Design Process

January 8, 2014

We were recently invited to speak at the TSA’s emerging voices forum. The format was limited and demanding, but in a good way: 20 slides of 20 seconds each. We tried to thread together some ideas and theory that have gone into the creation of blackLAB as well as how we approach design. We thought it would be interesting to turn it into a blog post.

When we put together our feature space for the 2013 Interior Design Show the theme was ‘How do you work?’. We created a study film showing that while the idea of ‘work’ could take on many forms, it could all be unified and joined at a table (see slide 1). A table is essentially the blank space for thinking, designing, eating, playing… all different facets of work.

How we work: When we first started blackLAB we found a unique industrial space that we knew right away should become our new home (see slide 2). Given that the space was essentially a blank canvas, we knew we had an opportunity to say something about how we see a design firm working. The idea of a big, unifying table was central to the way we planned our work space. It encapsulated the way we saw ourselves working and running a design practice. We designed and built a large walnut table – 28 feet long – that unified meeting space, design space, and personal space, while creating a collaborative environment.

Mosaics: The idea of mosaics has formed a connecting thread in a few of our projects. One of our early ones was a painted mosaic graphic on a wall in an interior renovation. The large, pixellated graphic was created by transferring an image to a masked wall, cutting and peeling the tape, and painting (see slide 3). It was time consuming to say the least, but was an effective wall treatment. In our minds it transcended decoration by working at the scale of an architectural element. You can see the finished mosaic under “bloordale renovation” under our portfolio section.

The next mosaic we created was on a wall in our own work space. It was at a much larger scale this time: 40 feet long by 12 feet high. It was created in-situ, requiring scaffolding to move around the work surface. Compared to the painstaking painted mosaic, our methods evolved. The production was simplified by using off-the-shelf modular components. The grid was created with pegboard and the mosaic was rendered in different colours of golf tees. It was a matter of hammering golf tees into the wall (see slide 4).

The mosaic in the context of our office, forms a backdrop to our workspace (see slide 5). While some of the methods were simpler, compared to painting a mosaic, the scale of the piece caught us off guard and the execution took much longer than anticipated.

When we were invited to put together a concept space for the 2013 Interior Design Show, we knew that we wanted to revisit the idea of mosaics at the scale of architecture. Given a shipping container to work within, we decided to create a colour gradient in pencil crayons that would cover the back wall. Our process had to evolve further to meet a very tight timeline for making the mosaic and bringing it to the show floor for quick assembly.

Our solution was to create modular panels, again with pegboard that would give us an preset 1×1 grid to work with. The smaller size of the panel was much more manageable (no scaffolding required!) and we could divide up the work. We also sized the holes so that no hammering was required, further speeding the assembly process (see slide 6).

Our space featured a prototypical work table displaying the projection of the work/play study film – as a way of tying together our ideas for the ‘How do you Work?’ exhibition (see slide 7).

Relating to Architecture: You may wonder why we reference our work with mosaics when it comes to design process – we are, after all, architects running a firm and our goal is to produce buildings. It is, however, useful for us to understand that the refinements to our process of creating mosaics apply to the broader sense of design process. In the way that we learned how to produce mosaics that were faster and richer easily translates to how we work on buildings. The key thing is realizing that what you learn from one sketch or design iteration translates forward and informs the continued development of a project. Also, at its best, this learning process works from project to project. It’s not just about creating better and better design, it’s about honing the methods that get you there.

A Case Study: One project that we like to present as a mini case-study is our Georgian Bay studio. It started as a renovation – which turned into a major rebuild – and now we’re constructing an addition on the project. While this kind of ever-evolving target for a project may seem to have the potential for frustration it was a flexible approach to the design process that has helped make it a success. We worked closely with owners who were very engaged with the project. He pushed us to experiment with the design as much as he pushed for innovative materials and construction techniques (see slide 8). The project features some interesting spaces, such as a courtyard space that focuses on a view to the sky (see slide 9). Being a builder himself, the client worked with us on innovative integrated details, such as this Cor-Ten wall with fireplace and bench detailing. Here is the project as it stood last summer with the construction of the addition to start shortly. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing the final results.

Footnote: We’ve always had in interest in the way that moving images can capture and convey architectural space. It drove us to present the moving images you see above, instead of still slides, and we know we’ll continue to experiment with architecture and film.