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Please Help Yourself is a series of life-sized tangerine peels made from clay.

Handout

Please Help Yourself is a series of life-sized tangerine peels made from clay. The mini-monuments nod to a usually ephemeral moment, a Cantonese tradition of welcoming friends and family with an offer of sweet citrus. The sculptures speak to how simple, pleasurable rituals can bring people together – symbolism that works during the best of times, but given how the objects were produced, resonates more deeply during the current global pandemic.

To fabricate Please Help Yourself last year, artists Florence Yee and Arezu Salamzadeh mailed hunks of unformed clay to close family and friends who they were prevented from seeing because of the lockdown. Along with the material, the two included step-by-step instructions to shape the peels and send them back to be fired in a kiln. A few of the attempts surprised the artists. “Someone fully wrapped a real tangerine and left the plant material inside,” Yee says. “The fruit didn’t rot. It kind of just dried up inside.”

Overall, though, Yee and Salamzadeh, who collaborate under the name Rice Water Collective, were touched by the results. “It’s one of the favourite things I did in 2020,” Yee says. “I think it demonstrates the resiliency of care.”

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“Yeah, I think it’s just taught me a different way of connecting with people,” adds Salamzadeh.

A different way of connecting with people might also be the theme of DesignTO, the annual Toronto design festival where Please Help Yourself will be displayed starting Jan. 22. In a typical year, DesignTO fans out in galleries and furniture showrooms across the city, with dozens of parties, talks and showcases for new furniture, decor and more concept-based ideas like the ceramic tangerine peels. During the COVID-19 era, as with many similar art and design fairs across North America, everything is being reinvented. Please Help Yourself is being shown exclusively online. Other pieces will be mounted in walk-by window displays, viewable from the sidewalk. There will still be seminars and a launch party, as usual, but they will be on Zoom, both replicating but also bringing a whole new dimension to the experience.

With its 100-plus exhibits and events, DesignTO is, so far, Canada’s largest design festival to fully retool for the pandemic (IDS Toronto, which normally takes place concurrently to DesignTO, is delaying its digital revamp until May, with a special focus on the circular economy). It’s not the first, however – last October, IDS Vancouver, a West Coast interiors festival that normally attracts 40,000 people to the Vancouver Convention Centre, pioneered a hybrid model – online meets the street, so to speak. The 73 in-person and digital events included a display inspired by Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, visible through the glass at Inform Interiors, and virtual discussions about inclusion in the design community.

Before IDS Vancouver launched, Jody Phillips, director of IDS Brand Canada at Informa Connect, the company that organizes IDS in both Toronto and Vancouver, admits to having some trepidation about how a virtual event would translate. How do you recreate the energy of an in-person fair when most participants are joining from behind a laptop? Will the inevitable Zoom lags dampen the mood? By the end of the week, however, any concerns were assuaged. “What I learned is that the design community needs events like this, and really appreciated that we went ahead with it,” she says. “We had a Zoom gala that people actually dressed up for – people put on sequins and nice dresses. We are all so hungry to connect.”

Victoria Fard's REMINISCE is a digital exhibition in this year's DesignTO festival.

Handout

There are benefits to a URL – as opposed to IRL – approach. Last October, two of New York City’s major design fairs, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) and WantedDesign, co-organized a two-day virtual festival called Closeup. International talents, such as Dutch industrial designer Marcel Wanders, chatted with the likes of William Hanley, the editor-in-chief of Dwell, in TV-style interview panels.

“It was quite a different thing to organize than a traditional festival, and involved a separate production company,” says Phil Robinson, ICFF’s show director. “But it gave us a better opportunity to tell the stories behind the designs, as opposed to simply showing the designs. That was something many of the designers appreciated.” Plus, the interviews were seen well beyond New York. “People tuned in from all over the world,” says Robinson, who is currently organizing another Closeup for this May. “And more people watched the recordings, made available for two months after the initial event, than tuned in live.”

The interviews offered through Closeup instill, perhaps paradoxically, a sense of intimacy between festival attendee and featured creator that can be tricky to achieve on a trade-show floor, especially one with hundreds of spectators swirling by, chatting, taking pictures and rushing to absorb as much as possible. Everyone has a front-row seat sitting in their home office at their screen. DesignTO is trying to take advantage, forging even closer connections with the launch of an Ask Me Anything feature where participants can sign up for half-hour one-on-one conversations with top designers. The first guest: Jamie Wolfond, a product designer who launched his first brand, Good Thing, in his 20s, selling it to West Elm before he turned 30.

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Some aspects of DesignTO remain the same. For festivalgoers, one of the joys of the not-for-profit event is discovering unexpected, and often unconventional, creativity in an array of places across the city. Typically, that has meant installations in galleries, showrooms and storefronts. This year, only the latter remains, but that still gives people the excuse to get out for some fresh air in the midst of the January blahs. Installations include Dinner with the Diaspora, an audio-visual storytelling display featuring international BIPOC artists, and 3 Miniature Suites, which spotlights social issues (such as the disturbing rise in domestic violence during lockdown) in small-scale architectural dioramas.

DesignTO’s signature opening party is also still happening, albeit online, with sets from local DJs Fly Lady Di and Sigourney Beaver. “It might not be the exact same experience, with the same in-person magic,” says DesignTO co-founder and artistic director Deborah Wang, “but part of our motivation for continuing with the festival this year is that we are in a time when so many things are being cancelled. I’m so happy we have found a way to do this, to keep this alive.”

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