The little design show that could
Over the past six years, the annual Toronto Design Offsite Festival has grown to include 80 exhibitions, 60 venues and 30,000 visitors. Caitlin Agnew highlights how its idiosyncratic approach – blindfolded walking tours included – helped the city's emerging design community find a home
Of all the fantastic things Toronto has recently become associated with – a winning baseball team, the nicest guy in hip hop, a sober mayor – great design isn't one of them. Just this past November, a story ran in this very newspaper lamenting the "uglification" of the city's civic spaces, likening the aesthetic maintenance of Nathan Phillips Square to the Orangeville Fall Fair, which is, presumably, an eyesore.
This changes, however, each January during the Toronto Design Offsite Festival (also known as TO DO), which embeds itself throughout the city, spreading from a hotbed of studios, galleries and shops in the Junction neighbourhood all the way southeast to Leslieville's Opera House. You may have already attended TO DO without even realizing it; a big part of its MO is to bring design out of the studio so that it's something Torontonians happen upon, often times through a series of storefront window installations.
TO DO officially began in 2010 with a group of seven highly accomplished likeminded friends and design contemporaries: artist/ architect Joy Charbonneau, Shaun Moore and Julie Nicholson of Canadian design shop Made, artist and curator Katherine Morley (who also co-founded Capacity, an annual showcase of Canadian women in design), marketing consultant Jeremy Vandermeij, filmmaker and president of the Gladstone Hotel Christina Zeidler and architect Deborah Wang, who now holds the title of creative director for the festival. After years of working independently, curating exhibitions and events alongside the city's annual Interior Design Show, their mutual admiration and shared sense of purpose got the better of them and they established a formal organization. "We wanted to build something stronger and more united from our individual efforts and create a public platform for showing design that other people could join as well," says Wang. "We didn't know we were creating a festival when we first got together."
From a humble seven happenings, TO DO has expanded to include more than 80 exhibitions at over 60 venues in 2016, pulling in key sponsorships from designer furniture brands Keilhauer and Herman Miller, as well as online retail platform Shopify. Despite its high level of growth (in 2015, TO DO was attended by nearly 30,000 visitors), the festival has maintained its grassroots origins through open calls for self-produced programming and projects. "If you're a designer and want to do something that falls within the mandate of the festival, which is quite broad, we're absolutely open to it," says Wang.
This year the festival began on Jan. 18 and continues until Jan. 24 and includes White Out, an exploration of the colour's variations (eggshell, ivory, alabaster and so on), Blindfolded Walking Tours led by an environmental philosopher, a retrospective of the work of Japanese contemporary designer Oji Masanori, as well as various design-themed talks and workshops held throughout the week, including the first ever TO DO symposium. Held Jan. 23 at the MaRS Discovery District, a selection of multidisciplinary experts will discuss a range of topics including 3-D printing, a cyborg feminist revolution and the cultural conversation surrounding death.
One of the festival's ongoing events is Outside the Box, a partnership with New York's WantedDesign in which designers from Toronto and nine other North American cities are challenged to fill a standard banker's box with a collection of items that best represent the design scene in their city. The boxes and their contents are on display at the store Stylegarage during the festival before moving on to Brooklyn this spring, bridging a geographical gap between 10 design communities. "That's where we're starting to make waves," says Wang. "We've become a conduit for exhibitions everywhere." Indeed, organizations from around the world, including in Vancouver and Detroit, now look to TO DO for inspiration on how to do a smaller-scale design festival right.
A key part of that success has been through focusing on the celebratory aspect of the festival, which TO DO does best at one of its most high-profile events, Come Up To My Room. This popular exhibition, which preceded TO DO but is now central to its programming, blows the roof off of the Gladstone Hotel every year with three floors of sitespecific installations by new and established artists. For 2016, it was joined by a kickoff soiree at Shopify's headquarters on Jan. 18 and the festival's hub Heat Wave. Located in Beaconsfield Village on Queen West, the information centre is housed in a car wash-turned-real estate office that's been transformed into summer in Toronto, definitely the most festive time of year in the city.
It's this joyful sense of juxtaposition and community that informs TO DO and challenges the notion that Toronto is anything but finely formed. "You don't have to be in the know or go into a few institutions to see design. It's right here," says Wang. "We want to continue to strengthen what's going on and to support design and creativity in the city. That's what makes us happy."
Four must-see exhibitions at TO DO:
Since 2004, Come Up to My Room has mashed together the work of artists, designers and artist-designers to create a dynamic snapshot of Toronto's alternative design scene. Its 13th edition strives to highlight the heritage of its home base, the legendary Gladstone Hotel.
Outside the Box, hosted at the furniture retailer Stylegarage on the Ossington strip, exhibits the design spoils of bankers boxes shipped from makers in cities across Canada and the U.S including Chicago, Edmonton, Halifax, New York, Ottawa, Portland and Seattle.
Design shop MADE was one of the earliest venues for contemporary furniture and accessories by Canuck talent. The Made Primary show at its newish Corktown location is a partnership with TorontoMade.net, a non-profit organization focused on local manufacturing.
The inaugural TO DO Talks Symposium on Jan. 23 at the MaRS Centre explores how design can look good and do good through a series of on-stage chats and a keynote address by Dr. Joanna Choukeir, the chief operating officer at London design consultancy Uscreates.
For more information, visit todesignoffsite.com.