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(Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail)
(Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail)

Designer Jean Willoughby unites concrete and cabinetry Add to ...

"I always liked to draw and paint, but I was never very good at either," says designer Jean Willoughby about her days as a student at Meadowvale Secondary School in Mississauga. "I didn't take a lot of art but I did take a shop class and discovered I enjoyed building."

Today, the 27-year-old possesses two diplomas: one in industrial design from Humber College and another in furniture design from Sheridan College. For her final project at the latter, she constructed a concrete cabinet fitted with two wood shelves. The innovative piece displaying a rare combination of brutalism and craft, resourcefulness and restraint is what will be appearing at Studio North during this year's IDS.

Through such designs, she seeks to challenge people's perceptions of an inherently industrial material, one that is more often associated with raw than refined. "I'm trying to use it in a way that doesn't come across as outdoor furniture," she explains.

Of course, there was the small issue of reducing the concrete's weight. In the course of trying a number of aggregates, she lost the strength and the pieces fell apart. Her third and most successful prototype is reinforced with glass, which has allowed her to reduce the thickness and consequently makes for a lighter cabinet.

Willoughby has also been flexing her creative muscles with Public Displays of Affection, a local collective that views design as a way to help strengthen and shape society (other members includes the Brothers Dressler and Marco Jacob of Atelier Jacob). Most recently, their work repurposed salvaged design materials to create furniture for a community-housing development in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood called Edmond Place, bringing contemporary design to a community at a grassroots level.

Willoughby's manner is modest and thoughtful, as is her aesthetic. "I like simple things, nothing ornate," she says. "Simple, clean lines - I hope that this is reflected in my work."

In the not-so-distant future, she would like to launch her own furniture company. But until then, she's looking forward to the IDS, a PDA group show this May and honing her craft further.

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