‘Propellor’ Designer Toby Barratt on Coffee Rituals and Making Collaboration Work

Toby Barratt is one-third of local design firm Propellor, the work of which spans several disciplines, from lighting and furniture design to sculpture. Central to their practice are their relationships with our landscape and culture, which comes through naturally in their object forms and materials. Get to know him in this expansive Q & A…

What is your neighbourhood and what makes it home? We have lived in a hundred year old store front on the edge of Gastown. The space was pretty beaten up when we moved in, but it has great bones. With a ton of elbow grease, we turned it into a pretty sweet loft space with a roof garden and outdoor shower in the back garden. The neighbourhood has changed so much in that time. It’s now a great place to be located for an abundance of excellent restaurants, coffee shops and small music venues. We are surrounded by artists and small scale entrepreneurs – I love that energy. At the same time I can jump on my bike and in ten minutes be doing laps of Stanley Park.

Where did you go to school? I studied sculpture at Emily Carr University and before that I studied English Lit at the University of Alberta – not the most practical pair of degrees but I had fun and they’ve served me well.

What propels you to design? It’s different everyday. Some days it’s curiosity about the potential of a certain material or form. Some days it’s just the kernel of a persistent idea that begs to be fleshed out. Somedays it’s a looming deadline. Ultimately, design is the first step in the process of making, and seeing ideas manifest in the physical world is always a rush.

What is your personal design philosophy? Learn, re-learn and absorb the history of our collective material culture. Return to nature at regular intervals to investigate its forms and patterns. Explore new materials, mediums and technologies. Then, clear your head and draw on this wealth to design useful, beautiful and ecologically minded objects that will last well into the future.

How does your design philosophy influence your own personal space/home? Our homes and studio are full of our prototypes and products – lights, chairs, tables and various other objects from the past twenty years. Living with our work day to day allows us to keep learning from it. How does it wear with use? How does it need to be maintained? How can the design be improved?

What is the most impractical thing that you own? An old-school pasta maker. You know, one of those beautiful Italian roller units. Since I declared war on carbs, that baby has been gathering dust. I’m not ready to get rid of it though.

The first “design” piece that you ever invested in? When I was 18 I bought an Italian racing bicycle called a Gios Torino. It was, and still is, one of the most beautiful objects that I have ever laid my hands on. It came in one colour only – Gios blue – and was built for speed and designed to last. I still have it.

How did the team at Propellor find each other? Pamela, Nik and I met and pretty quickly became friends and creative allies while studying sculpture at Emily Carr University. We started making things together while in art school and really enjoyed the range that collaboration afforded us. After school we all pursued different paths for a number of years but came back together in 2000 to form Propellor.

“On the easy days our process includes a lot of laughter and feels like play. On the difficult days it comes down to the hard work of iterating and reiterating ideas until the eureka moment comes. Either way, working with friends makes the creative process a pleasure.”

What is the most personally challenging aspect of working as a collaborative team? Everything that Propellor makes is the product of collaboration, so everyone has to be on board to bring an idea or design to fruition. I have a lot of ideas (admittedly, some are much better that others). It can be challenging when my partners are unreceptive to one of my ideas but this helps sort the wheat from the chaff. If one of us feels strongly enough about an idea that is failing to resonate with the other two, then more work is needed. The idea must be fleshed out or prototyped and a case built for its worth. The real magic happens when everyone gets on board with an idea. Collaboration is a form of amplification.

What is the key to a successful collaborative relationship? At the centre of our process is collaboration – collaboration between the three of us and with our clients. Learning to really listen and to value unexpected ideas and directions is the key. Working together takes us places creatively that we’d likely never find alone. It’s the chemistry of combining our individual skills and perspectives to solve a given problem. On the easy days our process includes a lot of laughter and feels like play. On the difficult days it comes down to the hard work of iterating and reiterating ideas until the eureka moment comes. Either way, working with friends makes the creative process a pleasure.

Does the Propellor team have any workplace rituals? Coffee break at 2:30pm, everyday, without fail – non-negotiable.

What is the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned since the formation of Propellor? I’ve learned to stop second guessing myself and make what I most want to make. There is a lot of competition these days but the world is hungry for idiosyncratic points of view. I’ve learned that you will be rewarded for making unique work, it may take a while, but eventually people will take notice if you make the things that only you can make.

The most important lesson or skill that you learned outside of school? Making assumptions often leads me astray. It’s much better to question, inquire, test, and prototype with an open mind. This is particularly true when it comes to my design practice but it seems to be a good way to approach the world in general.

What do you do to unwind? Ride my bicycle, listen to podcasts and mess around with extra-curricular projects. The studio has acquired an industrial sewing machine and a potters wheel in the last year, so learning to sew and work with ceramics is quickly becoming a very enjoyable way to loose myself in making.

What do you do to get out of a creative funk? I have found that the best tonic for a creative funk is getting into the woods. I simply stop caring about what is troubling me after 30 minutes in the woods and that clearing of the mind makes space for new ideas and solutions.

