Strong suit

Sometimes one’s approach to design is bred in the bone. Toronto-based designer Inger Bartlett likes to summarize her work as clean-lined and brilliant in the sense of sharp lightness and strong saturation, with a rigorous integration of a standard vocabulary across all components of a project. Behind this crisp, light-centred and holistic aesthetic, tempered with what she calls “a little bit of punch, sometimes wittiness or even edginess,” there must always be a dual functionality. While design serves core functions, she recently told students at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, “our best clients understand the power of design; a well-designed project establishes a culture of excellence.” She believes, therefore, in the fine balance between the simplicity of form and the complexity of functional simplicity that has defined the success of Scandinavian modernism.

Bartlett was born and raised in Montreal. Her mother was Norwegian and so she frequently visited the Nordic country in her youth. She was impressed by how everything for daily life was well designed, avoided being ostentatious and seemed intuitively to reflect how people went about their lives. She identifies with Snohetta, the highly respected Norwegian architects whose work embodies a strong relationship between site, context, landscape and materials undertaken as a creative collaboration between client and designer. The importance of place and the emotional implications for its inhabitants, so clearly expressed in the writings of Norwegian Christian Norberg-Schulz and Finland’s Juhani Pallasmaa, also drives Bartlett.

Following a fine-arts degree from the University of Western, she completed a Bachelor of Interior Design (BID) within the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture (1977). “Because of the influence of the school, I look first at a project’s architecture and then work backwards. The architectural layer provides the broad strokes while the interior-design layer is about the details; and in combination, these layers drive the interior’s character and atmosphere.” 

Before graduation, Bartlett took off around the world with her mother. “It was a time of learning about other cultures,” she says, “about how people do things in a certain way and why. How weather and culture, for example, determine construction techniques and how materials go together.” As in Norway, she was impressed with how people in farm communities were so resourceful and creative while problem solving. Another outcome of this international ramble would be a commitment to a wide representation of nationalities in her office, including interns from such diverse cultures as Denmark and Mexico.

After graduation, Bartlett worked for the Bank of Montreal at a time when banks were actively promoting signature interior design. She worked with American architect John Masioni on offices on the 44th floor of Place Ville Marie and was impressed by his focus on making views of the St. Lawrence core to the design.  After a subsequent spell with Sutton Bell Associates, and backed by a solid family tradition of entrepreneurship, Bartlett established her own firm in 1984 that continues until today in the same Toronto location. Permanence, she maintains, allows roots to develop that deepen one’s understanding of a sense of place; and this then also informs one’s understanding of other, very different, places.

The firm quickly established a strong corporate client base, including landing a large underground banking space for the Royal Bank. The selection of this ambitious project for the seminal Canada Designs for the World, the 1992 Tokyo exhibition intended to demonstrate the country’s design talent, enhanced Bartlett’s reputation as a leading designer. In addition, 15 years of work for the now-defunct accounting firm of Arthur Anderson, whose local approach to design she calls “visionary,” and the Toronto offices for the Hong Kong Trade Council cemented the firm’s corporate credentials. 

Bartlett’s work with firms committed to dynamic workplaces consolidated for her the importance of understanding what other people need, whether supporting the client’s desired image, the creativity of the company’s workforce or the business’s clients. In her 2006 George Weston Limited office, she sought to give physical expression to the firm’s top-of-its-field self-image. She cut out part of the floor slab between the eighth and ninth floors to create an appropriately monumental, two-storey reception atrium centring “quietly Canadian” work areas. Clean, bright and elegantly spare, the space features carefully scaled, light-hued maple panelling and glass graphically etched with corporate values: Service, Leadership, Integrity and Innovation. 

At the offices for Vale (formally Inco), art also played a defining role. Respecting Mies’s time-honoured edict, “God is in the details,” wood panelling is delicately detailed with the company’s signature stainless steel. Along with Bartlett-designed hardware, doors and ceilings, the effect is of a very quiet, refined art gallery, all the better to focus attention on the firm’s significant art collection.

