Lassoed together by Fish Griwkowsky, music/political journalist, cartoonist, photographer.
The notion that solid friends could come together in university, design furniture that’s getting international press, tour our little planet and never fight in four years is at the very least a utopian dream. Miraculously, Loyal Loot pops this fantasy bubble. Armed with their Log Bowls, Coat Hangs of pressed birch, fuzzy Buddington Bear Rugs and tripley unique Monsieur Dress Up collars, LL’s four designers springboard off Canadiana with humour and humble grace. As they eye the global design landscape like a family of hawks at dawn, Doha Chebib, Carmen Douville, Dara Humniski and Anna Thomas are swooping in on their greatest challenge: fractal growth and expansion as demand increases.
Taking advantage of their cheerful cohesion, I decided to let them self-interview in Dara’s and my 1909 brick house in Edmonton, which also serves as Loot HQ to the occasional chagrin of our cat. Here’s what happened.
Dara Humniski: What are the key challenges we face as designers making a go of it in Canada?
Carmen Douville: Manufacturing, no questions asked.
Dara: Yeah we’ve had a hard time
Anna Thomas: Sometimes it’s hard to stay on top of things because we have so much freedom … and not a lot of pressure in Canada.
Dara: It’s the people – there isn’t a lot of awareness of contemporary design. It just seems so ingrained in Europe. Like in Scandinavia. Or even parts of Asia. Pretty generally here, the public doesn’t know much about high design or design history.
Anna, Carmen: Totally, ditto.
Dara: We don’t have the same manufacturing industries, or history of furniture making. We’re more about refining resources – especially here in the west: oil.
Carmen: There aren’t the traditions of carpenters, ceramicists, furniture makers.
Dara: It seems like there aren’t the same quality of craftsman trades here. It isn’t very generational.
Anna: Well, my mom was a fashion designer, my cousin a sculptor, another an artist, my sister a designer, too; my boyfriend a designer and his dad is an architect, so I do feel like I have that immediate influence but … but beyond that, in the general population…
Carmen: My mom was always drawing and sewing, my dad built a lot of our furniture. My godmother and aunts always painted. So in that regard I feel like I was around a creative place. But if you meet someone from Europe – I guess this is stereotyping – they have stories of their grandparents and the trades they were so deeply into. Like my friend who just showed me all these old tools from his grandfather who used to make sandalwood boxes. And his father did it and his father’s father did it. It was this long legend of making these boxes and making the tools that they used. That sort of thing I don’t think exists here so much … those long traditions…
Anna: Totally, yes.
Carmen: I feel like the majority of those things didn’t carry on here …
Fish (enters the studio): You guys talking about your families influencing you?
Dara: We were just talking about how the public isn’t really that aware of contemporary design. Because it isn’t ingrained in our minds to be aware of it.
Fish: … more respect for it elsewhere?
Dara: Yes, more respect
Anna: It’s valued.
Fish: Why do you think there is a difference between our worlds?
Dara: We’re such a young country compared. They have stronger histories of furniture makers, craftsmanship trades.
Carmen: And in general, here it’s money, technology, science, that’s followed and understood. Versus there it’s about a better quality of life … like siestas. (Laughs.) They are surrounded by art and architecture and ages-old culture. And, like, at a furniture show there, people are interested and flip stuff over, really looking. Here it’s not like that.
Dara: It’s about frequency of what they are exposed to. I mean over there there are constant design shows and every major city has its design week, which can be supported by major design companies that have been in business for a long, long time – and be supported by a network of vibrant offsite venues and major showrooms. While here there is maybe a furniture show once or twice a year. Toronto has its major design show, and there are a few smaller ones, but they come down to reno shows: home decorating shows with Home Depot demos and hot-tub salesmen. They’re about interior decorating and renovation. In Edmonton, the only true furniture exhibition is pretty much the Works, maybe another two at Latitude 53, like the independent Made in the West, environmentally-themed show.
Fish: I want to ask you about the road to finding your workspace. I’m interested in the places you’re going to build things in and sort of the story of how you came to work in this 100-year-old downtown house Dara and I live in.
