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Those who call the territory now known as Canada home have many reasons to be thankful. The safe, dynamic cities. The abundant natural wonders. A rich history shaped by a growing multitude of voices. And, for a relatively small population, a wealth of design talent from coast to coast to coast. This year, we’ve spotlighted a range of ambitious firms and studios creating distinctive work in every province and territory. Here are 13 (largely unheralded) practices shaping design north of the 49th parallel:

1
Kobayashi + Zedda, Yukon

A past recipient of the Prix de Rome, Kobayashi + Zedda is the largest design practice in Canada’s North, although it bills itself as “not your typical architecture firm” and eschews specialization. Since 1993, when Jack Kobayashi and Antonio Zedda teamed up to launch it, KZA has worked on more than two dozen building types, from private residences to community centres to Whitehorse’s renovated airport. Among its award-winning projects are 2013’s Inuvik Children’s First Centre (a brightly hued education and childcare facility whose arcing shape wraps an outdoor playground in a protective embrace) and 2015’s Betty’s Haven (a handsomely appointed Whitehorse transition home for women and children escaping domestic violence). As these and other projects suggest, KZA is a firm with both heart and brains, its social conscience as much in evidence as its deep local knowledge.

Why you should know them:

Over the decades, KZA has developed skills on a variety of fronts (sustainability, First Nations principles) especially relevant right now. It has also long practiced — and could offers lessons in — a uniquely hands-on approach that architects elsewhere are just beginning to explore, counting developer, property manager and contractor among its project roles.

2
Taylor Architecture Group, Northwest Territories

Open the website of Taylor Architecture Group (TAG) and you’ll see another vision of Canada entirely. With the North Pole at its centre, the map of the firm’s projects shows architecture of — and for — the North, with the 49th parallel a speck in the distance.

Based in Yellowknife (and with offices in Whitehorse and Ottawa), the firm extensive portfolio includes some of the North’s most prominent public and institutional architecture, including Yellowknife’s masterfully contextual Legislative Assembly and Inuvik’s technically sophisticated Western Arctic Research Centre.

Why you should know them:

TAG’s soon to be completed Behchokǫ̀ Cultural Centre and Community Presence Office Building in the Tłı̨chǫ community just outside of Yellowknife further combines their distinct handling of Indigenous principles and community engagement with the technical knowledge of building in the North, all gleaned from over 35 years of practice.

3
Pierre Aupilardjuk, Nunavut

Though a number of celebrated ceramic artists have made their mark working out of the Matchbox Studios in Rankin Inlet (also known as Kangiqliniq in Inuktitut), Pierre Aupilardjuk is undoubtedly one of the leading and most unique voices practicing in the remote Nunavut community today. His narrative smoke-fired works often combine human and animal figures to vividly capture traditional Inuit tales, legends and histories in subtle gradations of clay. In addition to these storied vessels, which range vastly in scale, he also relays more personal experiences in his sculptural works. In 2016’s Giving without Receiving, for instance, a surreal appendage emerges from the parka of an Inuk man (Aupilardjuk’s father Mariano) holding an oil lamp known as a qulliq, visualizing a particularly traumatic memory of the theft of this essential object.

Why you should know them:

Like a number of artists from the studio, Aupilardjuk’s work is highly collaborative, not only with talented local artists John Kurok, Leo Napayok and more, but also acclaimed Toronto-based Shary Boyle. Such group efforts were recently showcased in the much-lauded touring exhibition “Earthlings” as well as in the National Gallery of Canada’s 2019-2020 Indigenous Quinquennial “Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel,” which closed in April.

4
Campos Studio, British Columbia

Javier Campos, formerly one half of Campos Leckie — the architecture firm behind the dramatic Costa Azul house in Mexico, the cover star of Azure’s 2016 Houses Issue — has moved on to founding his own firm and creating his own portfolio of stunning, envelope-pushing residences. One such project is Sooke 01 House, where the surrounding forest of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and cedars inspired the tectonic form of the structure and its nature-hugging vistas.

Another example is Point Grey Laneway, a project (in collaboration with Blue Design) manifesting the gentle densification allowed by Vancouver’s Laneway Program for affordable rental housing. Sheltering three generations of a Japanese Canadian family, the home is an unusual asymmetrical form clad in hand-painted split-face shakes and framed in gun-metal-finished metal. The dark tone and texture of the façade is upended upon entry: the interiors, gleaming white, make this laneway house feel dreamy and expansive.

Why you should know him:

Campos is elevating residential architecture with projects that are not only odes to style but also based on pragmatism, livability and sustainability.

