Propellor Design - Making Work That Long Outlasts Us

Propellor is an independent, Vancouver based multi-disciplinary design studio, made of the Designers and Principals Toby Barratt, Pamela Goddard, and Nik Rust, and Studio Technician Sebastian Curadeau. With sculptural leanings and ecological minds, Propellor prides itself on creating useful, beautiful, cherished objects for the home. Borrowing from nature, Propellor has delved into the world of lighting, furniture, sculptural and installation design; with work that can be seen all over the world. Constantly exploring new materials and finishes, their aesthetic can be summed up as accessible, intuitive, and deeply inspired by the natural world.


Three of you met at Emily Carr in the 90s. Considering that you’ve stuck around Vancouver, what are some changes you’ve noticed in the design community? What are the challenges you and other local makers face?

Vancouver’s design scene has blossomed in the past ten years. There has always been world class design originating from Vancouver, but prior to the digital revolution it was difficult for Vancouver designers to find a wider audience. The power of the internet, social media and, increasingly, platforms like Kabuni help local designers and makers to connect with clients both here at home and farther afield.


The internet brings increasing competition with it as well. Vancouver designers are working hard to find and trust in their own idiosyncratic voices. The culture of the West Coast, it’s native materials and unique design history influence us all to some degree, but the job of the Vancouver designer (and designers everywhere for that matter) is to follow their instincts and make what only they would imagine making. Idiosyncrasy and authenticity are the currency of contemporary design.


You mentioned that when you started out, most of your clients came from the US, and that it is only in recent years that Canadian clients started to take an interest. Why do you think this shift came about?

Our work first struck a chord in the US, it’s true. We’re not sure why that is, but we are really pleased to be doing more work in our own city in recent times. When we work inother cities, communication happens over the phone or by email. Working in our own city means getting to meet with our clients face to face and seeing the spaces that we are designing for first hand…it makes the process of collaboration with our clients all the more enjoyable.

We work predominantly with architects and interior designers and we are finding that increasingly it is a priority for them to source local design for their projects. Working with local designers/makers offers them access to unique work and the opportunity to work collaboratively on custom pieces. This is helping Vancouver’s design scene to mature and grow.

Space seems to be a big talking-point in Vancouver – namely the lack of it. Quite a few of your pieces are particularly large (your work in the Queen Elizabeth theatre for example), how do you work around the constraints not only of the project’s intended space, but your own studio?

Our work spans a range of scales from objects that fit in ones hand up to installations that occupy very large architectural volumes. We are fortunate to have a relatively spacious studio to work in, but we regularly make pieces that are just too large to ever be fully assembled in our space. For very large pieces, we rely on the power of 3d modelling to design the piece and then build to plan.

This process can be a little stressful since there is no room for mistakes and we don’t see the piece in it’s complete form until it is installed in the space. There is always a sigh of relief and great satisfaction when a large scale piece is installed and we see the 3d model brought to life in the real world.


To date, which project are you most proud of, and why?

The lighting installation in the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre here in Vancouver is our largest public commission in Vancouver to date. We are pleased with how this piece turned out. It animates the large volume of the theatre lobby with light and warmth.

We focus on lighting design but increasingly we are taking on projects that return us to our roots as sculptors. Our work on a series of hyper-realistic miniature mountain range sculptures led to the inclusion of one of these pieces in an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. The curator challenged us to expand on the idea of our Range series and we responded with our imagining of a hidden redoubt deep in the heart of the mountain. It was fun to cross from the world of design back into the realm of sculpture. Since this show we regularly play with the blurring of boundaries between art and design in our work.


Is there a designer or architect who you haven’t worked with, but would be your dream client?

We are working with some truly inspired Architects and Interior Designers right now and that makes our job all the more engaging. But it would be a great pleasure to work with exceptional Vancouver talents like Battersby Howat, Evoke, D’Arcy Jones, Falken Reynolds and Marianne Amodio to name a few.


What are the first things you look to for inspiration when starting a project?

We spend as much time as we can in the forest and mountains hiking, camping, paddling and cycling. This is where we retreat from the intensity of urban life and recharge our creative faculties. Naturally, much of the inspiration for our work comes from these adventures. We are interested in the ways that clouds form, waves unfold and rivers carve mountain-sides. Our observation of the world informs our work, sometimes in direct ways and sometimes in ways that are barely discernible.


Do you have a signature touch with your designs?

We let materials speak for themselves. Sometimes this means spending hours hand sanding hardwood to show the beauty of it’s grain to best advantage. Sometimes it means rusting steel with sea-water to get a rich patina or simply sewing unfinished birch bark with linen thread. Pairing clear and evocative sculptural materials is our recipe for successful work.


What is one thing in the home that makes you the happiest?

Homes are repositories of memory and consequently no two homes are exactly alike. Our homes are full of art, photographs and artifacts made or collected over the course of time. I think that all people are the same in this respect…to be surrounded by objects imbued with meaning makes us happy.


What is one thing you are excited about in the Kabuni App?

I think that the collaborative aspect of the Kabuni App is very intriguing. Makers, designers and their clients coming together in a virtual space like Kabuni can lead to great outcomes.


How are you trying to make better homes for everyone?

Having our work in someones home is an honour and carries with it a responsibility. Our job is to make beautifully crafted, meaningful work that is made in a manner, and from materials, that respect the environment. We also craft every piece to last far into the future - we want our work to long outlast us.

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