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In praise of puce? Designers come clean about the off-trend design elements they love

1. George Yabu on puce

“Puce is a forgotten colour,” says George Yabu, co-founder of interior design studio Yabu Pushelberg, whose luxe work can be found in retail spaces, hotels and high-end residences around the world. “Admittedly, it’s a tough colour to love.” Yabu and his partner Glenn Pushelberg recently came across the hue when they were renovating the dining room of the Park Hyatt New York. “We were toying with the idea of [using only] one colour,” says Yabu. The team initially thought about pink, but decided that it would be too obvious, so they veered toward the uncharted corners of the colour wheel to find puce: a terribly named hue with a hard-to-pin-down shade. “It’s a musty mauve. It’s like rotting red grapes,” says Yabu. “It was used a lot during the thirties and forties. We were thinking that the sobriety of it is a fantastic contrast these days with all the things that are coming out of computer screens: colours, patterns on patterns, and so on. So it was a counterpoint.” But the colour is also rooted in other places in history. Pushelberg points to the normcore fashion movement a couple of years back that heralded less-than cheery hues, non-descript patterns and “mismatching everything just to be bad,” he says. “It kind of created a shift in the way one perceives colour.” And, while studying colour for an upcoming textile collection, the pair also became interested in the Figaro, a car designed in Japan in the eighties with milky pastel hues that never quite made it over to North America. “You go to a Volkswagen Mini car lot here and the cars are red, black, blue, white – all the safe colours,” says Yabu. “But the cool colours, they’re kind of imitating the Figaro. We believe, understanding where the wind blows, that in a year or two people will see it the way we see it.”

2. Anwar Mekhayech on glass block

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“We’ve grown to love glass block over the years as we started working on more re-use projects around the world,” says DesignAgency’s Anwar Mekhayech, who, with co-principals Allen Chan and Matt Davis, has designed everything from sleek condo interiors to out-there hostels. “It seems to keep popping up in unexpected places,” he says. “And although it gives an immediate eighties retro feel, it’s actually over 100 years old and has some really cool applications.” Mekhayech’s background in engineering has also led him to admire the more pragmatic advantages of the often-misunderstood material. “Not only can it be used in structural applications, but it has great thermal properties,” he says. “I also love how it diffuses light in almost a muffled and repeated pattern dependant on its thickness and style.” Though glass block hasn’t found its way into Mekhayech’s own home or the studio yet, the trio has brought it to Paris and Amsterdam in the interiors of Generator hostel locations and recently used it in an office in Toronto’s Chinatown. “I love seeing it in old flooring light wells or staircases – and we’ve used it for back bars and partition walls in projects,” says Mekhayech. “The biggest challenge working with it is that people have a preconceived idea about what it represents, so it’s not loved by all. I think you’ll start seeing more of it over the next few years.”

3. Janna Levitt on beeswax

Janna Levitt of LGA Architectural Partners s is a big fan of beeswax and actually keeps her own bees in two hives on the green roof of her downtown Toronto home. She also experiments with the wax on her concrete floors and cold-rolled steel mantel. “Beeswax penetrates into materials, providing a deep and pliable level of protection. In the case of wood or concrete, applying coats of beeswax brings out inherent qualities – colours and textures – in the material. It’s like polishing a diamond,” she says. “It’s an organic material that is a happy by-product of an important part of our bio-diverse landscape. It is also safer for the person applying the material than a chemical compound and offers a more gratifying sensory experience for the user.” Beeswax also varies in hue depending on what the bees were pollinating. “It can range from a light caramel colour to a dark, almost sienna hue. Therefore, depending on where one lives and where the wax comes from, the sealed material will look a little different, providing a unique finish. Finally, beeswax is incredibly aromatic. It engages the sense of smell in our experience of a room or an object that is both visceral and complex, and highly enjoyable.” While Levitt is still in the experimentation mode, she points to others who have already begun using it large-scale. “I think the most stunning example of the use of beeswax in a building is Steven Holl’s Chapel in St. Ignatius in Seattle. The walls have a richly beautiful, almost medieval effect that glows when hit by the light.” The material can also be used in decor and accent pieces, such as the artwork shown above by artist Aganetha Dyck, who creates sculptures wrapped in honeycomb.

4. Matthew Kroeker on walnut

“I generally think that I’m a good judge of what’s on-trend, but I really can’t figure this one out,” says Winnipeg industrial designer Matthew Kroeker of his go-to material, black American walnut. “There’s something about the subtle brown tones and creamy white sap-wood that keeps me coming back for more.” Most recently, Kroeker used walnut hardwood for the Top & Derby collection of designer walking canes, while his previous furniture pieces, such as the Bristle side tables pictured above, showcase it prominently. A new collection using walnut is currently in the works. “I think North American consumers are reluctant to adopt lighter-toned wood species in their homes. I personally dig the look of woods such as maple, ash and white oak, but some people tend to associate those with a dated, early-2000s look. As a result, mass-market retailers are hanging onto super-dark espresso stains that are still labelled ‘modern’ or ‘chic.’ American black walnut sits comfortably in between the light and the dark. The somewhat nondescript colour of the material is not too warm or too cool, so it can adapt to many environments. Also, it’s a little-known fact that walnut is actually quite durable as an exterior material. Hopefully we start to see more outdoor furniture made with it in the future.”

5. Matt Carr on clay

Clay, says Umbra director of design Matt Carr, will never go out of style. “It’s been around for so long and commonly used in ubiquitous ways. It’s easily overlooked,” says the creative mind behind such iconic pieces as Umbra’s Postino mailbox and the Little Black Dress jewellery holder. “But the 5,000-year-old material fits into environments from traditional to the most modern – both indoor and outdoor. The reddish colour looks amazing with green foliage.” For example, in his own Toronto home, Carr explains, there’s an ample array of clay pots holding big-leafed Monsteras and succulents. “Clay and, more specifically, reddish earthenware has a warm quality that’s really easy to live with. It ages gracefully and always has unique colouring and patina.” Of course, there’s a reason the material has perhaps lost its go-to status: “Earthenware is a porous and brittle material,” says Carr, “so tolerances and material thicknesses need to be well thought out. Size and weight can also be restrictive.” For Umbra’s Pleated series by Toronto studio MSDS – a trio including a vase, shallow dish and mid-sized planter ($60, pictured above) with self-watering wicks and an angular, textured aesthetic – intricate geometric forms were created by hand to fully showcase the foliage within. “The challenge was to achieve a uniform, sharp, pleated surface texture,” says Carr, highlighting one of the reasons why clay is hard to bring to mass production. “But I like how the material’s soft feel plays with the highlights and shadows of the geometry.”

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