simplified representation of what he was looking at. In the same way we don’t focus on a single tree when looking out across a mountain vista, but rather, we relax our focus to take in the entire view, to get a “sense” of the space. I prefer to design in this same simplified manner, to allow the overall shape of a piece to evoke a feeling, a sense of form, right from the initial view. A closer inspection of my work rewards the viewer with additional details to appreciate the piece, the construction, the craftsmanship etc., but that sharp focus is not needed to initially “get’ the piece. I believe all objects with any sort of longevity are designed this way – you see it, it moves you, you get familiar with it’s details then you appreciate it even more…it’s a lot like falling in love.
Shawn and keen-eyed assistant
My recent travels to Toronto, Milan and New York definitely inspire my work. It’s less about being directly influenced by a certain piece than it is being around all that creativity. The one thing I did notice, after Milan especially, was the ability to find inspiration anywhere. Mostly I was seeing forms everywhere that I wanted to incorporate in my work. I think after viewing so many beautiful pieces at the different design shows my eyes became trained to see everyday objects less for what they are and more as a collection of shapes to use and manipulate.
I guess we’ll see what I come up with this year!
It’s likely we’re all influenced by imaginary landscapes as well, those that come from memories or things we read … Shapes and patterns probably seep into our work or vision without us even realizing it. What are some of these that you find hard to resist? And when you design, is your first focus on the materials, the function or space? Or is it all a very organic process?
For me the simple geometric shapes are what I utilize the most, square, circle, rectangle etc. I’m curious to push myself beyond these and see what comes of it but I do really enjoy order and simplicity in design. Personally I think my process has been fairly organic. As I’m fairly new to this profession I’ve been trying out different starting points for my work. My first piece, the rocking chair, was an exercise in form. It had to meet certain criteria of course (ergonomics, balanced motion) but after that I wanted to design a beautiful, simple form. A chair may be just a collection of parts but take the sides for example – five pieces which all flow together to form the signature shape of the chair in one continuous outline. Now take a look at the owl chair – Unlike the rocking chair each piece of this chair is a unique form that sculpturally could stand on it’s own. The beauty of the chair comes not from how these pieces meld into one another but from how these pieces interact and relate to each other while maintaining their individuality. My starting point for beginning a new piece varies quite a bit, sometimes I need something personally so I develop a product around that, other times I may want to fill what I see as a gap in the market.
What’s next for Shawn Place Designs?
First off, I’m sure you’ll see quite few more chairs! I’m looking at getting into contract design work for larger manufacturers. I’d love to have some state of the art manufacturing facilities to work with…Imagine what someone could dream up when not limited by their manufacturing capabilities! Personally, I would finish renovating the bath.