Toronto design collective Public Displays of Affection is bringing the ‘eat local’ concept of community supported agriculture to design. Their brand of community engaged design involves their members – mostly young furniture designers and artists including the up-and-coming Brothers Dressler, Dennis Lin (whose studio I visited last year) and MADE – working with local organizations and communities to build furniture and design interiors.
PDA was founded by Jeremy Vandermeij, Katherine Ngui and Parimal Gosai, who met at Ryerson University while studying interior design, and Adam Harris, who had studied graphic design at George Brown College. I sat down with Jeremy, Katherine and Adam on a rainy afternoon at the Gladstone Hotel:
VoCA: I’m interested in this idea of very local, community engaged design. How did you come up with the concept for PDA?
PDA: It came from our interest in filling this need we saw of trying to bring contemporary design into communities that didn’t have it. It was the idea of getting people involved in their own projects that made sense in a wholistic way.
When we started, we wanted to do workshops in design in the community, simple projects for those people who didn’t think they were practicing design. We would show them that they were, in fact practicing design all the time.
We were wanting to find a way of practicing design outside of the industry. That idea brought us to the Edmond Place project, our first project. That kind of engagement made sense. It’s important to avoid the psychology of a handout. Being involved makes it more meaningful to the people we are doing it for.
That was on the clients mind before we approached them. It’s do-it-yourself, or rather educating, taking action, rehabilitation through the work. We were looking for a place to do that kind of thing.
VoCA: And you seem to have formalized it, judging from your website.
PDA: No, we haven’t! (laughing) A year from now It may be much different, but it is evolving. Maybe in a way we have formalized it, since the whole principle of constant evolution is built into manifesto.
VoCA: Was there any talk about this kind of thing when you were at school?
PDA: I know I began to have an interest in sustainable design while at school, my thesis project was socially focused, for example, but there were no classes specifically about sustainabie design presented in that way. It was more like, “You may have to do this kind of thing in your career…so design a women’s shelter.”
At the time, Ryerson wasn’t sustainability-orinented. But now the schools are, and they teach that.
From Bruce Mau Design’s Massive Change exhibition, Chicago. Image: chicagoist.com
VoCA: I see a sort of dichotomy between one the one hand, more ‘design’ in the world, more products, more options. Just look at Umbra’s 40 styles of toilet brush. On the other you had Bruce Mau’s Massive Change a number of years ago with the idea that design can change the world, which it is, in many ways from alternative energy, to emergency housing to medicine. Where does PDA fit into this?
PDA: We are facilitators. And we are trying to find that balance, between what is necessary, without giving up the value of aesthetics. We are trying to figure that out while trying to maintain the balance between the two.
VoCA: On your website you talk about design that fits into the cracks of society, springing up like weeds wherever it can grow.
PDA: Yes, it’s about taking everything that design thinking has to offer to the problem, including the aesthetics and applying it to areas that have been left out.
VoCA: You’re now working on a project for 40 Oaks, in Regent Park. How did that come about?
PDA: We got that through our project at Edmond Place. Lots of people came through, and a lot of leads came out of the work. The same architect was on both projects – Hilditch Architect – they pushed the idea of our involvement, and there was money in the budget for our work.
PDA: Yes. We have a lot of work offered to us, and we can’t do it all right now. So far, it’s been by word of mouth.
There’s the idea of the way of designing, to let that feed itself wherever it wants to be. We have had interest from an urban planner in the States, for example. And we’re hoping to just let it happen.
In January we will do our second exhibition and at next year’s Toronto design festival, we’ll do our own show at 40 Oaks, so that will be big. We enjoy producing the exhibitions that are part of each project. The intention for the other designers who participate is to have quite a bit of exposure, for their own work through the exhibitions.
VoCA: Are the pieces that you make all custom-made pieces?
PDA: Yes, they are made from found objects, and there are new custom pieces. But made from old and found materials. There were refurbished objects, and there was the Skateboard Chair. More than half the pieces were made from reclaimed wood from the building. They pulled up some floor joists, which were beautiful. It was a great way to recycle the building into itself..
VoCA: And it also is a way to expose these communities to high level, contemporary design.
PDA: It introduces that new aspect to the community. We were still experimenting with this in the Edmond Place project, wondering if people would even want these objects in their building? In the end they did love it, and it did work. But we definitely wondered whether it would be accepted by the community.
VoCA: I imagine many people would be more oriented toward low prices than original designs. Did you think of it as a way to introduce new ideas of beauty?
PDA: There was a dialogue between the groups, in terms of ideas of aestheics, function etc. One other challenge with Edmond Place was that it’s a community that had negative associations with junk and garbage, so it was risky to refurbish things like milkcrates…we didn’t know if it would be cool to present such things as ‘design objects’, but it was ok in the end. It’s important for us to use reclaimed materials, in our work, but the way we do it is a concern.
VoCA: In one way it’s a powerful metaphor, to see the use and value of an object like a milk crate change so dramatically, from a piece of junk to a piece of design.
VoCA: What if someone like myself wanted to volunteer with you?
PDA: Our biggest issue right now is how to find a place for people to contribute in ways that don’t pull us down. We are not doing it 5 days a week, so we don’t have the framework to just plop people in. Having a one-time volunteers isn’t worth it for us. We have things that people could do that involves little management, like donating furniture, sitting the exhibition….documentation, blog writing…We are laying the groundwork for volunteers right now. We need help moving, a guy with a van would be great. And so we are creating a database, which will help. But everyone is welcome to give us a shout through the sign up form on our website.
It could be great to have people offer something specific, a particular skill….we need to talk more about this.
We accept furniture donations, but it’s hard because but you don’t want to trust just anyone with questions of taste.
A piece from French designers 5.5 Designers, from their Reanim series, 2003. Brilliant, no? Image: chezvicky.be
VoCA: Well, can’t your designers take ugly furniture donations and make them nice?
A few years ago, I had an idea for a design course where I would ask students to get ugly furniture from craigslist, like the Billy bookcase from IKEA and have them make it into a cool, functioning design object.
PDA: There’s a blog called IKEA Hacks…and 5.5 Designers Reanim project from 2003. I like the idea, but we have to do it institutionally, so if they could be made strong, to withstand wear and tear. At Edmond Place we gave designers a guideline, and we didn’t know what the results would be. But we wanted to maximize people’s strengths, which were different according to the person. And we wanted the designers to do what they would naturally do.
VoCA: So what’s next for PDA?
PDA: Next for us is the 40 Oaks project, and to figure out our structure, how to move forward, how to make PDA work better. That comes down to personal desire. Your values can be different from what you want to do day-to-day. We are struggling with that. Yes we have these values, but what do we want to spend our time doing?
VoCA: Well I think PDA has huge potential. Good luck!
For more on Public Displays of Affection and to sign up to volunteer or for their e-news updates, please click HERE.