Carmen: It’s nice to be here. I feel like this house has become my other house, and I’m sure you all feel this way. We all know where the teapot is and it’s not asked – you just make tea. It’s about who we are as a company, that we are our best friends.
Anna: I agree, I love working here. I wish I had more space. (Laughs.) I mean, I like going out to my parents’ farm to work on stuff, but it’s hard because it’s far. I have to go away for a certain amount of time to make it worth it, and now it’s expensive to drive.
Carmen: I mean, ideally we’d love to have a shop that’s even 20 per cent reminiscent of the shop at U of A – but we would definitely make it our home.
Dara: Yeah, it wouldn’t just be a shop, it would be more like an extension of what we have now.
Fish: Ok, well, what would you do if you took over this whole floor of our house?
Anna: It would still be good to have the Log Bowl room.
Dara: Another room would be for computers, drawing, a library of all our books, drafting.
Carmen: A tool, shop room. Filled with sawdust from our projects, flying everywhere!
Anna: Yeah, that you wouldn’t have to clean up because you had to paint bowls right away.
Carmen: And, another room for finishing. Another for shipping. That’s probably all the rooms that we’d need. (Everyone laughs.)
Anna: Oh, a material room!
Carmen: Oh yeah, a sewing room. Maybe in one of the finishing rooms? Doha and I joked about a band room.
Fish: For, like, keyboards and drums?
Carmen: How we’d have a two-floor studio. The upper floor would be where we draw, sew. The back would be the shop. And the front would be a café where bands could play. Insane! (Dara is now scared about electrical and something short-circuiting, Anna runs downstairs to unplug the sander.)
Fish: It’s good having you here, you’re Munchkins. You can have another room if you wanted. I’m not really using it.
Dara: But that room is supposed to be your painting studio.
Fish: I’ll paint when I’m old.
Carmen: You can paint in our drafting room.
Fish: So there’s obviously a disconnect between getting a lot of attention and driving around in pimped Cadillacs. You score so much press: TV and magazines and blogs. Can you list them? I don’t want to go on too much about media, but it is one of the most tactile things.
Anna, Carmen, Dara: Um, Elle Decoration Hong Kong, Plaza, South African Vogue, French Vogue, Wallpaper, Frame, Surface, Dwell. Blueprint and Martha Stewart’s holiday show. We were in a People-like tabloid thing from Austria called ‘hide a chic’.
Fish: So you get all this attention but at the end of the day what would you rather have happen?
Carmen: Well, really, we would all like to live off this, so we can survive off of doing something that we love.
Dara: I’m not sure if you were trying to lead us to this, about what actually changes our future and what doesn’t. But what mainly did was going to Designboom Mart in New York in oh-seven. We met most of our U.S. retailers there – and a lot of press. Including Blueprint, who put us in their gift guide, then made it on to Martha through them. Then we got more U.S. retailers. There were two other green design exhibitions going on in New York the same time that we were in.
Carmen: Hands down that was our most successful fair.
Dara: (Laughs.) Even despite almost not being able to enter the country.
Carmen: Red flags next to our names at Homeland Security.
Fish: What happened?
Anna: Mislabelling samples and not quite the right documentation. We didn’t know the rules and we didn’t know we were doing anything wrong. But I wouldn’t change anything.
Fish: But it’s actually helpful to get press?
Anna: It’s motivating. Otherwise you don’t know where you stand. It’s really flattering.
Dara: If you don’t have any then it’s hard to keep going because you feel like you are not accomplishing anything. Ok, next question: about the Canadian design community evolving since we’ve been in it – but we don’t want to answer that because we haven’t been in it very long, and the big community is out east and we aren’t so much a part of that.
Anna: Well, the latest show, 100% Design, London, is because of Canada. We’re in “new design Canada.”
Dara: Yeah, partly because we met someone in Toronto in February. It’s always people we’ve met in the past that bring new opportunities to us, like meeting Kelly Rude in oh-four and then in turn being one of ten designers for Canada in Milan in oh-six, and then Surface magazine.
Fish: Do you think other designers are as obsessed with materials as you Ewoks get?