5
Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, Alberta

According to Edmonton-based, SCI-Arc-trained artist, curator and architect Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, her diverse portfolio of public spaces are guided by a central concern: “to engage a lifted understanding of place.” In 2018 alone, she put this ethos to the test with her stepped amphitheatre pehonan — meaning waiting place in Cree — as part of the city’s Indigenous Art Park, followed shortly by a commission to participate in the third Chicago Architecture Biennial. With fellow artist Tanya Lukin Linklater, the pair conceived an enveloping ring of bent-wood frames for the 2019 showcase that comprise Indigenous Geometries — a vision for an Indigenous performance space. The movable wooden elements of the installation rest in a cold rolled steel base, together forming a place constantly activated, animated and transformed by its inhabitants.

Why you should know them:

Alongside her practice, Shaw-Collinge is a core member of the collaborative Indigenous curatorial platform Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective. Though operating nomadically since 2015, this year will see the opening of their inaugural art centre in Edmonton, which the artist and architect was intimately involved in. The new space, wrapped in a faceted metallic facade, joins a number of other institutions spotlighting Indigenous practices across the prairies.

6
Oxbow Architecture, Saskatchewan

From a state-of-the-art medical complex to a refreshingly unencumbered park and playground and an intimate townhouse community, the built work of Saskatchewan outfit Oxbow Architecture’s deftly transverses typologies and disciplines. Consider downtown Saskatoon’s 210 Avenue P South Medical Office Building, which incorporates ample daylight and warm wood tones into a hospital setting. But the building also meets the street as a welcoming cafe, with an elegantly industrial coffee shop complementing – and contrasting – the medical facility above it. It’s an impressive and seemingly effortless fusion of disparate scales and functions into a cohesive whole.

Why you should know them:

Oxbow’s residential work is just as impressive. At Saskatoon’s P+M Residence, an understated family home is elevated by considered finishes that subtly emphasize the well-resolved proportions (and angles) within.

7
Studio Marion, Manitoba

If the furniture and product designs of two-year-old Studio Marion seem like the work of much more seasoned outfit (witness its most recent release, the peachy Percy Chair), that’s because its founder, Nicole Marion, brings a wealth of experience to the fledgling enterprise. Prior to establishing her namesake business in 2018, the Master of Architecture grad played key roles on the product development teams of two of Canada’s leading furniture companies, EQ3 and Gus* Modern.

At EQ3, which is based in Winnipeg, Marion created such clean-lined contemporary classics as the tall and skinny Drum Lamp and the fluidly shaped Dune Bed. She has also partnered on projects with a who’s who of international brands, including Herman Miller and Marimekko. Under her own shingle, the designer-for-hire not only promises unique and sophisticated products, but also all of the guidance required to get it to market, “with ease of manufacturing in mind.”

Why you should know them:

For furniture companies, Studio Marion is a one-stop shop on the Prairies, combining a uniquely Canadian outlook with global perspective. For design buffs, its founder is a likely giant-in-the-making — start collecting her work now.

8
Lauren Reed, Ontario

Playing liberally with shape and form, Toronto designer Lauren Reed’s eye-catching portfolio of furniture and objects reflects an undeniably artistic and conceptual approach. Punctuated by recognizable shapes and a palette of muted colours, Reed’s handmade pieces emphasize the beauty of natural materials and manage to elevate the everyday with both elegance and playfulness.

Take 2014’s Swoop, a series that partners single, double or triple mirrors with semi-circular half-frames that seem ready to wink at passersby. (The singular version of Swoop was commissioned by Umbra, where it’s known as Mira.) Or 2015’s Hoop, a tabletop light comprised of a singular frosted globe atop a tidy pyramid of wooden rings reminiscent of the childhood stacking toy.

Why you should know them:

With the re-launch of her solo practice Lauren Reed Design earlier this year and soon-to-be-released pieces like Ball on Plank (a leaning floor lamp in vibrant yellow-stained oak) and the amorphous Great Grate Mirror, we anticipate the Sheridan College grad’s work to become widely and instantly recognizable.

9
Studio Kiff, Montreal

Rachel Bussin and Hélène Thiffaut, the founders of Montreal’s Studio Kiff, embrace what they refer to as their “enfant terrible aesthetic.” The unabashed interiors they’ve created since opening their design business just last year bear this out. For the skateboard-chic shop Dime, they mixed incongruous materials to eclectic effect: clean white-tile flooring against wood paneling and display plinths carved from marble-mimicking granite. For the jewellery store Myel, they went full baroque but with a contemporary twist: the wallpaper resembles a moody floral pattern but, on closer inspection, depicts splashes of paint. The velvety finishes in warm reds and oranges adorn an otherwise clean-lined space.

