You Need to Check Out Kate Duncan’s Design Anti-Tradeshow

The 6th annual Address Assembly is going down at the Eastside Studios next week, and we recently caught up with founder Kate Duncan to ask a handful of our most pressing questions…

Let’s say you are in a different city and find yourself in a conversation with someone who has no understanding of what Address is about, how do you explain it? Address is an exhibit that features designers, makers and artists from all over North America who produce exceptional work. Everything in the show is curated based not only on aesthetics but also quality craftsmanship. All of the work comes out of small-scale studios, run by just teams of one to three people. It’s really quite beautiful! It’s the work of some of the most talented people, and also the most hard to find people, in North America. These aren’t big businesses by any stretch! There’s no marketing budget here. Just real people producing exquisite work.

I myself make furniture and I can spend upwards of three to four weeks working on a single piece. It truly is a labour of love! Most days you can find me in my wood shop behind a cloud of sawdust. So, it begs the question, how do I connect my work with someone who wants to buy it? I tried showing at traditional tradeshows a couple of times, but it really wasn’t a good fit. They’re really designed to serve corporate business with big budgets and fancy displays. I ended up spending thousands of dollars (that I really didn’t even have) to buy a booth and set it all up, just to be surrounded by people selling appliances and flooring. It really didn’t work and I actually faced some pretty hurtful discrimination too. Long story short, in 2014 I founded Address and the rest feels like history!

Putting together a show like Address is a lot of work. Like, a LOT of work. What motivates you to take on this challenge year after year? I love it. Like, I actually love it. Yes, it takes long hours to figure out the logistics of the venue, organize exhibitors, develop a social media strategy and promote the event, but once all of that is done and everyone shows up, it is really just the most amazing week! There are so many incredible people in the show – they re-fuel the fire. I feel like I would be letting a huge group of rad people down if I just quit doing it. And really, what’s the alternative? I’ve had such negative experiences at tradeshows that I just won’t go back to that. Address is here to stay.

Address has been running for 6 years and has always had over 50% female exhibitors. Is this just because you are well connected to a community of kick-ass female designers, or was it a conscious decision to be gender-specific in your search? If the latter, can you explain a little about why that was important to you? Yea, men do dominate the design industry – furniture making especially – and I think the tradeshow scene really perpetuates that. More than a decade ago now, I wrote my Masters thesis on gender equitable programming and I actually believe that equality is the only thing that can get us out of this collective mess we’re in. So yea, making sure the exhibit represents a myriad of voices is and has always been a big part of my mandate. I don’t go ‘searching’ for women or queers or POC to fill a gap or tick a box, but I have consciously created this platform in such a way that it is ‘equitably attractive’. I work hard to deconstruct barriers that women and minorities might face. The fees to exhibit are significantly lower than what you’d find at traditional tradeshows and I include things like display styling, photography and PR outreach. Making the show accessible and with intrinsic value is what makes it attractive to almost everyone (except those already being served by the tradeshow scene) so I end up with a stack of applications from so many different kinds of folx. The show this year represents 75% female founded brands and 25% LGBTQ founded brands. I could not be happier!

What are the tangible things design shows can do to ensure a broad spectrum of perspectives/voices are represented in the show? Well, as mentioned above, removing barriers and creating accessibility. That’s a big one! And something that will shift the tides organically. I also think that policy is another great place to start. If a design show, or any organization for that matter, is leaning too far one way, implementing a policy that mandates inclusion is a must. There’s just no excuse anymore. Under representing women and minorities is really not cool. It’s offensive. It’s not good enough to just say, “Well, that’s just who applied.” If that’s just who applied then your application process and how you attract applicants is flawed and you need to do something to fix it.

Does a responsibility to represent diversity override a responsibility to showcase the best talent? Absolutely!!! Equality isn’t going to happen by itself. The scales are already tipped, we know that, and if we don’t course correct here they’re going to continue to tip. The design industry is incredibly male-dominated, but Vancouver is diverse. And the best talent is diverse. If you’ve curated a design show with the ‘best’ talent and it’s not diverse, you need to take a really hard look at how you define ‘best’. You’ve done something very wrong and there’s no excuse for it.

The role of gatekeeper is problematic isn’t it? As someone who curates this show, I am a gatekeeper whether I like it or not. I can’t take everyone who applies; I’d need a whole city block to show it all! So I look at what each exhibitor brings to the table, where does it come from and what does it say. What I end up with is always an incredibly talented AND diverse line-up. I might be showing some biases here, but some of the ‘best’ new voices I know of are women and minorities. They’ve got a lot of interesting things to say! It’s the responsibility of anyone who finds themselves as a gatekeeper to ensure diverse voices are heard. It truly is.

Of course you dig all the exhibitors you have curated, so this is an unfair question, but tell us: who are some of the standout exhibitors we should keep an eye out for this year – the ones who are really blowing your mind with something new (and what are the new things you are seeing from them)? You’re cheating! HA! This IS an unfair question! I will say, you should come to the show and see all the work for yourself. I’m sure what sings to me will be different for you. Buuuuuut, I will say, I’m very excited to see the work of LA-based queer artist, Nike Schroeder and trans sculpture and furniture maker Djuna Day from Toronto too. Queer quilter, Kyle Parent, from right here in Vancouver also blows my mind.

What does a successful show feel like on opening night? Come!! Come and see. Feel it for yourself! Wednesday September 25th at 7pm. The energy is frenetic. Everyone is dressed up and feeling fly. There’s just such a buzz of joy and possibility. The door is by donation to the SPCA and there’s a cash money bar.

What does a successful show feel like on closing night? It always feels so peaceful to me. I get home after teardown, make a cup of tea and just reflect on all the things that happened. Peaceful pride.

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