Carmen: Some designers are probably way more obsessed. Like Omar Alber and Geoff Lilge. I guess it depends on your background, I mean U of A was so open, so we could play a lot. Others out east seemed more limited to certain outcomes, defined by one material that everybody had to use.
Fish: But you’re glad the way you went through it?
Dara: I guess everyone does, but I wish I could go back in time knowing more about what design really meant. I wish I didn’t waste my time on calculus, engineering physics and computer programming. I should of switched out of the engineering route earlier. Almost a complete waste of time.
Carmen and Fish: But that’s why you go to school in the first place … to learn those things.
Anna: I’m glad I went to U of A – I wish I did an exchange, though.
Fish: In a couple sentences, what’s your squad’s origin story?
Dara: We were about to graduate roughly at the same time and knew that we wanted to work together.
Fish: How did you know that?
Dara: We were friends, we became really close in school.
Anna: There were between fifteen and thirty in our classes, so it was easy to find your perfect match. We all worked together at some point on school projects.
Carmen: I’m the one that harassed everyone to hang out and forced them to be my friends. (Laughs.)
Fish: Are you surprised that you still get along? I’m cynical about business-and-pleasure sandwiches.
Carmen: Of course there have been a few funny things that have happened, but it’s never been, like, any time where we didn’t want to talk and see the person the next day. I don’t think we’ve ever really had a fight. We thought everyone liked each other in school and we were four nice girls that worked hard, but I guess some people thought we were snobs. It’s funny, the people we are still friends with are the ones that are active in design right now, the ones we weren’t really friends with are doing other things.
Fish: It’s like that in Edmonton. In the music and social scenes, people gravitate upwards to those who are doing interesting things and are exciting and are making stuff happen.
Anna: Well, of course you would – because you want to grow and develop.
Fish: But in a way you can call it a type of elitism because you are choosing. Shopping?
Anna: I guess we fell into each together because we got along well and really liked each other and how we were creative.
Fish: Are you guys getting more pro at each new sprawling, alien industry show?
Carmen: We were so scared.
Dara: I was really uncomfortable talking to people – it’s a weird social situation. We didn’t even know what we wanted to say to anyone, we were just big eyes.
Carmen: We’re nervous in a different way now, a lot more matters now. There is more pressure.
Dara: It’s easier because we have something to say now, and have a lot of different experiences now, plus in certain situations we are a force of four women. Look out!
Carmen: You are less of a quiet rabbit.
Anna: I like being a quiet rabbit sometimes.
Dara: It’s funny. We haven’t put ourselves out there on the line very much. We’ve been really lucky in the way that most of what has come our way was unsolicited. We haven’t put a lot of pressure on ourselves here. There isn’t that atmosphere of do or die.
Anna: Which I am so happy about, because none of that matters. What does the most is that we do what we want to do.
Carmen: The one thing that makes us work, and are successful in, is that everything we do is from pressure we put on ourselves – besides some important deadlines. We do everything for ourselves rather than for an outside force.
Dara: Maybe that will change this year. I mean, no matter what, I don’t think we’ll stop being loyal to ourselves. But we haven’t worked with another major company yet, another brand.
Anna: You know another thing that works is that we enjoy making what we do, like the Log Bowls.
Dara: Here’s another one. Do you feel connected to other design practices in Canada? Fashion and graphics, I mean?
Anna: Not very. People around me are in fashion and graphics, and the part that we do share is about how to do stuff – how to start a business as a independent designer … learning from each other about business things, shipping things.
Dara: One last one. How well do you feel a collective works?
Anna: It’s pro because we can create by working together or come up with things alone.
Carmen: Feedback equals pro. You don’t get lost in something because the best ideas come to the front. Also, I feel warm inside as I look around and imagine Doha here’s, too. You’re all pretty.
Dara: Cons? Do we procrastinate together?
Anna: Decisions take longer, but they are better made.
Dara: Even when each of us is doing different things, we are still being collaborative because we are building something all together.
Carmen: We depend on each other for it.
Featured Article, DISPLAY magazine.
Fall 2008 // Vol.1 Issue 1