Why you should know them:

It’s clear that this up-and-coming duo are developing a language of their own — one that’s malleable to every setting and reflective of their “individualistic approach to design” that sees every commission as a new possibility for reinvention.

10
Geof Ramsay, New Brunswick

From a hybrid burgundy-plated vessel making reference to time-lapse images of ships pulling into harbour to a graphic Carrara marble and cobalt blue-oak side table riffing on of the nautical communication and a charming luminaire inspired by a lighthouse beacon, Saint John-based Geof Ramsay‘s works make subtle but evocative references to the East Coast vernacular. According to the multi-disciplinary designer, who studied transportation design prior to his career in furniture and products, his growing portfolio of everyday objects looks to “re-imagine and re-frame ubiquitous elements and deeply rooted cultural icons of the Maritimes’ distinct cultural character into contemporary design.”

With the establishment of his studio Harbour in 2014, Ramsay continues, as its moniker suggests, to craft effortlessly refined objects that feel at once enmeshed in the landscape of Atlantic Canada, yet equally at home anywhere.

Why you should know them:

Though the designer has jokingly referred to his East Coast outpost as “kind of like Brooklyn when it was in the art boom,” Ramsay has enjoyed his fair share of international exposure — from NYCxDesign to Maison et Object in Paris to the most recent edition of Toronto’s DesignTO. And, according to the designer, there’s much more to come.

11
Fathom Studio, Nova Scotia

“Two opposing methods of landholding: a thoughtful linear and river-oriented allotment by a semi-nomadic turned agrarian people versus an unnatural grid-based system imposed on one nation by another,” explains Fathom Studio. This project description for Lot 47 at Batoche National Historic Site reveals a sensitivity to history and culture that defines much of the Dartmouth-based firm’s best work.

At Lot 47, the once-thriving Métis village of Batoche is commemorated with a series of understated interventions — including a delicate yet striking platform — that replicate traditional land use patters while framing views of the majestic natural surroundings and referencing the Métis people’s relationship with the land.

Why you should know them:

Lot 47 isn’t the firm’s only nuanced public intervention. Upcoming projects at the Borden-Carleton crossing in Prince Edward Island and Dalhousie University in Halifax, to name a few, will surely follow in stride: activating natural environments and fostering social interaction.

12
Nine Yards Studio, Prince Edward Island

This year, Nine Yards Studio was one of two firms awarded RAIC’s Emerging Architectural Practice Award (the other being Toronto’s Partisans). The accolade is well-earned: The Charlottetown “collective” has been demonstrating its inventiveness across many scales, from institutional and residential to installation, since coming on the scene. Its Fundy Amphitheatre is a boldly geometric building whose multi-faceted form was calibrated to accommodate acoustics and views to the outdoors. Both its Tryon Hill House and River Cabins play up the gable-style buildings found on traditional PEI farms, but with unapologetically modern aesthetics and arrangements. 

Why you should know them:

Alongside these striking projects, the firm also engages in more experimental endeavours: among them the Urban Beehive Project — which “highlights the importance of pollinators and their role in a sustainable environment” — and the String Theory installation, an ethereal threshold made of nothing more than wood and pink rope.

13
Carvel & Helm, Newfoundland and Labrador

From the Fogo Island Inn to Raymonds in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador’s hotel and restaurant scene has achieved world-class status over the past 10 years. Now, as the output of such locally based firms as Carvel & Helm makes clear, the province is also fostering a calibre of homegrown hospitality designers to match.

Led by interiors experts Sarah Parker Charles and Nancy Shepherd Bragg, Carvel & Helm has a number of dynamic eateries, including Terre Restaurant in St. John’s and Broomstick Brewing & Taproom in Corner Brook, under its belt. Both are distinguished by the practice’s honest yet sophisticated aesthetic, a look that combines robust woods and metals with dynamic tilework and art. In Corner Brook’s Hew & Draw Hotel, the approach is writ large, extending to charmingly textured rooms overlooking dramatic landscapes.

Why you should know them:

In addition to hospitality, Carvel & Helm’s expertise includes the planning and design of office, retail and healthcare spaces. All are distinctly of their place — and places you want to be in.

13 Canadian Designers to Watch

From coast to coast, these innovative practices are shaping design north of the 49th parallel.

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