Renaissance Women

Vancouver-based Martha Sturdy is a leading Canadian designer of furniture, accessories, sculptures and art. Recognized internationally, she is known for her bold oversized creations made of casting resin, leather, steel and brass. Her works are sold in Hong Kong, London, New York, Taiwan and The Netherlands, and can be found in the finest stores around the globe, including Baker Furniture, B & B Italia, Donna Karan Home, Lane Crawford and Neiman Marcus. In 2005, Martha Sturdy was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts; in 2001, she was named one of the top 20 designer/artists to watch for in the next decade by Metropolitan Home magazine.

So how did someone who handcrafted jewelry in her basement get to this level of success? “My work has always been about integrity, composition, and implied value from quality materials,” says Sturdy. She points to a gorgeous brass box with a resin lid, part of her new line. “That’s a made-in-Canada box,” she says. “If it was made in Asia, I would have made it in volume.” Each piece is individually crafted, so the cost of Canadian labour is one factor that controls the number produced. “I might make hundreds, but not thousands,” she says, “but each will have the same high quality. That wouldn’t happen if I shipped production overseas.”

Shipping production abroad would have been a problem for other reasons, too. Perhaps most importantly, it would have prevented Sturdy from overseeing every aspect of the production process.

Sturdy is a self-confessed hands-on person. That’s why her office also houses her resin shop, finishing room, and metal shop. If she suddenly has a flash of inspiration – say, for example, that she wants to change the angle of a metal chair back or resin table leg – she need only run downstairs to talk with her production crew to see if the change is feasible. If something doesn’t work, her knowledge of the production process comes in handy. “I’ve used all the tools myself over the years,” Sturdy says, “so I know how to fix things when something goes wrong. That’s a huge advantage.”

A graduate of the Emily Carr College of Art (the forerunner to today’s renowned Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design), Sturdy had aspirations of being a sculptor. But life had other plans. She dropped out in her second year after learning she was pregnant, and spent the next 12 years raising her family and working in a bank while her husband went to school. To satisfy her creative urges, she took a jewelry-making course at night school when she was 28, but didn’t quit her day job to return to art school until she was 32.

The jewelry course soon paid off as sales of her early pieces helped pay her tuition. It also started Sturdy on her design career.

Back in her art school days, she had the audacity to approach some of the biggest retail names in Vancouver – art gallery shops and Holt Renfrew. Success there gave her confidence to go for an even bigger audience, and her big break came when she made a sale to Bloomingdale’s. The highly competitive nature of the fashion retail business was soon working in Sturdy’s favour as other New York stores began carrying her jewelry.

Soon after, the pieces were shown in notable fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Designer runway shows followed. (Fashion industry figures like Carolyne Roehm, Oscar de la Renta and Geoffrey Beene were big fans.) At a time when the leading fashion houses began extending their lines into housewares and beauty products, Sturdy followed suit by pushing her creative passion beyond wearable art. Which for the restless Sturdy is a good thing. “I get bored,” Sturdy confesses. “If I’m interested in something, that’s what I’ll design.”

Just as she had designed adornments for the body, Sturdy traded on her growing design notoriety to move into the realm of home dcor. She launched an innovative collection of resin tabletop and home accessory pieces. (The resin tabletops also make regular appearances in some of Vancouver’s more fashionable restaurants such as the Asian fusion eatery Wild Rice.) Doors opened for international sales through trade shows in Paris, New York and London, which led to work with many of the world’s top designers.

Her current level of success has also allowed Sturdy to return to her original passion, sculpture – some 14 feet high. Sturdy credits her hands-on approach for the ever-evolving nature of her product line, the progression from jewelry to furniture and home accessories to sculpture and art. “I get excited when I discover something new or when something old is worked in a new way,” Sturdy says. “I’m always thinking of new things.”

She points to two red vases on the work table near her desk. Both are made of resin, but different shades. Sturdy talks about how she loves working with resin because of the way the material allows her to infuse a piece with colour. The two vases? One is “old” red (Chinese), and the other is this year’s shade, Poppy – “like an Icelandic poppy.”

Sturdy points to another object on the table, a brass ball with rods sticking out of it. “Some days are better than others when it comes to creativity,” she admits. “Sometimes things don’t work, so I put them aside because they aren’t true.” She laughs when telling the story about how Vancouver architect Peter Cardew (who designed the West Vancouver home Sturdy shares with husband David Wardle) thought the ball and rods might work well as a light fixture. “I’m not sure about that,” Sturdy says, “but it does make for an interesting idea. I’m sure I’ll get back to that sometime.”

Cardew once described Sturdy as a true Renaissance woman. “I guess it’s true,” says Sturdy. “I need to create things. To make things, whether it’s sewing a dress, creating a garden, or cooking a meal.”

These days when Sturdy isn’t at home in West Vancouver, or hanging out with the horses on the farm in Pemberton, B.C., the town where son Jordan is mayor and son Caleb works in trucking, Sturdy is busy designing. In addition to operating a new gallery/showroom space next to her Vancouver office/production facility, Sturdy recently instaled a sculpture and furniture exhibit in Donna Karan’s flagship store in London.

What’s next? Even Sturdy can’t say. “I get bored easily,” she says. “I’m always thinking of new things.”

Photos by Raeff Miles