When the W Hotel opened in New York's Union Square, its restaurant, Blue Fin, became one of the coolest in New York. It was 2001, and the metropolis' young and powerful flocked to this grand space for sushi and cocktails – overseen by its grand feature, a two-storey wall washed with plaster waves that curved like the surf.
Soon, other designers were copying the idea, and even manufacturing wall panels that copied this three-dimensional sculptural design. But the original was a work of art: the work of Deborah Moss and Edward Lam, artists who brought a fine-art sensibility into the designs of some of the world's most beautiful interiors.
It helped launch a global career that spanned art, interiors and furniture design for Ms. Moss and her husband, Mr. Lam, who died of an undiagnosed brain aneurysm last month. The father of two girls, he was 54.
In a 2011 interview at Moss & Lam's Toronto studio, surrounded by a riot of models, sketches and paintings, Mr. Lam spoke of his work at Blue Fin with quiet pride. "That wave wall has become our signature," he said. "Somebody called to ask us how to do that treatment. And I said, 'Well, you get some cement and some plaster, and the question is: How good is your hand?' There are no secrets. That's the secret."
In another sense, Mr. Lam and Ms. Moss were themselves the secret: the hidden hands behind spectacular rooms and works around the world, from a Mexico City hotel to an exclusive department store in Seoul. They collaborated constantly with Yabu Pushelberg, the Toronto interior designers, as they rose to global prominence.
As the art and design worlds have drawn closer over the past 20 years, Moss & Lam has been a pioneer – combining digital fabrication, globe-spanning collaborations, crystal, rubber, rope – and always Mr. Lam's sensitive hand.
Sensitive is a word that many of Mr. Lam's friends and associates used to describe him, both in his work and his life. "You could never do what he did without the training and the sensibility of an artist," said Judith Tatar, an art consultant who was his colleague and close friend, but "it went far beyond what anyone could teach."
"He knew intuitively what to bring to a client, which they never would have thought of. That was the beauty of working with Edward. He was selfless," Ms. Tatar added.
Sometimes this meant taking the vaguest idea and translating it into an apt, sculptural work. "When presented with a germ of an idea or a problem to solve creatively, they keep pushing until they find a fresh solution," said Glenn Pushelberg, a close friend and collaborator for a quarter-century.
Sometimes, he said, this means a form or material, and often a conceptual leap, like that wave wall in New York, "which was all him," Mr. Pushelberg recalls. "They transcend from being applied artists to fine artists. They're creative people who aren't easily categorized."
Mr. Lam grew up in Kingston, Ont., in a large family – he was the middle child of seven. His creative journey began in earnest at Toronto's Ontario College of Art at the end of the 1970s, at the height of conceptual art.
Christian Morrison, a fellow student, became a good friend and roommate in a loft in Toronto's quiet, post-industrial downtown. "It was an ad hoc exhibition space as well as workspace for the three of us: art students who wanted to work rather than eat or sleep," Mr. Morrison recalls. "Edward was our leader. Disciplined as he was, he led our tiny band's scheduled use of video equipment signed out of OCA, and healthy eating: His mom's rice cooker was a kitchen institution. … He wasn't the overseer in any way. We merely intuited what was the right thing to do from him. His moral compass never wavered."
He met Ms. Moss, another OCA student, and the two began a relationship that would stretch into marriage, parenthood and constant collaboration. The birth of their two daughters only deepened his basic character, his friends say – warm, witty, a bit mischievous, and earnest. "In all the time I knew him, he was never one to talk about this incredible career he'd had," Ms. Tatar recalls. "Mostly he would talk about his kids, and about funny stories that happened along the way."
Mr. Moss and Ms. Lam set up shop formally in 1989, as a pair of 20-something artists painting fashionable faux finishes and frescoes. But that was only the start. As George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg pushed the bounds of Canadian taste and of interior design, inspired by the ideas and forms of contemporary fine art, Moss & Lam worked along with them. "We evolved together," says Mr. Pushelberg. "They have been constantly evolving and trying new processes and ideas."
Over 25 years, they worked with others among the world's most prominent designers, including Peter Marino and Tony Chi. The work spanned a wild variety of materials and effects: fish made from bamboo and porcelain, silk branches sewn onto an oak background, coral reefs sculpted of plaster, walls made with gold leaf and with burlap.
Some were destined for the heights of wealth and consumption, like a Louis Vuitton shop in Milan. But each began in their studio, a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Toronto's Junction neighbourhood (where they moved long before it began to gentrify). Working with a staff of eight artists, they would paint, sculpt and assemble works by hand, then break them down to be shipped, reassembled and finished on site, in Miami or Hong Kong. Mr. Lam was a master of all manner of details, Ms. Tatar says, from the engineering of large sculptures to the logistics of clearing customs in China.
Mr. Lam led the creation of an 11-storey mobile for the Lotte department store in the port city of Busan, South Korea. It is made from 130-foot-long strands, threaded with silver acrylic fish. The almost 1,700 wires were mapped digitally to create sections of swirling schools of fish, which were hand-threaded and labelled at Moss & Lam's studio, shipped and then hung by Mr. Lam and his Toronto team over two weeks.
It is a spectacular work, equally architectural and art, made to be seen from many perspectives. "It was a complicated thing that he did," Ms. Tatar says. "They don't teach you that in art school."
Moss & Lam has expanded into the world of furniture design; it has produced a range of furniture and textiles, including a cowhide rug that's laser-cut to resemble wood grain, and a coffee table in the form of a polar bear.
But Mr. Lam always remained an artist, too, and had an unending stream of visual and conceptual ideas. In recent years, Moss & Lam has been moving toward more fine art projects; it has an installation accepted for this fall's Nuit Blanche festival in Toronto, for a Joe Fresh store downtown, and another sculpture is in the works for a library in Kitchener. Their associates say Ms. Moss will continue in this direction as she leads Moss & Lam forward.
But one pair of hands will, unavoidably, be missing. "Last week I was at their studio, helping Deborah out, and I saw his sketchbook, just full of ideas and notions," Mr. Pushelberg said. "I was overcome by emotion."