The Best of the Best of Canada
This issue of Canadian Interiors celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Best of Canada Awards (BOC), “The country’s only competition for interior design projects and products without restrictions of size, budget or location,” as I wrote in the 1999 Awards issue. Our retrospect begins, fittingly, with the competition’s “onlie begetter,” Sheri Craig. She became editor and publisher of the magazine when her company, Crailer Communications, bought it from Maclean Hunter.
“After I took over Canadian Interiors in 1993 and started learning about the industry,” she said, looking only five minutes older than when she sold the magazine to Business Information Group in 2008, “I was surprised that there were various design competitions in different areas of the country, but no overall Canadian competition. I thought, that doesn’t make sense; why don’t we, as a magazine with a national reach and readership, start one? From the very beginning, the Best of Canada was successful.”
Our interview took place in the Toronto home she shares with her husband, broadcast executive Jack Ruttle; their rescue dogs; and ceramics and other artworks overflowing the walls. Her art-collecting passion contributed to BOC’s distinctiveness. Each year, she would commission limited-edition trophies from a Canadian ceramic, glass or woodwork artist, to be presented to the award winner along with the customary certificate intended for the design firm’s trophy wall. “The event was meant to encourage Canadian art as well as design,” she said. Muffy Block-Collins, a ceramist based in Hamilton, Ont., whose work Sheri had seen at Toronto’s City Hall art show, created the first series.
She also envisioned the event as “a place where people could come together and meet.” The evening kicked off with a cocktail party on the ground floor of the Design Exchange, where a month-long public exhibition of the winning products and images of the winning projects was unveiled. A jazz trio, starring Jack’s brother on clarinet, played at a moderate loudness level, enabling guests to converse without having to shout. “It was always meant to be classy. No screaming or shouting. No rock bands.”
Then guests ascended the grand staircase to the Trading Floor, where the awards ceremony took place. Radio-announcer-voiced Jack was the upbeat master of ceremonies.
On the Fifties variety TV program The Jackie Gleason Show, the host would transition to the next act by asking Lester Lanin, his bandleader, for “a little traveling music.” In that tradition, the jazz trio beguiled the time during the repetitive walks to and from the stage.
After the awards were given out, Sheri recalled, “People from all around the country would stay around and mingle. The after-party offered plenty of food and drink,” including, for five years, the Absolut Vodka bar.
The first year’s event took place June 25, 1998. Subsequently, Sheri realized she’d draw a bigger crowd by aligning the date to “‘T’was the night before IIDEX.” “They’d have two reasons to come. We were fortunate in being able to get sponsors to help cover the costs. Eventually, so many people wanted to attend that we had to charge admission to break even, though we gave tickets to the winners. People would come up to me and say that this was ‘a classy event’ and ‘the best party of the year.’”
Even the judging sessions were a family affair, with catering by Shay Gourmet, run by her son-in-law, Andy Shay.
BOC winners have ranged from one-person boutiques to multinational design giants. We asked a few laureates what prize-winning meant to them.
“The Best of Canada Awards were very supportive to expose, honour and validate the early work of our office and remain a wonderful annual survey of design—a wide range of design—in Canada,” said nine-time winner Drew Mandel Architects’ eponymous principal. “The open award categories were unique early adopters to include the various disciplines of design and should be of great interest to the complete design industry as well as the general public.”
Fellow nine-time winner John Tong of +tongtong said that the BOC “reveals the Canadian design industry as a tour de force on the international stage. Achieving a high level of professional accomplishment and creative innovation with all our projects is our aim. Winning the BOC and being published in Canadian Interiors regularly is really important in reinforcing that to our clients.”
For 16-time winner Bennett Lo, principal of Dialogue 38, winning a BOC “is rewarding for everyone on the team that worked on the project. Every time we receive an award, it’s a feeling of, ‘Oh, we’re on an international level.’ And the client says, ‘Oh, you did something good.’”
Looking back at the 419—has it really been that many?—winning projects and products since 1998, here are my four, highly subjective, stand-out picks for the Best of the Best of Canada.
2015: Kinton Ramen, Toronto, by Dialogue 38, Toronto. On the façade of this casual Japanese eatery, three-foot-tall K-I-N-T-O-N letters at floor level, and the profile of a pig above the entrance set into the upper storeys’ wooden slat screen, playfully allude to the Japanese word “kinton” or “golden pig.” Inside, feature walls are clad in highly tactile spruce blocks set at an angle, then piled in zigzags. The broad expanse of unpainted wood evokes the natural, unadulterated purity of the ingredients. Actually, deciding on which of Dialogue 38’s many winning restaurants was a toss-up. It could as easily have been, say, 2008’s Spring Rolls Yonge and Sheppard Centre, with its economical yet memorable 24-foot-wide chandelier comprising 10,000 iridescent gold-tinged ivory origami cranes; or 2016’s Yu Seafood in Richmond Hill, Ont., which prolific Dialogue 38 principal Bennett Lo, Toronto’s Asian-resto design czar, says is “the most high-end Chinese restaurant in Canada and probably North America.” His subtly detailed hospitality projects convey the client’s brand while avoiding glitz and glitter, and over-emphatic, slapstick, or literal and trite gestures.
