Skip to main content

Castor's energy-efficient Tank Lights: Equal parts whimsy and innovation.

Down an industrial sidestreet in west-end Toronto, at the end of a row of nondescript workshops, the unit housing Castor's studio is easy to spot: It's the one with shipping containers scattered about out front, blocking the doorway and obscuring the parking spots. The studio's garage doors are thrown open to reveal a small, cluttered workspace, with tables lining the perimeter, piles of materials in the corners and curious pendants punctuating the ceiling. Up a flight of stairs at the back, a tiny glassed-in office for Castor principals Brian Richer and Kei Ng overlooks the workshop below. It's an intimate space, reminiscent of its previous iteration as Richer's stone-carving studio, and it represents one of the most common misconceptions about the firm: "People think we have a lot more money than we have," Richer laughs, fiddling with a screwdriver at one of the workbenches. "People think we are millionaires because we own restaurants."

It's true that the design studio is often associated with its Parkdale bar/restaurant/concert venue Parts & Labour, which the partners opened last summer. (Another of their restaurants, Oddfellows, closed in February.) But in the larger design scene, it's difficult to decide what Castor is best known for. Although its scrappy, Canadiana-inspired products - such as the Beaver Stool, a hand-carved limestone seat resembling a knawed tree - helped garner the firm a rock-'n'-roll lumberjack image, Castor's forte is undoubtedly lighting fixtures. The aptly named Recycled Tube Light, for example, is a ring of burnt-out fluorescent tubes lit by incandescent bulbs; This Is Not A F**king Droog Light, meanwhile, features rubber 12-volt truck lights that plug in via guitar jacks. Some design purists are still clucking over the studio's space at the 2009 Interior Design Show, where the designers drove a Winnebago onto the show floor and brought in a live band to play alongside it during opening night ("I had a tear going when the band played," Richer says). And then there's Castor's shipping container spaces: The solar-powered Sauna Box was the first product the firm launched back in 2006, when Richer was working with his previous collaborator, Ryan Taylor. Originally designed as an easy way to get a sauna up to Richer's northern property, the prefab Corten steel structure became synonymous with Castor. "Everybody thought we just did shipping containers for forever," says Richer.

Five years later, the studio is now ready to get serious. Although Richer and Ng are mainstays in the Toronto design community, they see themselves in many ways as just now emerging into a "proper business," as Richer puts it. "It's great to come up with some goofy lights but getting them to market is totally different." In short, they're looking to start making money. Last month, the duo exhibited for the first time at the Milan Design Fair, introducing showgoers to the Invisible Chandelier (a cluster of burnt-out light bulbs of every type and size that is lit from within), to Table 2 (which features aluminium legs cast from found objects) and to other designs. The pieces represent an "off-the-rack" commitment to avoiding creating things that don't need to exist. Many of Castor's pieces are comprised entirely of materials you could pick up at Canadian Tire, says Richer, although you wouldn't be able to tell by the final products. "It's making use of abundance," Ng says. The bigger reason for the Milan debut, however, was to launch the European production of Castor's collection and to scope out interest among overseas retailers. "It's the next step," says Richer. "Do you want to do crafty-craft stuff locally or do you want to get out there into shops?" The latter goal is now within reach - their pieces are due to hit European stores by the fall.

Another component of the studio's evolution is its growing attention to interiors. Parts & Labour, with its oak row tables, stark white Corian bar and woodstove-flanked waiting area, acts as a prototype for the studio's full-service offerings. The duo did everything on the project (which involved transforming it from a hardware store) right down to the plumbing. It - as did Oddfellows - also acts as a showroom for their products, such as the glossy Extinguisher Lights, cut from reclaimed fire extinguishers, which form a linear chandelier across the bar. Richer likes the idea of the bar as a portfolio of Castor's work. "It opens up opportunities. If we can do that one, people are interested in having you do it again." It already has a nightclub design that will make the most of Richer's stone-carver background in the works. What else is on Castor's plate? There's a seat made from Harley Bikes, a collection for Klaus by Nienkämper, a high-end stone chair ("Think $40,000," Richer says) and a new lighting fixture made out of Tesla coils. And they're itching to open another place of their own - another bar, possibly closer to their west-end studio. To be sure, it's an eclectic list. Nonetheless, says Richer, "I think light bulbs are our thing."

Special to The Globe and Mail