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Finding beauty in everyday objects: Cultural icons share what they find beautiful

Some of Canada’s top cultural figures meditate on the everyday objects they admire: From clay pots to milk creamers to classic cars, they share how they fill their lives with beauty.

Siamak Hariri, architect: Indonesian clay pot

An Indonesian pot belonging to Siamak Hariri. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

I bought two pots while I was doing a project in Indonesia. They never stop giving beauty. It’s everything – the shape, it’s so satisfying, the way the light hits it at different times of the day. It just sits there and has a kind of easy authenticity, which I really like. It doesn’t need to say that it’s beautiful and yet it is. It’s the clay, it’s the way the shape works, it’s the colour; and it’s probably several hundreds of years old.

I found them in this garage. I was doing a small project, and they allowed me to go and find the art for the office, so I found these and they didn’t want them so I crated them and shipped them all the way to our house.

There’s no glaze, so it’s very very matte, very earthen. The interesting thing is it’s not uniform in colour. It has a complete natural patina. Because of the curves, the light over the surface gradates beautifully.

What I like in objects is they should be able to not have to push their presence too much. That they sit there quietly and they have a beautiful ability to just give what you need for the space. We live with so much brashness that I think there’s something really beautiful about something that gives you so much beauty but also solitude and quietness.

John Tong, designer: Marquesa bench

Marquesa day bed designed by Oscar Niemeyer, from Avenue Road furniture. (Avenue road furniture)

The (Marquesa) bench from Avenue Road was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian modernist architect. A lot of my sensibility gravitates toward things that are functional beauty, but when I saw this piece – I thought it was so beautiful, and it had nothing to do with function. There are things that are beautiful that have nothing to do with concept, but are aesthetically sublime. This bench with the beautiful curves is really characteristic of Oscar Niemeyer’s aesthetic. There’s something so pleasing about it. When you look at that curve, there’s just a sensuality that comes from it, and you can’t rationalize a purpose. Some people would say beauty is superficial, but I think beauty really touches the soul. Sensuality is something that is psychological and emotional that’s somewhere deep in the core of what one would consider beautiful. The form of it is harmonious balance – and the effect of it is sensuality. Something that expresses an emotion is really beautiful.

Lars Dressler, designer: Japanese serving dishes

Japanese serving dishes (Courtesy Lars Dressler)

The object that I would choose is the small serving dish, specifically Japanese dishes. I feel their beauty stems from the natural feel of the use of materials with a mastered process and simple form. Care is taken in its creation, and there is intention in its purpose. Its beauty comes as well from the pleasure of use when enhancing the experience of an everyday task, whether a side plate for dinner or serving a fruit snack. What appeals to me is the organic feel of the colours and textures used. They have a light air to them and a true feel of effort put into each piece. They have been collected from travels and local artisans from graduating classes from Sheridan College and Harbourfront Centre. We have several, as inevitably they break with constant use.

Les Mandelbaum, co-founder, Umbra: Teak office desk

Les Mandelbaum's teak desk (Courtesy Les Mandelbaum)

This Indonesian teak home office desk is about 150 years old. I bought it close to 30 years ago when I saw it covered in dust at a picture-frame company Umbra was using. Anything that old in such good shape is appealing. The indigenous teak hardwood is very dense, heavy and beautiful. The large size is very practical for me as well. Aesthetically, the mixture of the Dutch colonists’ love of basic straight lines with little embellishment with the Indonesian craftmens’ adornments – I have never seen another desk like it.

Paul Rowan, co-founder, Umbra: 1984 El Camino

1984 El Camino (Courtesy Paul Rowan)

One of the most beautifully designed cars of the fifties, my 1984 El Camino is a mash-up of a car and a truck. Particularly beautiful is the sweeping curved roof line and concave rear window. This car is a portal to a more innocent time in which designers took great risks to create highly futuristic designs.

Janet Rosenberg, landscape architect: Hurricane lamps

St Ives Hurricane Garden Lantern (

Hurricane lamps for the garden give you a real fire light that makes them very dramatic. They have glass around (the flame) so the wind doesn’t blow it out. I love the process of things burning down, and how the quality of light changes as they burn. They have really great shape and form to them. And it’s also about process – how it changes colour as it’s being lit, or how the wax looks when it starts melting. It changes my mood. It slows you down because the candle dances, and there’s some magic to it. When you have something you love, it’s going to change your lifestyle, and you’re going to look at it every single day because you really like what it’s all about. If you have to have something, it has to count. It should have something special.

