Known as the City of Glass, British Columbia’s iconic metropolis has a tight-knit design scene with deep roots in the region’s past.
By Alison Sinkewicz
As appeared in GRAY magazine, No. 60
The work of Vancouver fashion designer Aileen Lee, who founded her inclusive clothing line Vestige in 2015, presents minimal and well-tailored looks.
Tucked into an inlet on the southwestern coast of Canada, Vancouver has come into its own in relative isolation. Removed from the influence of other urban centers and surrounded by nature, the city has fostered a thriving, if insular, creative community rooted in innovation, craftsmanship, and artistic self-sufficiency.
Minimalism is at home here, and the city’s relationship with the style is constant but evolving. Midcentury design was defined by West Coast Modernism, a style that emerged in the 1930s and ’40s and featured natural materials and low-profile builds that complement, rather than compete with, their surroundings. One of the most prominent architects to come out of Vancouver during this time was Arthur Erickson, whose work can still be seen at the city’s Robson Square and at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
A real-estate boom in the 1980s jolted the urban skyline upward with dozens of minimal, glass-walled skyscrapers, many of which still stand. The rapid development led local writer and multidisciplinary artist Douglas Coupland to dub Vancouver the City of Glass. Over the years, as travel, technology, and globalism have connected the world, Vancouver’s isolation has diminished. The city’s colonial legacy is being challenged, and its increasingly diverse population, including a large Asian community, is finding overdue recognition in the design scene.
Refined minimalism—paired with an outdoorsy utility and emphasis on progressive ideology and sustainability—remains an integral part of the city’s contemporary design ethos. In a precarious post-pandemic world, Vancouver feels suited to a creative process that is more intentional and reflective, and architects, makers, and designers are continuing to produce work that stands out on the global design stage. Read on to discover a guide to designers, and must-visit places, that embody Vancouver’s ethos. »
Opened in 2020, ShuckShuck presents a unique take on oysters and their typical accoutrements. Emphasizing sustainability and offering variety in an inspired array of toppings ranging from a simple Champagne mignonette jelly to more complex banh mi–inspired flavors, Shuck-Shuck’s menu offers a combination for every palate. This pared-back yet playful approach is echoed in the restaurant’s unique design, executed by Toronto’s Batay-Csorba Architects. A 56-foot-long, serpentine concrete bar meanders through the space, its curves creating moments of intimacy and connection within the standing-room-only restaurant.
Part of downtown’s Parq Vancouver—a casino and resort complex in the city center—the Douglas, Autograph Collection Hotel works hard to defy expectations of the typical casino-adjacent hotel. And it succeeds. Conceived by New York City’s Celano Design Studio, the 188-room hotel takes cues from the design philosophy of the late Vancouver-based architect Arthur Erikson, who once proclaimed that concrete is “the marble of our time.” The Douglas juxtaposes such modernist impulses with nods to nature—guest rooms feature rich wood paneling contrasted with exposed concrete ceilings, contemporary art, and views of Vancouver’s glassy downtown. The property is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions but anticipates reopening in early 2022.
Sport and utility define Calen Knauf’s eponymous line of stylish homewares that beg to be put to work. Using a range of inventive materials (carbonated aluminum panels, bamboo, blended paper pulp), Knauf brings a much-needed touch of playfulness to the world of design. Singular hand-welded aluminum vases await their flowers. The soft mesh of the Plane bowl gently cradles fruits to prevent bruising. The Sponge table made of what seems to be foam surprises users with its heft. The handheld Roli mirror is easily portable and ideal for moving around the house in search of the best light.
Knauf’s alluring, laissez-faire approach makes him an ideal partner for Stüssy—he has collaborated with the streetwear brand since 2007, when he was invited to design T-shirt graphics; the partnership has since yielded retail interiors, accessories, and branding. Recently, Knauf’s eponymous line and the Stüssy collaboration were picked up by Canadian online retailer SSENSE.
Vancouver-based slow-fashion studio Vestige is interested in the narratives we weave with the clothes we wear. Founder Aileen Lee lends an interdisciplinary perspective to her poetic, purposeful designs made with artistic, environmental, and social integrity. Since founding the line in 2015, she has paired a minimalist sensibility with immaculate tailoring to create womenswear meant to last—with sizes that are inclusive. From linen-blend separates to classic loungewear, all new styles come in 3XL, and pre-orders are available in 4XL.
In the spring of 2021, Lee launched Vestige Study, an exploratory studio focused on observing and collecting stories (from clients, as well as from locals in the arts, food, and design communities) about creative practices and sharing them on her website as a source of inspiration, a means of connecting the community, and a platform for voices aside from her own.
Founded in 2014, Barter offers naturalistic and minimal homewares and furniture: candlesticks inspired by alder trees, hand-turned maple rolling pins, pristine solid-brass bowls. The brand’s founder, Kenneth Torrance, brought his streamlined designs from his base on British Columbia’s scenic Sunshine Coast to the city earlier this year with the opening of a flagship store in Vancouver’s Eastside. In addition to the brand’s wares, the shop also offers a selection of work from local designers, including handcrafted glassware from Goodbeast and blankets by MacGee Cloth Company.
Founded by University of British Columbia classmates Darcy Hanna and Emma Sims in 2017, &daughters is a young architecture firm that is redefining what West Coast Modernism looks like today. The firm’s work encompasses residential (new construction, renovations, interiors, landscape), commercial, and hospitality design. After honing their skills at local studios Scott Posno Design and Ste. Marie Art + Design, respectively, Hanna and Sims have developed an astute understanding of modernist typologies, coupled with an appreciation of place.
The architects’ refined perspective is best articulated in their single-family dwellings, which highlight a proclivity for natural materials and a sensitivity to site that seamlessly places their work in the local design vernacular.
Photographs, from top: Photographed by Aileen Lee; SilentSama Architectural Photography; Jeremy Segal; Conrad Brown; Aileen Lee; Courtesy Barter; Doublespace Photo
As seen in GRAY No. 60