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As DesignTO returns this month, Cathy Gulli spoke to six participants about what festivals like this mean for their work and careers

For this year’s DesignTO festival, artist and designer Yaw Tony decided to build on his previous work looking at how bright colour can affect mood.Handout

If a key element of good design is adaptability, then the upcoming DesignTO Festival is showcasing its talent. Even amidst the latest pandemic restrictions, more than 100 projects will be available to audiences across the city and beyond from Jan. 21-30 to demonstrate how design in its many forms can be a driving force towards community-building, collaboration and understanding.

Coming into its 12th year, DesignTO celebrates the works of emerging and experienced creators in a range of disciplines ­– from architecture to fashion, interiors to future systems innovation – through a mix of online talks and workshops, window installations, even digital recordings available through the DesignTO Member Library. And while some projects will have to be postponed, the festival is proving timely: This year’s annual symposium, entitled No Such Thing as Normal, brings together 11 multidisciplinary experts online to discuss inclusive design, new approaches to health care and post-pandemic design. “What we’ve learned during the pandemic is that there are many ways to engage with each other and with design,” says Deborah Wang, DesignTO Festival artistic director and co-director.

Here, six participants share their thoughts on how design brings people together and what being part of the festival means for their work.

Justine Woods.Handout

For garment artist and designer Justine Woods, this year’s festival has presented a unique collaborative opportunity. Woods, a Penetanguishene Aabitaawikwe from the Georgian Bay Métis community who was born and raised in Tiny, Ont., has co-created an exhibit with Randi Samsonsen, a textile artist in the Faroe Islands, a North Atlantic archipelago. The pair is part of Shared Terrain, a show exploring the cultural and geographic ties between Canadian and Nordic regions. Woods and Samsonsen relied on video calls to exchange ideas, photographs of their physical surroundings, and scans of their hands. They also sent each other packages of materials related to their individual practice, such as knitting and crochet samples, as well as porcupine quills and cedar, in the case of Woods, who is pursuing her PhD in Indigenous fashion technologies. The result is textile pieces that, through shared items and ideas, “come together in dialogue,” Woods says.

Jan. 27-March 20, Artport Gallery, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queen’s Quay W.

Aman Gill.Handout

As the designer and creative director of Toronto-based streetwear brand Aadhe, which produces made-to-order clothing using pre-loved fabrics and dead stock, Aman Gill loves bold statements.

The message behind the non-binary artist’s DesignTO showcase, featuring fashion and musical performances, was singular: “Come and party with me!” as they put it. That spirited message hasn’t changed even as the in-person event has moved online due to current health restrictions, with pre-recorded clips of performances. For Gill, who also identifies as queer and South Asian, the festival facilitates community-building and collaboration: “It’s been such a blessing to be in a place where I could be so connected.”

Jan. 29, 7-10 p.m. Register at

Yaw Tony.Handout

For this year’s festival, artist and designer Yaw Tony decided to build on his previous work looking at how bright colour can affect mood. Last year, he explored the use of colour in fashion and discovered that people can be hesitant to wear bright colours – despite how positively it can affect mood. Pandemic lockdowns have prompted Tony, whose background is in architecture and graphic design, to broaden his colour line by designing home accessories – from chairs to curtains to vessels – in the hopes of improving the experience of being stuck inside. “Colour is needed in everyday life,” he says. “When we look around nature, you’ll find all the colours you can think of and they all work beautifully.”

Jan. 21-30, italDesign Showroom, 325 King St. E. and online at

Enna Kim.Handout

The exhibition Placemaking is the result of a six-week residency program run through DesignTO Youth, which offers participants access to creative professionals for mentorship. Enna Kim, a visual storyteller, typically focusses on interpersonal relationships in her work, but for this year’s festival she is looking at the interplay of cyclists with the city. Kim, a Korean-Canadian whose practice started in architecture, has found herself drawn to the design and function of public spaces. “I got a road bike, and that’s been really eye-opening,” she says. Kim explores the “tension between cars and cyclists and pedestrians” with her exhibit, which features a painting that surrounds the exhibition space. “I’m talking about access and how important it is for people,” Kim says. “It is possible for Toronto to be cycle-friendly.”

Yasmine Hassen.Handout

Yasmine Hassen, another residency participant, is a multidisciplinary artist and Black community member who completed their Master’s thesis in gentrification. Growing up in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood, Hassen learned how to extend the “Rexdale Handshake,” in which two individuals greet each other by clasping opposite hands so their index fingers form an X. To this day, Hassen still shares the handshake when crossing paths with others from the community. Hassen studied “gentrification and revitalization as tools of the state for the destruction of Black and Indigenous geographies,” they explain, and through design work, they explore how embodied experiences such as a handshake can bind a community as much as a physical place. For DesignTO, Hassen designed a paper-mâché clay sculpture of the Rexdale Handshake to honour the community and amplify its story amidst an ever-changing landscape. “You can try and kill these neighbourhoods but their spirits will persevere,” they say.

Both works run Jan. 21-30, The Gallery at Mason Studio, 91 Pelham Ave.

Daej Hamilton.Handout

For maker and designer Daej Hamilton, DesignTO marks the launch of her first collection of furniture. Influenced by mid-century modern aesthetics, Hamilton hopes to create what she calls “sentimental furniture,” handcrafted pieces special enough to become heirlooms. “I want people to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is real wood and I want to be able to pass this onto my child or a friend,’” she says. Another aspect of Hamilton’s practice is her use of power tools rather than a traditional chisel to carve pieces. “It’s a little dangerous, but fun,” she says. Hamilton is no stranger to carving new paths. “Being a furniture maker and being a Black queer woman … doing a solo show, it’s huge,” Hamilton says. “I’m becoming the representation I wish I had.”

Jan. 21-Feb. 6, Band Gallery, 19 Brock Ave. and online at

Visit for a complete schedule.

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