This month the Toronto Design Offsite Festival (TO DO) is taking over the city from January 19-25th. TO DO is an annual city-wide platform for the exhibition and engagement of independent design in Toronto, showcasing unexpected prototypes, immersive installations, and unique programming.

As we lead up to the festival, The Makers Nation will be featuring designers participating in TO DO as our Maker Spotlight. This week we chatted with Erin McCutcheon, a veteran of TO DO who will be exhibiting work through the festival’s feature exhibition ‘White Out’, by Keilhauer.

1) What brought you to design?

I was very creative as a child,  always drawing and building stuff with plasticine.  I wanted to be a vet but was delusional in thinking that vets just snuggled animals.  Art was the better choice.  I completed 9 years of art school, a degree in Fine Art from NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) and a degree from OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) with a major in Industrial Design.  I’ve always had creative jobs from working with various artists and woodworkers to working as a props builder for film and photography.  Although I have a day job that pays the bills (RMT), I have a very busy studio life which I would love to one day be the full time gig.

2) You’re participating in the exhibition ‘White Out,’ presented by Keilhauer, at the Toronto Design Offsite Festival. What does the color white represent to you?

I’m not a big fan of using colour in my work so this show grabbed my attention immediately.  For the past 9 years I’ve worked mostly in ceramics and recently in the past year or two have moved onto cement.  Both materials are beautiful in their own natural form without the enhancement of colour.  White Out seemed to fit perfectly with my thinking, let the material and form tell the story.

3) When starting a new project, do you have any rituals or routines that help you overcome ‘blank canvas paralysis’? (how do you get into the creative head space)

Good question.  I guess it depends on what the parameters of the show are.  If there’s no theme and I’m given a free for all, go to town scenario, that’s where I struggle.  I usually just make something pretty with not a lot of thought or meaning. It’s a bad habit that I’d like to put an end to.  If I’m given a theme I can always find a story from my past that fits.  That’s what I find brings the most inspiration, some memory I can visualize and bring into an object.  I tend to jump the gun on almost all projects.  I think I have the best idea ever and without thinking it out or doing any drawings or mockups, I start building and on most occasions, I almost get to the end and find out it’s terrible or it’s not going to work.  Then I take the time to think and write things out and a better story will come to me.  It used to create great panic, now I just throw on the headphones and have a little dance, put my head down and work.  There’s a well-used sleeping bag in my studio.


Ice Shelf Shelf plaster model, White Out 2015

4) Where do you get inspiration for the work that you do, and more specifically what was the inspiration behind the Ice Shelf Shelves you’re exhibiting at TO DO?

I love telling stories with my work.  Not just my own stories but others as well.  I moved to Nova Scotia in 1997 and experienced real winter for the first time.  Huge amounts of snow and windchill temps that seemed impossible from growing up in BC. I became slightly obsessed with winter and cold and came across the story of Ernest Shackleton and his Antarctic expeditions.  I read and watched everything I could get my hands on about it.  A few years ago I did a piece for Capacity based on his expedition on the Endurance and the great survival story.  The work was shown in New York City at a contemporary clay exhibition and again at the Design Exchange as well as written up in the New York Times in an article about mobile art.  Since then I’ve filled my brain with stories of survival, triumph and tragedy on the icy landscapes. Antarctica isn’t a place many of us will see, due to cost but mostly due to the environment.  Who likes that cold? Me. I love it.  When I read about White Out, my brain went immediately to these landscapes.  It’s been described as swimming through a glass of milk, ground and sky are all the same with no horizon or landmarks.  Just white.  I decided to make floating ice shelf shelves inspired by the Ronne Ice Shelf in Antarctica and two smaller floating shelves representing giant icebergs that have broken away from it.

Circle vases, porcelain for Capacity 2014

Sphere, porcelain for Capacity 2014

5) You curated Capacity for a number of years, which was an exhibition of designs by women to raise awareness around female designers in Toronto. Almost half of the designers in ‘White Out’ are female, do you think there has been progress within the community on this?

There’s so many great female artists and designers in Toronto, well everywhere.  Capacity was a great forum for women to showcase their work and to have people make the connection that we were all women.  There has been amazing work by women in all the shows during the festival over the years, Capacity just made the point of being in your face about it.  I hope it not only helped people recognize the women designers but made people aware of all the makers behind the work, male or female, that people would remember a name not just a beautiful object.

6) On a similar note, what advice would you give to young female designers just starting out in their careers?

Same advice that I would give to anyone, do what you love and never give up on dreams.  You have to work hard to get where you want to be, so do the work to make it there.

7) Finally, how would you describe the Toronto design community? Where would you like to see it ten years from now?

The Toronto design community has grown so huge over the past 5 years.  When we first started Capacity,  there were 5 offsite shows that year.  Last year I believe there were over 60.  It’s huge.  And I think it will keep growing.  It’s a great community and very supportive.  I’m very proud to be part of it all.