Tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to design.

Originally I had planned to be an outdoor educator, and all through my undergraduate degree in geography and environmental studies, and also during the subsequent year in a B.Ed program, I was designing and building skin-on-frame canoes and kayaks. I had taken some high-school shop classes and my step-father is a cabinet maker, so I had his tools to use, and I just started experimenting. The first kayak I built with my grandfather, and I’ve built seven or eight boats since then, and repaired many more.

After my masters research in philosophy of technology (a field I had been introduced to as a way to think through the boat building) I made a failed attempt to start a youth boat-building program with a partner. In the meantime I had also taken a job renovating houses with a crew composed of former furniture designers and craftspeople. One of them is David Samplonius, an under-recognized and extremely talented maker. Prior to this I had made some furniture, but I had never pursued it seriously. When the boat-building project fell apart, I turned my attention to making furnishings.

You document a lot of the behind-the-scenes processes of your creations on your site, why is that important for you to share?

I’m actually really bad at documenting my work. I find it a hassle to pull out the camera and interrupt the flow of what I’m doing. Ideally, there would be a lot more material online than I manage to put up. But I get a lot of questions about how my work happens and I think a lot of people, even some designers, don’t really understand how objects are made in either a craft or manufacturing context.

On the one hand, I want to show that the processes I use are relatively accessible, and hopefully inspire other folks to try working with their hands to make whatever they imagine, from a cutting board to something more complicated. On the other hand, I want to show that there is a lot of care and thought and skill that goes into my work. It gives my audience an entry-point into understanding and appreciating the objects I make as something much more special than a factory-produced item.

decomp sled

What does your process look like? How do you approach a new project? 

The initial ideas for my designs appear in different ways. Sometimes they come out of extremely difficult and neurotic brainstorming sessions. That’s the case with the Decomposition table. Other times they are an effortless response to found objects. This was the case for the Hawthorne patio table, where I found a sapling that became the pattern for casting the legs in aluminum.

I’m not very good at drawing so, once I have a concept, a lot of initial work happens just visualizing things in my head. There might be some sketching in there for practice, but the refinements typically happen in quick and messy full-scale mock-ups using foam, mdf, bondo etc. Sometimes I will then move into drawing the results digitally to capture and modify the design. If necessary, I’ll move back and forth between digital drawings and more refined iterations of the physical model until I can produce the work in its final material.

Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out as a designer?

First off, I’d say that it is going to take some time to have your work seen and appreciated, so you need to be prepared for that. Secondly, I think we need design that looks beyond the trends. Do your best to avoid designing gizmos that don’t really work or knockoffs of your latest favorite Italian/Scandinavian design hero. We need work that is highly functional and/or superbly beautiful. And it needs to last and age well. This is, to me, the core of sustainable design.

You recently curated an exhibition for the Toronto Design Offsite Festival called Digital Promises. What was the motivation for doing that, what did you learn from the experience?

Digital Promises was an exhibition of digitally designed/produced objects, primarily furniture and jewelry,that also aimed to tell the story of how those objects came to be. Digital tools are a hot-button issue in design not only because they are changing the way things are made, but also because they are re-defining our ideas of “craftsmanship” and “creativity”. There is also a lot of rhetoric around how tools like 3D printing will change the world politically, environmentally and aesthetically. However, few people seem to understand how these tools really work, which to me, is a necessary basis from which to evaluate their future impact on our material reality.

Digital Promises was both a showcase of some really fantastic digitally-produced work, as well as a first step in giving some more context to the larger questions about how digital technology intersects with craft and design.

What can we expect to see from you in 2014?

I’m currently working on the next generation in the Decomposition series. It’s a glass-topped dining table that seats 6, supported by four pillars of wooden blocks that appear to be crumbling to the floor. It’s a commission, but I might try to find a way to show it off, prior to delivery to the client!

I’ve also started working on a completely over-the-top upholstered wing-back chair with claw feet and hand rests cast in bronze or aluminum. II also have a few smaller products in development including a back-lit panel using offcuts from CNC water-jet cutting, and a wall-hung shelf with a single drawer clad in patinated copper.

Find out more about Ian and his work here.