Skip to main content

The Swedish furniture giant Ikea recently flew me to Toronto to attend the media launch of an art show it was sponsoring. The event took place on a warm August evening at a pop-up exhibition space on King Street West.

The company invited four respected Canadian creatives – artist and painter Thrush Holmes, art photographer George Whiteside, sculptor Bruno Billio, and fashion designer David Dixon – to use its products in an art installation of their devising. The artists could use Ikea furniture in whatever way (and amount) they saw fit. The four pieces – each roughly the size of large living room – were exhibited together, for just four days, at the space on King.

The idea for Ikea: to create a temporary laboratory in which talented artists play freely with the chemicals and Bunsen burners. (It's hoped that whatever heat and light the reactions give off add lustre to the brand.) The idea for me: to find, in the creative ferment, fresh ideas for home design.

I: Rusticity and the beauty of imbalance

Thrush Holmes, the most conceptual artist of this cohort, made his muse the iconic Ikea showroom suite. An in-store vignette, of course, is a five-second sales pitch, and must strike an aesthetic chord with passers-by. Holmes's play on domesticity was a ramshackle cabin within a "yard" of green shag carpet bordered by a fence of wooden pallets. He clad the exterior in battered, broken down Ikea boxes, neon lights, and fluorescent graffiti. For all the exterior noise, though, the interior was serene – walls of lacquered maple plywood and a careful selection of furnishings and personal effects.

Elements of the installation were tritely hipster, like the shag carpet, the deer head mounted on the wall, and the plaid coat slung over a hook. But I liked the scheme's imperfection and intimacy. Unlike a showroom, whose generic polish must have broad market appeal, the cabin was idiosyncratic, with odd sight lines and an unusual sense of display. (Holmes burned words of contemplation and neurosis into the furniture; the chandelier had been spray-painted and rearranged; and a miscellany of photos, stuffed animals, and DIY art hung over the bed.) You felt as though you'd snuck into someone's home and flipped open his journal.

It reminded me that chaos (even cultivated and selectively sown) contains a seed of pure creative power. Perhaps we needn't always plant our interiors in tight, symmetrical rows.

II: Many hands effectively hoist one weight

George Whitestone, the photographer, took a more commercial approach to his project. In an array of glass and ceramic vessels, he mounted a salon style installation of still-life photographs on vintage-notebook backgrounds. Then, between two gallery-like runs of wall, where they hung, he executed a living room in sleek white and black.

The still-life photos were an allusion to the great Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, a master of the form. The design takeaway is in Whitestone's fearless use of repetition. More than 40 framed images hung on the walls. Each one, though unique, meditated on a single subject (in this case, vessels). That repetition gave it force.

It's a motif easy to translate to home, in a series of line drawings, say, or landscape photos whose compositions alternate between macro and micro. The key to pulling it off is a consistent frame style and colour. (Whitestone used a curved white frame in several sizes.)

III: Discovering loft in the lowly

The sculptor Bruno Billio made his art-world reputation as a stacker of found objects. His Toronto installation featured two elegantly curved lines of stacked chairs atop a very large mirror.

It was my least favourite piece. Although it was pretty, it lacked the wonder and whimsy characteristic of Billio's other work. But I liked his idea of aiming an inexpensive and utilitarian object at an ethereal goal. It's been an artistic strategy since Duchamp, but one used too seldom in the home. I'd love to take simple white bowls, for example, and lay them against a wall as you would bricks, row on staggered row, creating a sculptural feature wall. Another good idea: create a room divider out of dry-stacked books in tall columns.

IV: A prod toward abandon and refinement

The best in show was fashion designer David Dixon. Within what appeared to be a classic Ikea showroom, he located five mannequins clothed in garments tailored of Ikea's new fall fabrics.

It may sound simplistic, but the clothing's architecture was exquisite. Dixon's bold use of pattern was especially inspiring. His work made me wonder whether I could upholster the same refinement and adventure into a sofa or curved chair – and want to try. Too often designers choose aesthetically "safe" textiles (solid neutrals and greys), shying away from riskier patterns. But the latter hum with vitality; in a nod to Dixon I'm planning to use playful, overscale fabrics this fall.

Although the Ikea show didn't blow my mind, I admire deeply the sense of play that animated it. Global brands that depend upon efficiency and orderliness aren't generally the first to invite artists into their pantry to make a mess. Doing so opens the door to happy accidents, however. When buying the next item for your home – even if it comes in a flat box, with instructions – pause a moment, lean in, and ask yourself, "Now, how can I use this my way?"