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Don’t expect Decorating 101 at the Gladstone

Come Up to My Room at the Gladstone Hotel Jan. 28-30, 1214 Queen St. W., Toronto; www.gladstonehotel.com

The line between what constitutes art and what is considered design has always been more of a wiggly noodle than a straight arrow. It's a porous border, if a border at all. Each discipline feeds off the other, despite the crowing of purists.

The Gladstone Hotel's annual Come Up to My Room exhibition, now in its eight year, has always been a challenge for both camps, a wonderfully bratty snubbing of conventions held too dear.

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The set-up is simple enough. The hotel offers a variety of empty rooms, and artist-designers submit proposals to redecorate or reconfigure the rooms, via everything from asymmetrical handmade furnishings to imaginative, florid wall treatments to wonderfully alien-looking light fixtures. The results are always a mixed bag. Some rooms work, some simply, or spectacularly, don't – but the free-range hybridity the designer-artists (desarters?) engage in, and flourish under, is the real show.

Thus, Come Up to My Room sometimes feels more like a rehearsal than a finished production. But that's the show's core strength. By allowing for both failure and triumph in equal measure, Come Up to My Room offers a rawness – one very unlike traditional home-decor shows, with their emphasis on finish and perfection – a work-in-progress model that is inherently inspiring to anyone who wants to be more creative with their living space.

For the 2011 version, co-curators Deborah Wang, a former architect who now teaches exhibition design at Ryerson University, and Jeremy Vandermeij, the Gladstone's creative director, have invited well-known creators (light sculptor Orest Tataryn, multimedia artist Pamila Matharu) and emerging practitioners (the brand new Studio 1:1, the brainchild of architects Kira Varvanina and Edward Lin). The show even includes a new work by the Gladstone's president Christina Zeidler (who was an artist long before she got into the hospitality biz) and her partner, the furniture designer/builder Deanne Lehtinen.

In the midst of last-minute preparations, the weary but cheerful co-curators sat down to talk with me about the growing unreliability of the art/design divide. Like any duo who've worked together for years (the 2011 Come Up To My Room is the third time at bat for both), Wang and Vandermeij tend to finish each other's thoughts and sentences, which might be taking the whole hybridity idea a bit too far.

What have you learned about interior design in Toronto after doing Come Up to My Room?

Wang What I've learned, and you can apply this to designers in general, is that people who are in that discipline do a lot of other different things, which the show demonstrates. People working in disciplines that we mark out as being limited to one thing or another actually do and are interested in a whole gamut of things ...

Vandermeij ... and the show carves out a space for people to meet and work with artists in a way that they don't get to do in their jobs. It's like going back to school, where you get to do all these amazing projects, projects that are so free. But when you get into the working world, you have to design very real things, with budgets and client needs, so you don't have the same space to dream.

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The plague of home-reno shows on television has led to a kind of interior-design homogeneity – neutrals, neutrals, neutrals, red chair in the corner. How might someone who watches those shows feel when they see Come Up to My Room?

Vandermeij They might crap themselves ...

Wang ... he means, they might feel overwhelmed, but in a good way. The show is full of the unexpected – I mean, we don't quite know what's in store, so we'll be sharing that surprise with the viewers.

Vandermeij Yeah, and if people come expecting "interior design" they'll be shocked, hopefully, to find that there's no actual interior design, as it's understood commercially, going on. The work is more art-installation-based, more immersive and engaging. They're environments....

Wang Exactly! Environments that can inspire interiors.

Where are you two on the art versus design debate? Or do you support the premise of the argument?

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Wang From an architectural perspective, I think of it this way, based on a discussion I read between an architect and an artist: Art is different in one aspect in that people are forced to use architecture whether or not they understand it or want to engage with it, while with art, the relationship is different – you have to want to engage with what is in front of you.

Vandermeij Hmm. I would agree and disagree. So many artists now have a design approach to their art – it's very premeditated and very planned. And that's the same as the process that designers go through, when they consider the use of an object or space.

So, Come Up to My Room is something between an art exhibition and one of those home expos at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. That can be confusing for viewers. What's an accessible way to approach this event?

Wang You can approach it like an artist's studio space … no, maybe that's not right....

Vandermeij No, no! I like that! You're walking into the artist's studio.

Wang Hmm. Okay. It's a space where ideas are presented, and they are not all harmonious or not all resolved.

Vandermeij And they are conceptual works, sometimes rough around the edges, and most of them can't be taken out of this context and put into a living room....

Wang This is an experimental space. A laboratory.

Vandermeij Definitely a laboratory, and some of the experiments....

Wang Are not gonna work out! Ha!

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