Nadia M’Seffar knows a thing or two about concrete. Since cutting her teeth making custom creations for her friends, the Vancouver-via-Montreal maker has been pushing the boundaries of her medium, creating furniture, planters and jewellery from an East Van studio as EM’SAY. You can pay her a visit Monday to Friday by appointment, or – since the start of October – at the Eastside Flea. Her collective studio space, Octopus Studios, is also participating in the Eastside Culture Crawl, November 16-19.
What is your neighbourhood and what makes it home? I’ve been living on the Downtown Eastside for the last two-and-a-half years, and Gastown for the previous eight. We chose to live here for its proximity to Strathcona and Gastown. When we first moved in we relied on these neighbourhoods when we needed anything, but pretty quickly cafes, pubs and restaurants started to open. Everything is small and intimate so everyone knows each other. I also found studio space just a couple blocks from my place at the Octopus Studios, so I walk through Oppenheimer park every day. It’s not like any other park in Vancouver but it’s always lively and everyone I talk to is friendly.
Describe the view from your studio space. I’m facing Powell Street and at the moment there’s not much to see as the space across the street is for rent. But the street is always busy with local residents and people working in Railtown at Aritizia and other offices in the neighbourhood. It’s quite the eclectic mix of people.
Your neighbourhood haunt? Wilder Snail coffee shop. It’s a five minute walk from my place and it’s right across MacLean Park, usually crowded with family gatherings and children playing. Reminds me of where I grew up.
If you had to choose another medium, besides concrete, what would it be? Wood. I already use it for some of my pieces, like the side tables and shelves, but it’s all pretty basic. I also made a TV cabinet for my place a few years ago but would love to get back at it and learn properly.
Guilty pleasure? I’m a recovering chocoholic and a sucker for romantic comedies. Yikes.
A hidden talent? My sister and I both learn languages pretty easily (and forget them just as fast, haha).
A skill you wished that you possessed? I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who can see something and be able to draw or paint it, like it’s second nature. I do paint but I have to resort to my resourcefulness with technology.
Ocean or mountains? Ocean. I’m a surf fanatic so all my vacations are taken somewhere I can find a break. But I may be just taking our mountains for granted since they are right in our backyard.
Rain or sunshine? Sunshine. I’m half Moroccan so I always joke that I need more sun than everyone else.
What do you do to wind down? Depending on when I have free time, I usually go for a walk to coffee shops or, if it’s later during the day, we either make cocktails at home on the patio or go try new places around town. We’re lucky the cocktail scene in Vancouver has been so good for so long.
“I’m a recovering chocoholic and a sucker for romantic comedies. Yikes.”
Your drink of choice? Bourbon Sour. Simple, yet always different.
Your favourite place in the world? Santa Teresa in Costa Rica. I’ve been going almost every year since 2004. It’s a small town with good consistent waves. I’m not the only one who always goes back so it’s nice to show up and see old friends and familiar faces.
A place in the world that you would love to visit? I’ve travelled quit a bit but still haven’t been to South America. I’m saving it for when I have a few months free for the trip so I can take my time and do it right. Business is usually slower after the holidays in January and February so it’s always a good time to leave. Last year I took two months off and travelled to Japan, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.
Your favourite Vancouver dish? Chicken and Waffles at Tuc Kitchen, with a side of Pork Belly Cracklings. If there’s Chicken and Waffles on the menu you can be sure I’ve tried it, but nowhere has topped Tuc’s version…yet.
A famous person, living or dead, that you would like to have a conversation with? Jesus. I’m not religious but I have a lot of questions and would love to tell him about the world today.
The penultimate design for you that you haven’t yet created? I’d like to create larger pieces like coffee tables. I’ve already designed and made a couple basic versions but the dream would be to incorporate wood pieces to make geometric patterns with the concrete.
How has your practice evolved since you started EM’SAY? Where do you see it going in a year? Five years? EM’SAY came about very organically. I made pieces for my place and friends started to make orders to a point where I thought it would be possible to make a living out of my hobby. I have no business plan and like the idea of letting life and opportunities shape where EM’SAY is going.
You’re a self-described minimalist. Name one thing that you can’t get enough of. Bottles of alcohol! Probably doesn’t sound great but I love a well stocked bar.
Name something that you’d like to see change about Vancouver? I’d love to see more festivals, street parties and bigger cultural events in the city. I’m from Montreal and, although I much prefer Vancouver, I do miss that aspect of my former city. There was always something happening, even in winter, in different neighbourhoods.
Three artists/makers you most admire? 1) Ben Uyeda (@benjaminuyeda) is an architect/designer and founder of Home Made Modern. He’s famous for his work with concrete and inspired me to start EM’SAY. 2) Janine Stone is the maker/artist behind @ifyougiveagirlasaw. She is definitely worth a follow. I absolutely love everything she touches. She does the kind of wood work I would like to incorporate in my future designs. Plus it’s always nice to see a girl kick ass in a world dominated by men. 3) Local visual artist Scott Sueme. My friends have a place right next to Kimoto Gallery and as I was walking by I saw from afar one of Scott’s painting and rushed inside. It was love at first sight.
What do you do when you have a bad day in the studio? If I don’t have a deadline I just leave and go home early. It’s the beauty of working for yourself. Some days everything just goes and there’s no point of fighting it, then leaving the studio even more frustrated. Just start fresh the next day.
Music that gets your creative juices flowing? I listen to so much music at work that Spotify playlists become boring pretty quickly. That’s when I tune in to old French music, especially Charles Aznavour. He’s so melodramatic it’s energizing. Just listen to Emmenez-moi and you’ll know what I mean. Another staple of mine is the work of Cesaria Evora. My father once went to Cuba and came back listening to her music day and night. And now I can go through a whole day with her playlist on repeat.
What is the most frustrating thing about what you do? Concrete has a mind of its own and you can’t control everything. Sometimes you go through half a bag and 15 pieces already made before you realize you got a bad bag and you have to start all over. The concrete I use is not intended for artisanal use. You can buy those and the quality will be consistant but I much prefer the colour and texture of the regular concrete you can buy at Home Depot, rocks included. It actually looks like concrete and it’s perfect with its imperfection.
What is the most fulfilling thing about what you do? I get to meet and talk to so many people which is something I never even thought would be the best part of starting EM’SAY. I especially like when clients come to the studio to pick up an order or just browse. If they take the time to book an appointment and travel to Railtown they are usually really into design. The conversations that ensue are so interesting and sometimes even lead to friendship.
What has your experience been like within the Vancouver creative community? It is the most supportive community I’ve ever been a part of. People genuinely want you to succeed and are extremely helpful. When I started EM’SAY I had no idea how me and my work would be received, especially as I have no formal training in any type or form of art. The community, especially of makers, welcomed me with open arms and enthusiasm. If you’re an outsider like me and thinking of taking the plunge, do it. You will meet the most amazing people.
Why did you move from Montreal to Vancouver? My background is in high performance sport management and four weeks after starting a Master degree at Concordia I landed my dream job working for the Canadian Snowboard National Team. Within two weeks I had left everything behind and moved to Vancouver with no intention to return. I’ve been asked so many times if I would ever go back home and I always reply that home is in Vancouver.
What are you most proud of? Being able to live off my work. When I started EM’SAY I thought I would do it part time just for fun. Because of the amazing feedback I received I took a huge risk and decided go for it and work full time after only a couple months in business. Obviously, I don’t have the benefits and security of getting a salary and I have to work pretty much day and night, but the reward is so much greater than just a paycheque.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would your career path be? I would love to go back to school for Industrial Design and see where that takes me.