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3 designers and the inspirations that drive their work

Barn board, the ocean and a canoe built from the forest

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Alex Jowett – a designer, artist and photographer who runs a studio and design store, Atelier 688 – loves to surf. Before focusing full-time on his craft, Jowett spent a decade as an itinerant travel journalist, always looking for big adventures – and the best places to surf. The ocean is never far from his imagination. It’s the jumping-off point for much of his work – including nautical-inspired pendant lights, chandeliers made of kayaks and paintings of the horizon. “Living in a city, sometimes one of the most difficult things to do is clear one’s mind. Wide expanses of water, especially the ocean, allow me to do that, which in turn allows for a virtual flood of ideas to fill the void later on. So, for this, and many other reasons … the ocean seems to have permeated virtually everything I do.”

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As a carpenter, Michael Greenwood is besotted by the grain, warmth and texture of wood. He uses it to make bold furniture, beautiful cabinetry and whimsical, Robinson Crusoe-style tree houses. Although he occasionally works with fresh-cut lumber, the designer prefers reclaimed pieces – partially for the weathered, patinated aesthetic, but also for the environmental benefits, as he extends the life of castaway objects. As such, he tries to work with suppliers as local as possible to his Toronto studio. Two or three years ago, though, a travelling American offered him a truck full of white oak. It turned out to be some of his favourite material.

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“Old wood tends to have a tight, fine grain – unlike today’s lumber, which usually isn’t allowed to grow as long before it’s felled. And white oak in particular tends to develop a rich, deep, dark colour over time. … Working with good wood is important to me, because the quality of the material is often what inspires my designs. This white oak was particularly beautiful. I’ve made about 20 pieces from it – including a sleek, contemporary bench with intricate finger jointing and a really nice, simple night table. I have almost run through my supply, so I will probably only be able to make a couple more things with it. But it’s satisfying to know that I’ve been a part of the sustainability of material, giving it its second or third life by creating things that will make people happy for a very long time.” – Michael Greenwood

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The delicate, carefully detailed structures of Richard Kroeker are an unmistakable reflection of our wilderness and history. The wood is often foraged from forests as close to the construction site as possible, and the Nova Scotia-based designer and professor often references first nations building techniques in his work. His Beaverbank project, for example, built with students from NSCAD and the Technical University of Nova Scotia (now part of Dalhousie University), is a wilderness retreat in the style of a domed, indigenous lodge. Fittingly, one of his most important inspirations is something many Canadians find iconic: the birch-bark canoe.

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“A few years ago now I had a chance to build my own birch-bark canoe – my first. I did it over a semester, with a dozen of my students from Dalhousie. … It’s a beautiful object. The overall design is as old as the pyramids and you can’t improve on it. It’s perfect – durable and dynamic. You could use it on any type of water. But when I made my own, it was a huge revelation to me, about how local materials alter the design in small ways, changing the details, so that each one is not only functional, but an expression of where it comes from. … We originally collected the materials ourselves from the woods, including the bark and the spruce gum used to seal it. In that way, it’s a like a poem taken right from the forest.” – Richard Kroeker

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