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DESIGN

Duo designs feline shrine for ice palace

As part of a Swedish art initiative, one Canadian graphic designer and her partner are giving adventure-seekers a unique sort of cat nap

Artists Sonia Chow and Huschang Pourian.

Canadian graphic designer Sonia Chow and her partner Huschang Pourian were looking for a creative challenge when two guys from Sweden's Icehotel showed up in Hong Kong asking for submissions from enterprising souls eager to design and build 26 art suites of snow and ice, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Tied to computer-based, graphic-design jobs in Hong Kong, the duo were eager to bring some physical heft to the 27th-annual quest by the Icehotel's proprietors to give adventure-seekers a chance to explore the untamed northern landscape and hunker down in a palace of ice.

Cat’s Cradle: La Petite Mort is a submission by Canadian graphic designer Sonia Chow and her partner Huschang Pourian into Icehotel’s 27th annual effort to draw adventurous folks north of the Arctic Circle. Asaf Kliger/icehotel

The couple flew to the tiny Swedish town of Jukkasjarvi in December. Literally star-struck ("Living in Tokyo and Hong Kong for the past 15 years, you don't see stars at night," says Chow), they settled on a room design called "Cat's Cradle: La Petite Mort," where guests sleep on the tongue of a cat, replete with crystalline teeth and a tombstone at the entry with an inscription from Dante's Inferno: "Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate." (English translation: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.")

Like many of the other artists, Ottawa-born Chow and German-born Pourian had never worked with ice before. Huge blocks are hauled from the 520-kilometre Torne River each year, the primary source of material for the seasonal hotel, which launched in 1989. The couple took a two-hour sculpting class, grabbed chainsaws, picks and chisels, and began the onerous task of customizing the feline room in a scant 14 days. "The blank room was a bit overwhelming at first," Chow says. "We weren't sure where to start, but we knew that all the rooms were booked out from the opening night, so there could be no flexibility in the finish date." (The rooms are open until mid-April, when they melt and return to the Torne. Approximately 50,000 people visit Icehotel during the winter season.)

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"I love that it's like a phoenix rising up from its ashes with new energy every year … and melts back into the river to complete the cycle. No landfill waste. True cradle to [cat's] cradle," says Chow, who has a bachelor's degree in design from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design.

This December, however, marked the opening of Icehotel 365, a 20-room, permanent ice and snow structure (kept cold by a refrigeration plant powered by solar panels in summer) with an ice bar, as well as an ice gallery.

Despite the cold, and numb fingers – temperatures ranged from minus-10 to minus-31 – Chow says the experience of being immersed in such a unique project, with artists from around the world, reminded her of the diversity of design. "I was really struck by the interesting mix of concepts playing with spatial perception, fantasy/reality and others focusing more on architectural/abstract/illustrative themes.

Art suite Cat’s Cradle or La Petite Mort, designed by Sonia Chow and Huschang Pourian.

"With graphic design, the tiniest and most finicky details can all add up to affect the overall outcome. You can continue tweaking until it's perfect. Working with snow and ice, you're not in control of nature and that's okay. You learn to let go of fixed ideas of perfection, to be more flexible, to make quick decisions and to keep sight of the big picture. It also reminded me again how much I love winter and snow!"

At the end of the two weeks, Icehotel organized a social evening for all the artists, a special dinner capped with a sauna. Chow remembers that the aurora borealis was sharp that night.

"All my senses seemed hyper-sharp, the smell of the birch bark from the wood stove, heating the hot tub we were submerged in, while drinking cold beer and watching the lights dance across the sky. As Icehotel creative director Arne Bergh said to us, 'You arrive as strangers, and become part of the family.'"

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