Art & Design

Need to see original art? DesignTO’s festival is designed to be seen from outdoors

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This year’s DesignTO proves that it’s not the size, but how a message is delivered that gives it power.

The citywide festival, which kicks off Jan. 22 and goes to Jan. 31, features digital exhibitions and window installations by architects, artisans and designers that can be viewed safely from outdoors.

The first COVID-19 lockdown gave multi-talented exhibitor Roxanne Brathwaite a tiny but brilliant idea. After her furniture company, Hollis Newton Canada, where she reupholsters antique chairs, shut down production, she began looking for a new creative pastime.

As a kid, Brathwaite loved her dollhouse, but not the dolls. Those she tossed aside, preferring instead to spend time with their furniture. Brathwaite thought about reviving her childhood pastime but didn’t have room to play house. Then she learned about an artist who was building miniature dioramas in unconventional spaces like under the kitchen sink and decided to give it a shot, using materials she already had on hand.

Brathwaite’s work might fit into a palm, but her patience is oversized. Her tiny rooms have a mid-century bohemian vibe, with details including wall hangings, plants and hand-stitched rugs. She wasn’t thinking about social-media likes, but after she started posting her work on Instagram at @suitecitywoman, Brathwaite received a commission from an art collector.

“A year ago, I could have never imagined that my place would look like a little furniture factory,” she says.

Brathwaite was working on a suite in June when the Black Lives Matter protests began expanding, following the slaying of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Creating art helped Brathwaite through the emotional heaviness. She created tiny portraits of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers earlier in March. She mocked up tiny books by civil-rights activists such as singer Nina Simone and photographer Gordon Parks.

“I wanted my work to be more meaningful, and I wanted to be able to work through my own sadness and frustration,” Brathwaite says.

Brathwaite began thinking about how home is not always a safe place, especially when people are isolated during a lockdown. Her concerns led to the creation of three miniature suites that will appear in the window of Augustus Jones furniture store on Davies Avenue for the duration of DesignTO.

One suite has the names of five victims of intimate partner violence embroidered into textiles, including Sherry Martin, the sister of Brathwaite’s best friend, who was killed by her partner in 2009. Another, which focuses on how police interact with those struggling with mental-health issues, has five portraits hanging on the walls, including one of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fatally fell from her balcony while Toronto police were in her home. The third suite has a shelf with photos of five victims of child homicide. Brathwaite relates to this room as well, as a mother who adopted a child from an abusive upbringing.

“I hope people take their time with these contemplative spaces,” says Brathwaite. “There are all these interiors on Instagram, Pinterest, but we really don’t know what goes on. We don’t see the people; we just see these beautiful interiors.”

On the other side of the size spectrum, the Daniels Art Directive’s “Support Black Designers” mural spreads its powerful message across the north facade of the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. The words, spelled out in lightboxes, may seem simple, but each “pixel” carries meaning.

The student-led project went through many iterations, but gained focus in June in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests.

“Voices from within the faculty were calling out Black racism and the lack of Black students as artists, designers and professors,” says Tarek Mokhalalati, an architecture student and executive member of the directive. “We thought that because the project was on the facade of the faculty, we had a responsibility to make sure that what is on the mural represented what the students wanted to happen.”

The directive hired two former Daniels students, Ashita Parekh and Tolu Alabi, to lead the process, and to engage students, faculty and the community. They brainstormed ideas until they arrived at the word “support.”

“Initially we were thinking ‘recognize’ or ‘celebrate’ Black designers, but there’s more in the message,” says Alabi. “They need to be recognized and not just by institutions. But designers can’t be celebrated unless there is adequate support between the faculty and the educational system.”

The message is made up of 248 pixels, 20 of which are filled with artwork and words submitted by students and the community. The group had hoped for more, but Mokhalalati says that many people the directive spoke to didn’t feel comfortable having their work displayed. “It became a reflection of the lack of space that Black students have,” he says. “It made for a stronger project and a more meaningful message.”

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The group says there’s already been a positive response. Parekh recalls seeing an Instagram video of a woman dancing in front of the building, expressing joy that the mural exists.

“It gives a message to the institutions and to other people to give Black designers more space,” Parekh says. “It’s also great that this has impacted members of the Black community very positively and given them more joy.”

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Sue Carter is deputy editor of Inuit Art Quarterly and a freelance contributor based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @flinnflon