High/Low exhibit: Emily Carr design students embrace imperfection

Perrin Grauer

Three of the tables in the High/Low design exhibit.

In High/Low, an exhibition currently showing at Emily Carr, students in Christian Blyt’s industrial design course spotlight solutions for turning reclaimed Douglas fir into new home furnishings.

A series of tables and benches created by ECU design students from salvaged old-growth wood is currently on display at the university’s Michael O’Brian Exhibition Commons (MOEC).

All the furniture in the show, titled High/Low, was designed and built by students in the INDD 310 Spring 2021: Wood Product Design class, taught by designer and ECU faculty member Christian Blyt. The exhibition’s title comes from the class’s design brief: to create a high and a low table, where the low table can also serve as a bench. The wood — all Douglas fir 2x4s reclaimed from Vancouver heritage houses — was saved from the scrap heap by local salvage and carpentry operation, Unbuilders.

Design students Nidhi Hira (left) and Paula Torres (right) work on preparing reclaimed lumber.

Each piece of the salvaged lumber came with its own unique fingerprint of nail holes, discolouration, and even mould. This means students were challenged to design a piece of furniture and consider their materials as individual objects in the process.

“The story is a big part of it — the story of where the wood came from,” Blyt tells me. Too often, he continues, wood from demolished or renovated houses is chipped for fill. Unbuilders’ strategy for “unbuilding” structures gives lumber a second life and gives designers a chance to work with a material that shows its age.

“A big part of the project was for these students to really embrace the principles of wabi-sabi — thinking about how we can celebrate the imperfections in the material. Because definitely, each piece is a unique thing.”

Design students Angela Cheng (top), Gigi Lui (bottom) and Vivian Tran (right) work on installing the High/Low exhibit.

That uniqueness got design student and High/Low exhibition leader Angela Cheng asking some big questions.

“How do you take a reclaimed material and make it into something where people will really appreciate and understand the story behind the wood, where it came from?” Cheng tells me. Cheng, alongside classmates Gigi Lui and Peter An, created the Mu table set.

Reclaimed wood is “a really under-appreciated material,” she continues, which many people view as undesirable due to its visible imperfections. But through the lens of storytelling, all the nail holes and discolouration can be seen as a form of “mark-making” that invites a deeper relationship between a person and their possessions.

Stencils and paint supplies lie on the floor of the Michael O’Brian Exhibition Commons during the installation of the High/Low exhibit.

Design student Ara Rattan, who created the Return table with classmates Sahali Tsang and Vivian Tran, had never worked with wood previously. For Rattan, being introduced to reclaimed lumber was “like discovering an alternate reality.”

“Working with this material was really informative for my design practice,” she continues. “I would definitely want to work with it again in the future.”

Fellow student Nhu Nguyen, who created the Litho table with classmates Shelby Sixsmith and Clementine Chang, says working with reclaimed wood provoked a value shift in her practice.

“Normally, we take lumber for granted — whenever we buy something or use something from the woodshop, it’s very pristine, very clean,” she tells me. In objects where this pristine lumber is used, the focus tends to be “on the design rather than on the material.” Through working with reclaimed lumber, Nhu says she discovered a way of working that focuses “on the materials as part of the design,” which puts the designer and material into a kind of quiet collaboration.

Three of the tables in the High/Low design exhibit.

Design student Vivian Tran, who worked with Ara on the Return table, says her own experience was a bit of a rollercoaster.

“At first, I felt like, ‘Oh, these nail holes, they’re so ugly,’” she says. “But as you work with the material, you grow to appreciate it. And people have said, ‘I actually really love the nail holes because they show where the wood came from.’ So, there’s more of a connection to its actual roots, and in the end, I wound up actually really loving it.”

Also included in the exhibition is the Stiløk table by design students Jiahui (Michelle) Li, Paula Torres, and Nidhi Hira, and the Fir table by Aaron Lin and Bear Fraser. 

You can see the High/Low exhibition in-person now, at the MOEC on Level 2 of the Emily Carr University campus building.

This article is reprinted with permission from Emily Carr University.

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