Meet B.C.’s top designers

B.C. is known for its natural environment and active lifestyle, and its design—interior and exterior—reflects that. Buildings are designed to bring the outside in, and clothing to allow unfettered enjoyment of the outdoors. And B.C. designers are increasingly exporting that expertise globally. The province has produced architects such as James Cheng, who recently designed a residential tower in Honolulu applying the principles of design he perfected in B.C. Lululemon’s iconic athletic wear—made for a casual, active lifestyle—is now worn in yuppie enclaves from Buenos Aires to Brisbane. Herewith a look at the local designers who are bringing Beautiful B.C. to the world.

Recognized for designing the podium-based condominium towers associated with Vancouverism, James Cheng studied architecture at Harvard and apprenticed under Arthur Erickson. He was junior designer on the Robson Square law courts, and his designs include Living Shangri-la in Vancouver and Toronto, the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Nordstrom Pacific Centre and international projects such as the Azure residential tower in Dallas and Waiea mixed-use residential tower in Honolulu.

Since arriving in Vancouver in 1970, Cheng has seen the practice of architecture change: years ago only a handful of architects, like Arthur Erickson, had the opportunity to practise outside of Vancouver, he says. “Now we have architects that practise all over the world, and world architects come to practise in Vancouver.” He attributes the change to the livable region strategy, the planners who insisted on a walkable downtown and Expo 86 displaying Vancouver to the world. “It’s a whole collective of people who made Vancouver what it is, and the world liked it and started to hire us,” he says. “That’s how I got interviewed for a project in Las Vegas, in Dallas, in Hawaii, because they came to Vancouver and they heard Vancouver was the place to be if you want to study high-density urban living.”

One criticism of Vancouver architecture is the lack of iconic structures—that the buildings are glass boxes that all look the same. To Cheng that reflects the principle of livability and sensitivity to the environment. “West Coast modern, so to speak, is about designing from inside out: we want to design to look at the views, we want to bring the nice weather in, the sunshine and all of that,” he says. But that, too, is evolving. People are starting to want architecture that stands out from the crowd, and signature buildings designed by high-profile international architects make developers more willing to let local architects to be more creative.

Other B.C. architects with an international profile include: Bing Thom (University of Chicago Center in Hong Kong, Woodridge Library in Washington, D.C.), Patkau Architects (Mishrifah Villa in Saudi Arabia), green building advocate Peter Busby (Meriwether condo towers in Portland, Oregon), and wood building advocate Michael Green (T3 seven-storey wood office building in Minneapolis). And collaborating with internationally acclaimed architects for more than 60 years is the renowned landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, now 95 years old. Her projects include the New York Times Building, National Gallery of Canada, Vancouver Public Library and Robson Square law courts complex.

Spanning both architecture and interior design, Bricault Design recently designed a laneway house in California and is renovating a New York residence to LEED standards. Interior designer Alda Pereira (muse for Vancouver’s Alda lofts) focuses on private homes and real estate developments in Canada, Palm Springs and Europe. Mitchell Freedland designs both residential and commercial interiors, including the Residences at Hotel Georgia, Metropolitan San Francisco and Grand Horizon Tokyo, while Chil Interior Design focuses on hospitality spaces such as Shangri-La, Hilton, Fairmont, Starwood, Marriott and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts worldwide.

B.C. is known for our livable take on furnishings—but Niels Bendtsen, whose iconic Ribbon Chair is in the MoMA permanent collection, says it is challenging to design and manufacture furniture in North America because of the lack of stores to sell to and subsuppliers to supply components. When he began producing his Bensen line in the 1980s, he had to outfit his Vancouver factory with a metal shop, computer-aided woodcutting and routing, veneer pressing and upholstering. By contrast, his factory in Italy assembles furniture using components from local subsuppliers. As well as at his own store, Inform, he sells through national and U.S. dealers including Design Within Reach and distributes throughout Europe, Japan and Australia. “To put it in perspective, we have maybe 40 or 50 stores in North America we can sell to, and we have 200 in Holland alone.”

Other B.C. members of the furniture elite: Molo Design (its Softwall room divider is also in MoMA’s permanent collection); Martha Sturdy (jewellery and home furnishings designer to the stars—Brad Pitt and Donna Karan are fans); Christian Woo (whose residential and commercial furniture is sold in Toronto, San Francisco and NYC); Brent Comber (making furniture from reclaimed local wood for residential and commercial spaces from Seattle to Tokyo); and Judson Beaumont (whose quirky Straight Line Designs furniture has appeared in international publications including Russian Elle and the Holland Herald).