SPOTLIGHT: Jake Whillans

Jake Whillans. Photo courtesy of Jake Whillans.
Jake Whillans. Photo by Matthew Tammaro

It’s a good time to be Jake Whillans. In a studio space he shares with fellow designer Dan Gruetter in the depths of small-industrial Etobicoke, his works-in-progress are stacking up: a sleek white-oak-veneer torsion-box platform bed for a private client; his Barstool of white oak and wool upholstery, whose design he is tweaking; and prototypes for a set of planters/side tables in beechwood, cast bronze, soapstone and spun brass. A soapstone sommelier counter he designed for French restaurant Alo (at Queen and Spadina) just went out the door; a new bench typology in white oak and vegetable-tanned leather is being installed at Glassbox Barbershop in Harbord Village; and a rough-sawn white-oak boardwalk he recently installed at the Alex Wilson Community Garden will open in April. He’s also working on prototypes for a new line of furniture from MSDS Studio. Not bad for a thoughtful, self-effacing, unflashy guy who officially launched Jake Whillans Studio in August.

Whillans, 30, was born and raised in the transforming borderland between Brampton and Caledon. In his youth, his family home backed onto a small tributary of the Credit River; beyond it lay pastureland, and beyond that enough forest and meadow to keep a curious child stimulated. Like his father, he liked to build, fix and tinker with things. After attending Mayfield Secondary School for the Arts, he began post-secondary education as an engineering student at the University of Waterloo before moving to Toronto to study English Literature at the University of Toronto. “I was restless,” Whillans says, “and about halfway through my studies I became somewhat disillusioned by the academic world and made the arrogant decision to leave school altogether.” After a year of playing in a band that wasn’t going anywhere and writing poetry that would never be published, he decided to allow his mathematical side another chance to express itself and found work as a mechanical systems designer, developing a skill set in vector-based design software. “In my spare time I wrote, practiced piano, built computers and what today I wouldn’t exactly call furniture,” he says. He regards this three-year period as invaluable, versing him in all the commercial and industrial requirements of projects in general.

Leather Bench, white oak and vegetable-tanned leather finished in tinted hardwax oil and beeswax. Photo courtesy of Jake Whillans
Leather Bench, white oak and vegetable-tanned leather finished in tinted hardwax oil and beeswax. Photo by Matthew Tammaro

Quite by chance, Whillans discovered Sheridan College’s Craft and Design program. “My partner, Amira Shabason, held a summer intern position at the Ontario Craft Council [now Craft Ontario],” he recalls, ”and it was likely a Sheridan graduate exhibition that inspired me to consider this new career path as a maker of furniture and objects.” He was eventually accepted to Sheridan, which proved to be a smart move, and he characterizes his time there like this: “First year was an eye-opener, revealing all I needed to learn; in my second year I had doubts, I thought, ‘This is too difficult’; in my third year, it all came together. As both a physical and intellectual space to explore the poetry of things, it was somehow exactly what I had been looking for in an educational institution. With the guidance of studio head Peter Fleming and program coordinator Gord Thompson, I came to understand the significance of a well-designed object while developing a competent set of skills.”

Fleming characterizes Whillans as a rare talent. “Jake is no stranger to hard work, although he is phenomenally modest about his significant achievements in the design and fabrication of some of the most elegant furniture forms I’ve seen recently,” says Fleming. “He exhaustively explores form and the appropriate selection of materials to resolve concepts that are informed by the canon of Scandinavian and Japanese design. The resulting pieces are fresh, individual, and somehow seem inevitable; his craft is meticulous and his aesthetic compass always points true north.”
Whillans’ furniture, designed while at Sheridan and made of locally sourced materials, includes the Barstool and an elegant Lounge Chair of white oak; Truss occasional tables in walnut and maple, “inspired by the venerable strength of early architecture”; and the playful Mars Console, a low-lying record/media cabinet with sliding Corian doors that “reproduce the topographical shades of our distant neighbour.” The piece that has garnered the most attention, though, is his sustainable Leather Bench, made of local white ash and vegetable-tanned leather. A project of his final year at Sheridan, it was inspired by a currach: a traditional Irish boat with a wooden frame, over which animal skins or hides were stretched. As noted in the Globe and Mail, “Whillans spent hours looking into the history – and environmental implications –of leather, tanning and dyeing before concluding that its durability and availability as a by-product of the food industry was the right fit. He then searched for a vegetable-tanned leather source (he settled on a tannery in Pennsylvania) and hopes in the future to be able to get info on each specific hide – like how the cow lived.”

Photo courtesy of Jake Whillans
Photo courtesy of Jake Whillans

After graduating in 2015, Whillans worked at Toronto design studio Hollis+Morris, specializing in modern furniture. His boss, Mischa Couvrette, remains a mentor, as do Heidi Earnshaw of Heidi Earnshaw Design and Jonathan Sabine of MSDS Studio. “Jake is both an exceptional craftsperson and a solid, nuanced designer,” says Sabine. “It’s fairly rare to come across someone with talent in both areas. His work shows an interest in classical proportions enlivened by a rigorous minimalism and an interest in Modern forms.”

“I make furniture because I am fascinated by the effect that visual and spatial qualities have on our consciousness,” says Whillans. “Subtle in form and quite often restrained in its use of ornamentation, my work employs both digital and traditional means of making, while a consideration for the longevity and sustainability of my practice underlies every decision that I make. I strive to provide objects that are quietly expressive, progressively timeless, and delicate yet with an utmost concern for craftsmanship.”

Is it a good time to be Jake Whillans? Yes, if you don’t mind the stress that comes with being in demand. Yes, if you can handle working evenings and weekends, after a few years of working evenings and weekends. Yes, if you make certain you’re not busy doing the wrong jobs. Yes, if you can find a way to produce your furniture in a way that is both ethical and economically viable. “I do often question the sustainability of my career path, but I think every creative person does,” Whillans admits, with a good-natured shrug. “Besides, it’s an extremely unproductive way to start thinking as I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.”