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The launch of DesignTO 2019 was celebrated at St. Lawrence Hall.

Edwin L./SVPhotography

Each year, in the gloomy depths of January, DesignTO lights up venues across Toronto in a celebration of the newest and most exciting ideas in design and contemporary art. Since its inception, this non-profit, multidisciplinary initiative has evolved from a loose network of like-minded creatives to one of the city’s most dynamic institutions with a diverse program of collaborative and inclusive exhibits. Now entering its 10th year, here’s the story of how the festival came together, told by the people who made it happen.

Deborah Wang, co-founder and artistic director of DesignTO

Everyone who was part of the founding group was part of individual exhibitions that were happening at the time and that’s how it came together. The group of us was Jeremy Vandermeij, who is the current executive director of the festival, Christina Zeidler, who started Come Up to My Room at the Gladstone Hotel and is also the hotel’s owner, Shaun Moore, who has the design shop called Made, Julie Nicholson, who was his business partner at the time, Joy Charbonneau, who is an architect and artist, and Katherine Morley, a ceramicist. I think in the beginning we didn’t know we were creating a festival. We were all doing different design exhibitions and really wanting to create a community around what we were doing.

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Come Up To My Room at the Gladstone Hotel is an annual highlight of the festival.

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Christina Zeidler, co-founder of DesignTO

I think it had to do with noticing how many artists and designers wanted to tear down these false walls between design and art. We wanted to take some of what we knew about the art world and site-specific installations and bring that to the design world. The first year was just sort of saying, “Instead of all of us trying to do these things separately, why don’t we get together?”

Deborah Wang

We started off as Toronto Design Offsite. Our acronym was TODO, as in a to-do list. It was a way to group everyone and share information about what everyone was doing. Then when we opened it up other people wanted to be a part of it and we kind of realized, “Okay, this is a thing!” It grew organically from that. Initially the reception was small, but it felt exciting. It’s resourceful and scrappy in the best way and it really relies on a community of people who have skills and care about what the festival does.

A Concord Custom Lighting festival installation.

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Lauren Hortie, teacher at Oasis Skateboard Factory (OSF) at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB)

I heard about the festival through Jeremy Vandermeij who is a good friend of mine and the festival’s sort of scrappy, DIY approach is a perfect match for what we’re trying to do at OSF. We’re an alternative TDSB high school program where students earn credits by running a skateboard design business and we’ve been ramping up our involvement in DesignTO every year. We’ve made purpose-built installations and worked with these amazing artists, Chief Lady Bird and Aura Last, doing Indigenous skate design and this year we’re really lucky to be the first crew of the DesignTO Youth Project, where we’re working with designers to do animation. It’s great for the students to see their work in a gallery and see themselves as equals, but it’s also great for designers to see how skateboarders see the city and that different perspective. We feel really lucky to have an opportunity to have that dialogue.

Kate Tessier, industrial designer and 2013 exhibitor

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In 2012, the Toronto design scene was coming into its own and great things were happening, but I was also seeing many of the manufacturers I was working with struggling. I had never organized an exhibition before, so I contacted DesignTO to help and it kind of clicked from there. The initiative was Manufacturers + Designers Connect, which was an equation changing the relationship between manufacturers and designers. I led a select group of designers and manufacturers through the process of developing beautiful, functional items for the home – lighting, furniture, vessels – and I worked as a facilitator as well as a curator. It was very inspiring.

Christian Lo, lighting designer and co-founder of Anony

We did a lighting design show at the festival in 2014, called Light It Up. At the time it was a smaller festival, but they really took care of us and we all still participate. This year we’re doing a launch with Castor Design, and they were in the very first show, so we’re always revisiting each other. DesignTO did so much for designers; they have been able to bring a lot of different people in the creative industries together. They’ve also made design in Toronto more accessible, not just for people in design but for people who want to discover design.

Aletheia installation by Philip Beesley displayed during 2019’s DesignTO.

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Chris Provins, co-founder and community director of Edmonton Design Week

My wife and I run a little jewellery company called Hunt Amor and we were going to be exhibiting at Inland Market in Toronto during Design Week, so I reached out to Deborah Wang through Instagram and we met up. After that we kept in touch over e-mail and I had a lot of questions about how DesignTO operated and that kind of stuff. One of the things that impressed me and drew me toward DesignTO was their humble, grassroots approach. I think it’s pretty inspiring to see a bunch of smart people who care deeply about the design community band together and create something, and that’s really what has influenced my efforts toward what we’re trying to create here in Edmonton. I wouldn’t say Edmonton Design Week is a carbon copy of what DesignTO is doing, but the things that they’re doing really well, we definitely aspire to get to a similar level. There’s a sense of honesty to what they’re doing. It’s a humble and concise vision of what design is and how it can affect a community and influence a culture.

Dori Tunstall, dean of OCAD University and DesignTO ambassador

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Two years ago OCAD put on with BAND, the Black Artists’ Network Dialogue, Hacking Black Futures, an exhibition of 19 works by black artists and designers organized by one of my students. He said that that was one of the first times he felt like someone had really listened and understood his idea. Toronto is an extraordinarily diverse city, our Indigenous communities, our black communities, our POC communities, our queer communities … there are so many communities that are able to use the festival as a platform to have their perspectives embraced. That’s very unique.

Christina Zeidler

What has always been important about DesignTO is its ability to shift with community. So it’s not a static entity that says, “This is what DesignTO is.” It’s an agile idea that’s defined by the people who are participating in it. It’s always multivoiced, and that is so key, especially with a city as interesting as Toronto.

The In Place exhibition at the festival’s 2017 edition.

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Deborah Wang

It’s changed so much, since we were so small and grassroots in the beginning. We started in the beginning with seven shows and now we’re at over a hundred. Because of our city-wide nature we’ve really been able to connect with a lot of different audiences in unexpected places. People see us as they’re going to work, or my mom had an appointment and she happened to go by Deloitte’s building where we were doing something. So people can go to the festival without thinking that they’re going, and because of that we’ve really grown our audience. It’s a way to discover the city through design.

DesignTO runs Jan. 17-26, 2020. For more information, visit designto.org.

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