Past, Present, and Future

Grace Tatigian

The beautiful thing about wood is that you can trace it back to its roots, literally. The process has so many facets, from harvesting to the final product, that all work in unison that you don’t see when you sit on a chair or open a cupboard. A new project coming out of British Columbia is looking to connect all of these facets, from environmentalism to forestry, design, culture, education, and technology. I spoke to Jody Phillips, co-founder of 1st Place, an agency responsible for organizing cultural and creative projects in the Pacific Northwest.

“This is an opportunity to reconsider BC’s over-century-old relationship with and reliance on logging through the lens of design. Past, Present is a project that supports design solutions aligned with British Columbia’s recent logging deferrals,” is how Phillips describes the project. “The culmination of this initiative that enlists students, industry and leading environmentally driven companies, will be public exhibitions in both Vancouver and then Victoria in late 2022.”

Some might call Past, Present an event, but it’s more of an initiative. Equal parts school assignment, case study, design challenge, cultural exploration, collaboration, and so much more. Bringing together industry, academia, and associations, the project seeks to reframe the narrative around wood as a material.

“It’s so binary; people think that environmentalists need to be anti-forestry or that loggers must be climate change deniers,” said Phillips. “It’s very polarizing, but really, it’s more than that. We want to open up the conversation of the future of forestry in the public sphere.”

Industrial design students from Emily Carr will be supplied with hemlock, woodfibre, and offcuts from Ellingsen Woods, a family-owned and operated sawmill on Cortes Island, and tasked to create 14 to 21 prototyped, marketable, finished, value-designed wood products. The challenge of making these products marketable and manufacturable is what makes this a different and unique challenge. Oftentimes, a design challenge like this results in beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces, more akin to art than furniture. But that isn’t the goal.

“We’re not looking to create another Eames chair,” she explained, referencing an iconic design piece that goes for $6000-7000. “This isn’t for the 1%. We want to produce pieces that are accessible. We want this to be reproducible. This isn’t just an exercise.”

Luckily, they have someone very experienced at the helm, directing the students. Professor Christian Blyt is responsible for developing Past, Present, and leading the curriculum component. Blyt is an award-winning designer and Associate Professor in Industrial Design at Emily Carr University. His work encompasses a wide range of international experiences in different education, design, and manufacturing industry segments. He has experience challenging his students to create pieces that fit a certain price range.

Another part of the challenge will be understanding the cultural context of the wood. Cortes Island is located within the unceded, ancestral territories of the toq qaymɩxw (Klahoose), ɬəʔamɛn qaymɩxw (Tla’amin) and ʔop qaymɩxw (Homalco) Nations. Deeply grateful to these First Nations for their stewardship and leadership, Ellingsen Woods is hopeful their participation in Past, Present will help determine the most responsible and best way forward for their business and the island and province they call home.

“We need to take care of this land; we have what other people would call ridiculously low cut levels, probably 90% below the Allowable Annual Cut rates,” laughed Aaron Ellingsen. “But we want to be responsible when it comes to sustainable forestry, and the community holds us to that. Cortes Islanders are known to be ferocious protesters.”

Ellingsen Woods’ fibre is sourced from the Cortes Island Community Forest, which is managed by the Cortes Forestry General Partnership. The CFGP is an equal partnership between Klahoose Forestry No 2 Limited Partnership (the Klahoose First Nation) and the Cortes Community Forest Co-op (representing the Island’s settler community).

“Many of the students in this class are international,” explained Phillips. “So there’s a lot for them to learn about how environmentalism fits into Canadian industrial design, a lot for them to learn about indigenous culture – the class is going to go out to Cortes, visit the community and get some of the youth from the island involved in the design process. Right now, they’re working on the research and development process.”

At the time of the interview, the wood was at the Centre for Advanced Wood Processing (CAWP) at UBC for kiln drying. UBC is also highly involved in the project, offering up their space, technology, and expertise – all the way up to the Dean of Forestry, Robert Kozak, who provides guidance on the project. 

“In the end, we want this to be a permanent exhibition, but it’s so much more than that,” said Phillips. “We have amazing institutional partners: Emily Carr, UBC, Twig, plus, cinematographer Jeremey Cox, and award-winning photographer Alana Paterson. It’s an amazing team.”

The goal is to have the exhibition ready for the end of 2022, barring COVID curveballs. Doubtless, what we learn from the project will inform the industry for years to come.

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