Three projects for cutting-edge advertising firms garnered considerable exposure for the firm in 2006-2008. Marshal Stearns, Bartlett’s Harvard-educated husband and now business-development partner, was instrumental in securing commissions from Saatchi & Saatchi, Fuel Advertising and Edelman, all highly publicized and recipients of numerous awards. “Your environment is who you are,” says Bartlett. “You wear it.” Thus, at Saatchi & Saatchi she created a lively, colourful but clean-lined environment using “temporary” scaffolding that both reflects the transitory nature of ideas while creating a “hip sense of energy.” At the same time it provided functional and flexible exhibition/working forms that stimulated collaboration. And, as she told the Rotman students, pitch wins increased 75 per cent.  

For Fuel, part of Chicago-based Draftfcb, the move into a 20,000-square-foot loft-like space in an early-20th-century Toronto industrial building boasting 15-foot ceilings precipitated a powerful rebranding. With a tight budget, Bartlett retained the original rich-hued maple floors and left the interestingly layered ceiling structure and ductwork exposed but painted white. To ensure a strong spatial architecture that could inexpensively control the scale and perspectives in this generous space, she used standard steel studs for framing but left them fully or partially exposed. For example, in the all-important “power” reception area, marked by a bright-red wall emblazoned with Fuel’s “Power of the Possible” slogan, a ceiling grid of studs is only partially concealed by raw, corrugated galvanized panels. The steel studs are also visible above the studio’s three-metre-high wall panels and as ghostly structure behind translucent acrylic wall panels of mouth-watering white, orange, pink and limegreen hues. 

During the same period, serendipity landed the commission for the interior of the newly reconstructed main building of Quebec’s Middle Camp, a renowned Gaspé salmon-fishing destination on the Grand Cascapedia River. Bartlett and Stearns, avid fly fishers, met the owners while on one of the couple’s frequent sojourns at the resort. Bartlett, the owners quickly realized, understood the important nuances of the fly-fishing community, such as the post-day role of the verandah (for which she would provide real wicker chairs as well as tables on which flies could be tied). As the camp is unheated in winter and hosts wet and muddy fishers in season, she also appreciated that materials had to be durable. Thus, she set out to rea
lize a subtle mix of boutique-hotel luxury and rustic lodge, both tolerant of a rugged sport but steeped in comfortable tradition.  

At first glance it appears she has deferred to tradition, leaving visible the robust wood structural skeleton of the two-storey Great Hall and enclosing spaces in mellow pine board. Eclectic Quebec vernacular dominates, including antiques but also furnishings designed by Bartlett with an eye to being fabricated by local artisans. This includes two tables crafted by lodge owner Roger Blakie, as well as dressers, nightstands and headboards built by Bruno Babin, and cherry wood vanities by Robert Poirier. There are, however, quiet nods to more a more modern aesthetic. Most notably, the stone fireplace has a strong rectilinear quality as do the mezzanine’s balustrades.  

Bartlett’s most recently completed project, offices for CIBC Wood Gundy in a top-end office building in Quebec City, involved a return to lessons learned years ago high up in Place Ville Marie. The building’s generous glazing, she says, “provides remarkable views of the St. Lawrence River and this became our focus.” As you approach the reception desk, the historic waterway that has played such a decisive role in the fortunes of the city is confronted and an even more expansive panorama unfolds in the area in front of the boardroom. 

Branding was again a key objective, with “the idea to create a forward-thinking space for a traditional working world.” Given the latter, the approach is a quiet professionalism but with her de rigueur straight and clean lines defining uncluttered, almost minimalist spaces. A firm believer in working in tandem with the trades – “an Old World way of working” – Bartlett worked closely with the Quebec architectural woodwork firm of Beaubois. If there is a twist or jolt in Wood Gundy, it is provided by well-presented, bold abstract canvases.

In the future, Bartlett hopes to attract more international work and expand her reach in the hospitality, retail and healthcare sectors. Committed to sourcing original Canadian design, she wants to design her own original furniture.   cI