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The Globe and Mail

5 Canadian designers and the things they can't live without

From microbrew bottles to stuffed animals to a tractor

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Fine design is typically associated with wealth and opulence. Beer brings to mind frat parties and Oktoberfest. To Hiroko Kobayashi, though, there is a crossover between the seemingly disparate camps. With her work, the Vancouver-based architect and jeweller is committed to the highest level of craftsmanship. For the last seven years, she has designed modern homes, restaurants and public buildings as part of the award-winning firm Nick Milkovich Architects. Since 2009, she has also run HK + NP Studio with her partner (both in life and work), Neil Prakash, making arrestingly minimal jewellery. She draws inspiration from a variety of sources (origami, water), but the collection of international microbrews she shares with Neil has been particularly valuable.

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“We started our collection of microbrews about five years ago, because of our love of beer, design and a good story. Our first purchase was a hard to find bottle of Trappist Westvleteren 8 from the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in Belgium. Now, at any time we have up to 64 bottles from around the world, which we keep in stackable birch crates that were custom-made by a craftsman here in Vancouver. We love the taste of beer, so we always drink them, but if it is a special release batch, unique or expensive bottle, we take a photograph of the bottle before we drink it, to keep for our records. Whenever we are searching for a new beer to try, it is usually the packaging, graphics and branding that grab our attention first. This aspect is something that we have tried to embrace in our own design work.” – Hiroko Kobayashi

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Landscape architect Claude Cormier loves colour. It’s fitting, then, that the Harvard graduate is, himself, inspired by something whimsical and innocent: stuffed animals. “I didn’t have any teddy bears as a child. I grew up on a farm, and we had lots of animals. ... Now, though, I live in the city and I travel a lot, so my lifestyle doesn’t have room for pets. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like stuffed animals so much. I also like how colourful and graphic they are and how endearing. ... Every couple of weeks I visited a few vintage stores in Montreal, and picked out the best, one by one. It took me a year to gather about 3,000. When the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal asked me to contribute a piece to their recent show, Big Bang, I knew instantly what I wanted to do. I made a 20-by-8-foot tableau out of stuffed animals.”

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It’s almost cliché these days when a buzzy restaurant is decorated with quirky vintage finds – they all seem to be. And Toronto’s Bent, the latest spot from celebrity chef Susur Lee, is no different. Except that the room’s designer (and Lee’s wife) Brenda Bent isn’t following the herd. She, after all, helped establish the trend years ago by using old toys to accent Lee’s first high-end, five-star spot. And in the new space, she’s pushed that eclecticism to a whole new level with a huge feature wall displaying more than 4,000, unique heirlooms – everything from mini Virgin Mary figurines to colourful swizzle sticks, all neatly arranged. It’s a remarkable, engrossing, slightly mad statement – and, above all, a testament to the designer’s deep love for all things old.

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“I first started collecting in a serious way at the beginning of eBay. So what is that, like 15, 16 years ago? I would see something in a flea market, and then punch it into eBay and see what else was out there like it and then sort of go crazy. I started with Cracker Jack toys from the 1920s and 30s. Now I have about 4,000 objects on display at Bent and another 4,000 at home, neatly stored in my basement." – Brenda Bent

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“I like old things, but the collections aren’t nostalgia for me. I’m not nostalgic at all. But I like the idea of collecting objects from the past because they have a quality that you just don’t see any more – a sense of character. I’m always looking for something new to collect. I recently bought a 400-pound, cast-iron deer, and right now I’m looking for a specific kind of vintage sake cup. I just came across one that, somehow, when you put the sake in – and I don’t know how they do it – a picture of a geisha girl shows up. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” – Brenda Bent

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For 20 years, architect John Tong has designed homes, hotels and restaurants that are both rigorously planned yet highly eccentric. His contrarian point of view is partially inspired by Moulton bicycles – two-wheelers that upended orthodoxy when they were first launched in the early 1960s, but which are now considered among the best-designed bikes in the world. “As a designer, I think there is something beautiful about creating an object that works really well, but that defies expectations. That’s why I like the Moulton. When it came out in 1962, it was completely different than the traditional, diamond-framed bikes people were riding. But the engineering was so much better. ... Now I have five.”

Xander

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When architect Brian MacKay-Lyons isn’t teaching design at Dalhousie University, he can often be found at his South Shore, Nova Scotia farm, mowing grass, mending fences and plowing space for sheep to graze. But the Maritimer isn’t just creating a bucolic idyll; tending the terrain is a vital part of his design practice. His award-winning structures are understated, minimalist homes that blend clean, modern lines with a traditional, Acadian aesthetic. And his own farm (which has some of his most striking projects) is where he continues to develop and perfect his sensitive approach to building on the land, using his favourite piece of farming equipment: his tractor.

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“Growing up, I always wanted to be a farmer. It’s in my blood. ... Now, my farm is my obsession. ... It’s a complex site, with cliffs, ponds and trees, on a peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The buildings are more like surveying instruments, tools that call attention to different aspects of the landscape – the slope in a certain hill, or the horizon of the ocean. I use my tractor almost like a pencil. It’s how I sketch ideas. It’s how I shape the land. ... It has a front-end loader and a bush mower. I use it to plow snow, bale hay and haul lumber. I recently used it to put in a 1,000-foot-long wooden fence. And to me, seeing the fence posts following the curvature of the hill is a beautiful thing. To me, creating that kind of intervention in the landscape is what architecture is all about.” – Brian MacKay-Lyons

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