As a co-founder of the “slow lifestyle” brand Kinfolk, Nathan Williams has become a top design influencer. What began in 2011 as a quarterly journal has grown into one of the most influential design forces of its era, with publications, collaborations, gallery spaces and a widely emulated, pared-back aesthetic that more or less defined this past decade. In addition to Kinfolk, which earned him a spot on Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list, Williams, now 32, is also an editor of New York Times bestselling books on interior design, cooking and creative direction, including, most recently, The Touch: Spaces Designed for the Senses. Originally from Magrath, Alta., Williams has, for several years, been based at the brand’s headquarters in Copenhagen, but he recently returned to Canada when Indigo Books & Music appointed him as their chief creative officer. The Globe and Mail talks to Williams about what slowing down means for our screens and our shopping, and the idea of quality of life today.
Kinfolk launched at the beginning of the last decade. At the cusp of this new decade, what are you thinking about the state of the culture?
When we started Kinfolk, it was just as Instagram was ramping up, and not just Instagram but the proliferation of all these different social media hubs. And the traction that Kinfolk got in the beginning was because we spoke as an antidote to that digital growth. The more readers of Kinfolk and customers of Indigo spend time online with these digital platforms, the more connected we are there, the more appetite we have for connections in real life. Kinfolk spoke directly to that, our design ethos and approach was very human-centric.
It was design that facilitates connections, photography that features and promotes community; it’s completely about the social relevance of any moment or any product. That was a wave that we rode very quickly as the customers were more and more connected online. As we’re finishing the decade and going into the next, I see that as even more relevant. As the years pass, because we are increasingly spending more time on our devices, computers, connected online, it truly does create that need for true connection.
Books such as Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing have been recent hits, but do you think that old-fashioned human-centricity can really come back? Has the mainstream caught up with slowing down?
No. Not at all. Though I do see more and more interest: There’s also 24/6 [by Tiffany Shlain], another book that’s [about] the idea of taking one day a week completely unplugged. There are all these brands going after it online – a lot of tech startups. There’s enormous opportunity in that digital space, but it’s important to recognize that there’s the inverse: The more growth we have digitally, there’s the opportunity for that antidote of products, the experiences, the content that is helping to balance that digital lifestyle.
Do you do the digital sabbath thing yourself?
I do not disconnect from my e-mail and calls, but to be honest, as far as social media goes, it’s not a huge time-suck for me as is.
Buzzwords that usually go with that are “conscious” and “intention.” Has western culture become such that those words are understood not in terms of spiritual belief or sacred ritual now but in relation to lifestyle?
Much more secularized. The words that you mention – intentional, conscious – they have no religious tie to them necessarily, but it almost forms a type of secular religion for the consumer. In the way that Marie Kondo, her approach to decluttering, and her way of living could almost become a religion to some, for the way it provides clarity of mind. That mindfulness has a similar result.
Many people took her philosophy of paring down as a personal affront. Like in the West, we’re so attached to material goods that they’re part of our identity.
But I think there’s more awareness that true well-being and quality of life is not directly tied to the things that we own and that we’re buying. Even [with] consumer behaviour, gifting is much more skewed to experiences versus things and products. And with a younger generation, with millennials, they’re much more willing to invest and spend money on self-care, on wellness, on skin and body care and see that there’s a true investment in that purchase. Versus just product for product’s sake.
Right, like it’s not merely an object like a teapot, it’s tea time.