2011: Maison Glissade, Collingwood, Ont., by Atelier Kastelic Buffey, Toronto. What fun! Let me count the ways that this ski chalet plays mind games. First, it engages in semiotics, the language of signs and symbols, to an extent rarely seen since the circa-1980 flowering of PoMo (Post-Modernism). While every winning residential project piques one’s interest and admiration, that appreciation takes place in the intellect. Maison Glissade, however, bypasses higher-brain functions, so to speak, by referencing the atavistic archetypes for “house” that we learned during early childhood. Hence the project’s wistful, dreamy Kinderszene quality.
Second, the chalet has a surreal aspect generated by the ambiguity of size. The lack of miniature elements such as mullioned windows that subdivide the façade confounds the viewer’s sense of scale. Are we near or far? Are we gazing at a full-size house or an abstracted kiddie model of a house that was put into a sci-fi enlarging machine? Is it a real house or the Platonic essence of house-ness?
Third, a lack of visual clutter—the paring away of extraneous, distracting visual elements—was a prerequisite for attaining ambiguity regarding size. The process bestowed a sense of monumentality that gave rise to another sight gag: the modest ski chalet as monumental sculptural object.
Fourth: mimesis or the representation of reality in art. The chalet is the inverse of a photograph. What is a photograph? A two-dimensional simulacrum of three-dimensional space. The chalet, as idealized in the image appearing in the Awards issue of a straight-ahead shot, with the camera centered in front of the house, is a three-dimensional rendering of a two-dimensional object, evoking a child’s outline drawing of a house.
1999: Air Canada Arrivals Lounge, Vancouver International Airport, by Patkau Architects, Vancouver. The Patkaus may be architects, but this project is pure interior design. Given a 3,000-sq.-ft. black box bereft of windows, and therefore of natural light and—what a pity in such a scenic locale—views, the Patkaus nonetheless created a cheery, non-claustrophobic salon for Air Canada passengers not traveling steerage. Views or no views, the extensive layering of wood planks along the walls and ceiling branded the location as British Columbia to North Americans, and as Canadian to international travelers, such as Will Alsop. He’s the British starchitect whose short-lived Toronto practice gave us the Ontario College of Art and Design’s beloved “Pick Up Stix” building. I asked, when he was a judge at the 2005 BOC, if he, as someone with a transatlantic perspective, discerned a distinctive Canadian design style. He replied, “From my point of view, we didn’t see anything today that’s particularly Canadian, except for the woody look of some projects.” Point taken. That wood-plank aspect also branded the Patkaus’ B.C. style when exported outside their home turf. It recurred in details such as the wraparound wood grille, a brise soleil made of oversize lathwork, inside and out in their Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec in Montréal, and in their School of Nursing and Biomedical Research Center at the University of Texas in Houston.
1998: Vox Table, by Mark Muller for Nienkämper. Numerous worthy chairs, lamps, desks and other furnishings have won the Best Product Award, but only one—our very first—rose to the level of industry game-changer, on a par with Ford’s 1908 Model T revolutionizing the auto industry. (For those in need of a history lesson: the Model T was the first automobile mass-produced on moving assembly lines with completely interchangeable parts, marketed to the middle class.)
Indeed, one can speak of the pre- and post-Vox eras. As I wrote in these pages, “In 1998, with the Vox Table, Nienkämper more or less created, then promptly cornered, its own market niche: wood conference tables that unobtrusively accommodate wire cabling.”
The text in Nienkämper’s advertisement in that year’s Awards issue conveys the pre-Vox mindset and why Vox was such a big deal at the time: “Imagine a work surface inlaid with flip-up voice/data/power modules for plugging in what you want. Imagine storage for excess cable in graceful, elliptical legs with easily removable panels.”
Nienkämper’s competitors quickly knocked out Vox knockoffs, to the extent that Vox’s amenities soon came to be considered de rigueur for a modern conference table. Remember, however, they were only “obvious” after Muller invented them.
As he explained in a 1998 interview, “We used to give ‘image’ to companies, now we give them connectivity and access. Five years ago, nobody dreamed of sticking an outlet on the boardroom table. Suddenly, no one can do without it. Really, there was no catalyst or products available to do this, so we created them.”
In a 2017 update, he explained, “Before Vox, boardroom tables were big statement pieces for corporations. Back then, the batteries in laptops sucked, they only lasted an hour and a half and you needed to plug them in. No one had a solution for that. Vox was the only product that did it, and in an elegant way. What’s the word for something that’s a game-changer? It was disruptive.”
Vox tables came pre-wired and arrive ready to plug in and use. As Klaus Nienkämper said in a 1998 interview, “It’s something that gets delivered and you just plug it in, basically. You don’t have to call in Bell telephone and the electrician and all those things you normally do.”
When Vox won Best Product again in 2002 for a version with new bases and wire management, I wrote in that year’s Awards issue, “Vox is arguably the best product in its market niche in the world, not just the Dominion.” So, quick, incoming Governor-General Julie Payette, give the man an Order of Canada!