Janet Cardiff, artist: Heirloom teapot

Heirloom teapot (Courtesy Janet Cardiff)

This was my Great-Aunt Winnie’s teapot and is almost 100 years old. She was born in 1900 and lived to almost 100 herself. Many times she and I drank tea brewed from this pot, and I have always admired how the thin curving spout poured a beautiful stream of liquid into the cup. The pot is light, made of aluminum in a time when no one worried about aluminum, and has the lovely embedded design in its surface. When I look at it I can see my aunt cleaning it after tea and placing it on the shelf. It is not a simple object for me. It is a memory palace.

Julia Dault, artist: Moroccan ceramics

Moroccan ceramics (Courtesy Julia Dault)

I spotted this black-and-white striped platter and two bowls on my first venture in the Medina in Marrakesh. The platter’s size is exactly right, which is rare – large, yet not hulking, and round with hand-painted stripes; the bowls are perfect in size, too, with matching stripes that, like the platter, seem as if they could go on forever. I’m a sucker for parallel lines, especially hand-painted ones. On my last day in the city, I made a beeline for the stall and haggled my way to being a proud owner. I wanted the complete set but couldn’t carry it all home with me. I like that these objects speak to the past and to the future: They’ll always remind me of my trip, while holding out the possibility that some day I’ll return and find the remaining pieces.

Joanne Tod, artist: Squier Fender stratocaster guitar

Joanne Tod's Fender Stratocaster guitar (Courtesy Joanne Tod)

It was old when I got it (from Songbird Music on Queen Street West in Toronto) so now it’s probably about 40 years old. It’s a classic black-and-white Fender guitar, a sort of prototype for many guitars, and I just had it reconditioned, just had its knobs changed. It has a nice leather strap. When I bought the strap from Steve’s Music it was hard and stiff, and now it’s supple and worked in, so even that is nice. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a classic. It was a used guitar … it was just old when I got it but now it’s vintage, so its value has increased. It actually sounds better now than it did before, which is something that happens with musical instruments. The colour is very stripped down, very basic, so I like that – it’s a guitar player’s guitar. It has its own stand so it’s part of my furniture.

Seth, graphic artist: Crosley Shelvador fridge

Seth's fridge (Courtesy Seth)

My old refrigerator is a Crosley Shelvador model made by the Moffat company of Weston, Ont., circa 1950 – an object I adore probably more than a man should love an appliance. Bulky, squat, heavy and cumbersome – words usually used pejoratively but for me they spell aesthetic beauty. It feels more like a big fat Buick or an oil tanker than something you’d keep your milk and yogurt in. Off-white. Rounded corners. Utterly unadorned except an exquisite circular black-and-chrome handle directly in the centre of the door. That handle is the grace note that raises this model above other ’50s fridges. It is exquisitely designed to look at and a marvel to operate. You’d expect the door of such a machine to open with the heft of a bank vault but, instead, it swivels open with surprising grace.

Virginia Johnson: Milk creamer

Milk Creamer belonging to Virginia Johnson (Courtesy Virginia Johnson)

This is a milk creamer I picked up from a rummage sale. I love its curved, round shape, and its bright orange colour. When I first saw it, it just made me happy. The shape is playful and fun, kind of stout and cherubic. It is not a serious piece. I am also a big fan of orange, so the matte surface and hand-painted effect really won me over. It almost takes on the personality of an animal, like a frog, like it’s about to jump. And I think the roundness gives it a warmth and friendliness that feels very welcoming. I use this creamer often but I also display it so I can see it every day. And it always looks cheerful next to my flowered teapot!

Janet Carding, Director and CEO, Royal Ontario Museum: Mackintosh chair

Chair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum, 2014)

A chair is practical, but, with the skill of a great designer, can be elevated into something beautiful. Perhaps one of the most beautiful is this Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair, more than 100 years old but still striking in its modernity. Originally designed for the Argyle Street Tearooms in Glasgow, this design has been so popular that reproductions can now be seen all over the world. What makes the chair so distinctive is its throne-like high back, which I feel would enhance the ritual of drinking a cup of tea. I’m fortunate that at the ROM we have the largest collection of Mackintosh works outside Glasgow, so even though I can’t sit in it to have tea, at the moment I can admire it every time I’m in the galleries.

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

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