DesignTO 2019

Horizon: Sylvia Lee + Jeff Goodman Studio @ Loop Gallery
Installations like this are usually ensconced in private luxury residences, but Sylvia Lee created one specifically for DesignTO. “With Horizon, I imagined looking through the keyhole of a door, and seeing the horizon at sunset,” says Lee, executive and creative director of Jeff Goodman Studio. “I wanted to translate the intensity of colour in that micro experience into a macro expression.”

This past January, DesignTO unveiled its new brand to the public over the course of a 10-day festival, which transformed the city of Toronto into a thriving network of art and design. Celebrating its ninth year, the former Toronto Design Offsite Festival encouraged participants and visitors to shake off the winter doldrums with a staggering number of highly engaging exhibitions and events in venues and neighbourhoods across the city – from the Junction in the west to Leslieville in the east, and from St. Clair in the north all the way down to Harbourfront on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Established in 2011, the Festival’s modest beginnings have expanded considerably in both scope and ambition; at 20 times its original size, there are now well over 100 events and exhibitions on offer. One-hundred-and-fifty-thousand visitors were welcomed this year, the largest Festival attendance yet. Its new name, according to DesignTO’s Artistic Director Deborah Wang, “reflects what we’ve become: an organization that realizes its mandate through an annual design festival, but also fosters community through its programs and advocacy year-round.” In becoming increasingly influential in its ability to advance the culture of design in Canada, DesignTO aims in particular to nurture emerging talent, showcasing the work and ideas of less established designers even though both newer and longstanding practices are featured.  The Festival also provides an important means by which to cultivate the interface between design and art, encouraging a more fluid process and the freedom to pursue more conceptually and ideologically based work than would be possible in a typical commercially focused trade show. It is a welcome opportunity for these practitioners to experiment, dream and play in a manner that allows greater freedom of expression while also encouraging the development and evolution of their design methodologies.

Light Cage Duo: Luvere Studio @ bulthaup Toronto
From the confines of a “prison of light” – in this case of a four-foot by four-foot structure of illuminated bars suspended from the ceiling – plants continue to grow and will eventually engulf and obscure their cage, thereby representing a gesture of hope for our planet’s environment.
Photo credit: Bob Gundu

As the Festival has grown, one of its chief strengths is the multidisciplinary and collaborative nature of the organization as well as of the work shown. DesignTO brings together art and the various design disciplines of architecture, landscape, interiors, graphics, furniture and product, and it has spawned countless significant collaborative partnerships within a creative, diverse network of individuals and organizations from the fields of culture, academia, media, government and the private sector. Its increasing prominence has attracted as key collaborators a number of previously independent design-focused entities such as the King East Design District, Come Up To My Room, and Visual Arts at Harbourfront Centre. And so, during the recent 10-day period of the Festival in January, visitors were treated to KEDD Night, an evening of convivial receptions simultaneously held along a six-block stretch of King Street East at eight participating venues showcasing an impressive range of DesignTO installations. An eagerly anticipated annual event, Come Up To My Room at the Gladstone Hotel features site-specific immersive installations by artists and designers over a four-day period during the Festival. And the winter exhibition at Harbourfront’s main gallery was given over to a DesignTO-curated group show called Surface Tension, which explores the theme of water through film, video, sculpture, installation, functional objects and photography.

Surface Tension @ Artport Gallery, Harbourfront Centre
This group exhibition by a dozen local and international designers and artists explored the forces at work on water, and its many dualities, using film and video, sculpture, installation, functional objects, and photography.

In addition to design-centric bus tours and the opportunity for social engagement and networking at the numerous parties and receptions on offer, Festival-specific programming includes a variety of rigorously curated group exhibitions, independent and smaller-scale installations, and storefront window displays. The notion of work and its impact on life and well-being has been a primary focus of the Festival for some time: in partnership with DesignTO, Umbra hosts Work/Life, an annual juried exhibition which recognizes best-in-show with an award and cash prize. In complement, the 2019 Festival symposium, entitled Unlocking the Future of Work, featured 10 industry experts leading a discussion on issues as far-ranging as meaningful work, inclusion and diversity, work space, economic systems, and ethics.

International keynote speakers have proven to be a major draw, and this year was no exception with a sold-out presentation by Studio Swine, known for their multi-sensorial immersive installations. Formerly based in London and more recently New York, the husband-and-wife team and Royal College of Art graduates enthralled the audience with the compelling results of their intensively research-based design practice that sees them routinely travel to the far-flung corners of the earth to investigate and incorporate local materials and traditions into their work.

Nearly a decade into its existence, the Festival has evolved into an umbrella organization for a number of design organizations, demonstrating that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Its catalytic effect on design culture has attracted the welcome support of funders, sponsors and partners in creating a robust community of practitioners and advocates. As DesignTO nears its 10th anniversary, the team hopes to capitalize on this positive momentum, continuing to foster the development, evolution and success of independent design.

For more information on the DesignTO Festival, please visit

Leslie Jen is a Toronto-based design journalist/consultant and former Associate Editor of Canadian Architect.