What was your first design job? Right out of art school I started working for a number of festivals in the city designing stage sets and signage programs. The experience taught me how to design on a large scale, tricks for economizing on visual elements that would be seen from 20 feet away at the closest. This experience gave me a huge desire to design on a smaller, more intimate scale. It made me want to design and make objects that would delight upon close inspection.

What has been the most challenging material to work with? We have been working with wood since we were in art school. Our understanding of how each species of wood reacts to tooling, finishes and to light has evolved and deepened over time. We are always trying to stretch the boundaries of this understanding. Recently we’ve been working on a new series of lights made from downed Vancouver street trees that we salvage. We are turning large forms on the lathe in such a way that the wood will crack as it dries, opening up fissures in the form. There is so much to learn here. Typically, wood turners are trying to avoid these cracks at all costs. We’re breaking the regular rules in order to find beauty in the flaws that arise.

A material that you would like to work with in the future? We have been working with a glass blowers this past summer. It’s a huge pleasure to work with artists who have a very deep understanding of their medium. Spending time in the glass studio and starting to understand the potentials and limits of this material has given us a lot to think about. I know that we will be designing with this material in mind in the coming year.

“[W]e are trying to tap into a deeper, less traveled stream of the culture. The challenge is to be relevant while being genuine in what we choose to make.”

A design question that you have yet to tackle? Designing a home or a cabin is a huge challenge that I would love to tackle. My partners and I are all fascinated by architecture. To a certain extent that interest comes with the territory of our work. Our lighting and sculpture work is always in dialogue with the building and spaces that it is designed for, so we spend a lot of time thinking about and studying buildings. It’s daunting but very exciting to think about designing a building from the ground up.

A skill that you wish you possessed? I would love to posses the skill set of an Architect. I admire how great architects have such command of scale from the monumental to the most intimate detail.

What is your most invaluable tool? The computer of course…it’s indispensable. But we have a studio full indispensable hand tools and power tools as well, each of which is invaluable in the moment that you need it. It is a real privilege to be surrounded by a wealth of tools.

The most surprising or unusual source of inspiration you’ve encountered recently? We spent a week kayaking and camping in Desolation Sound this summer. I grew up on the prairies, and though I have been in Vancouver for two decades, I had yet to really spend any sustained time on the ocean. This trip was a revelation to me. By the end of the journey I had filled my kayak with a beautiful collection of found material – the sun bleached pelvis bones of a sea lion, a chunk of ancient rusted steel cable, weathered rope and fishing paraphernalia, jade green stone and tufts of dried chartreuse moss. This strange collection is laid out on a table in the studio now. It will take a while to digest the forms, textures, colour palette and so on but I’m sure that these materials will inspire work in the coming months.

Your favourite era for design? Early Modernism. I love the Bauhaus. I love the minimalism, the clarity and the utopian ideals of this period. The leaders of the Bauhaus wanted to dissolve the boundaries between the artist and craftsperson. I like that impulse. I am happiest when I am wearing both of those hats.

What design trend do you wish would die off? I’m not concerned with trends. I enjoy watching them come and go, but we are trying to tap into a deeper, less traveled stream of the culture. The challenge is to be relevant while being genuine in what we choose to make.

What is your favourite Vancouver building? The Binning House in West Vancouver is a gem of early West Coast Modernism. BC Binning was an acclaimed Canadian painter, muralist and educator who designed this Bauhaus inspired home for himself and his wife in 1939. The house is a modernist time capsule, preserved as the Binning’s had inhabited it, full of his paintings and sculptures and other objet d’arte.

Another Vancouver designer that you think we should know about? Sorry, can’t just name one…Metalwork by Timothy Dyck, buildings by Marriane Amodio and Harley Grusko and hats by milliner Claudia Schultz.

Your three favourite designers of all time? My fave designers of all time (this week) are Jean Prouve (my kind of modernist furniture), Robert Rauschenberg (thumbing through images of his paintings again and again for lessons in composition) and Piet Hein Eek (design as play and endless invention).

The design piece that you currently covet most? I’m really enamoured with the houses that Omar Gandhi is designing. I would love to have the opportunity to live in such a considered building.

Your “guilty” purchase? Recently, another 1kg bag of shelled pistachio nuts – pure decadence!

If you weren’t designing furniture and lighting, what would you be doing? Lately I’ve been wondering if I’d be any good as a cook? If I weren’t a designer, perhaps I’d be making food for people. Being a cook seems like a worthwhile daily pursuit.

  • 4. Propellor-Turn-2018-BrightPhoto
  • 6. Propellor-Oree-30-Bleached-White-Oak-2016-BrightPhoto
  • 1. Cumulus Light
  • Propellor-Myco-72-walnut-2015-SQ
  • 7. Propellor-JDG-Myco-14x6-Earnest-2017-BrightPhoto
  • 9. Range sculpture
  • 2. Propellor-BattersbyHowatt-Oree-2016-EmaPeterPhoto (2)
  • 8. Propellor-Ono-Birch-detail-2016-Bright photo

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