Cross-Pollination: Embracing Inspiration from Alternative Disciplines

Ideas cannot and should not be contained, and if designers open their strategies up to being influenced and inspired by diverse aesthetic disciplines, they will unlock new resources of materials, behaviours and emotions that when fused together can increase our experiences and bring greater pleasure to our material and immaterial lives. The multibillion-dollar creative industries of fashion, art, film, automotive, and others are rooted in parallel passions for making beautiful things and solving problems, which should make them deep wells of inspiration for anyone that calls themselves a designer and is staring at that flashing cursor on the screen, searching for a conceptual blockbuster.

This past December in Toronto, The Buildings Show brought back the Interior Design Roundtable, for which moderator Peter Sobchak, editor-in-chief of Canadian Interiors, assembled a group of four creatives at the top of their games to explore cross-pollinating design ideas and strategies: Jeff Forrest; Michaela MacLeod; Mark Steel;  and Christopher Bates.

Left to right: Jeff Forrest; Michaela MacLeod; Mark Steel; Christopher Bates. (Portrait by Stacey Brandford Photography)

I think from the presentations it is pretty clear that we have four individuals up here who are greatly inspired by a broad cross-section of the different design disciplines and I’m sure we would all love to chat with them for hours about where their inspirations come from how they integrate them. Maybe a lot of that will come out in the conversation this morning, but I’m going to jump right over that and go to another topic: there’s also the business considerations. We all must, dare I say, pay the bills, and pay attention to how we run our businesses. Mark you mentioned a lot about how much creative collaboration there is and how you achieve the visions that you guys are asked to do, but I’m also curious for all four of you. How do you manage those client relationships? When you’re given a brief, or in some cases are given a certain set of marching orders, you also want to try and push the boundaries a bit. You also want to raise the bar of the quality of what you’re asked to do and what the output ends up becoming. I find it curious that you each sort of have a different set of clients that you have to work with. In Christopher’s case, it’s not that many — you can pick and choose a little more because your primary focus is your fashion brand. But other ones like the case of architecture and design, it’s not that easy. So Jeff, how do you work with clients on that level to try and bring in new inspirations or push the boundary?

Jeff Forrest: The process starts as I mentioned by bringing them into an active conversation about what they’re trying to achieve at a broader level and engaging them in a capital “D” Design discussion that is not really discipline-based but more holistic. In that case, if they want to go down that road, it becomes a very collaborative conversation and is usually quite fruitful. If they’re reluctant to go down that road, we can either pivot and sort of come to a compromise or there is no compromise to be had and we end up getting our asses fired. [In that case] what I have as a backup is a section of my business that’s speculative and I can turn research and I can turn design product into actual product and leverage it in a different way so that no work that we’ve done becomes wasted.

 That kind of applies to a lot of what you do, Christopher. A lot of your lines are speculative: you design them with input, I’m sure, but then you put them out to the market and wait to see how well they’re received, correct?

Christopher Bates: Yeah, I design about 50 pieces when I do a new collection, and a store like Nordstrom, which is my main retailer for the clothing, might pick up 20 of them. So I have 30 designs that I’ve designed and prototyped they never really make it to the retail level. That’s not a total waste though because I do use those pieces on the runway when I designed the collection. I’m thinking okay, maybe 80 per cent of this is commercial and then 20 per cent of it is a little bit more creative. And those are the pieces that are great for the runway, they’re great for editorial, great for photo shoots, marketing, press, dressing celebs, whatever. And you hope that the retailer will go a little out of their comfort zone and maybe take some of those pieces because that’s where you can show a little bit more of your creativity and design. But it doesn’t always happen.

Mark Steel: I have a very similar interaction to what you’re describing. But my process tends to be much more organic in that the clients are involved in all aspects at every step of the way and have a very specific intention for what they would like. But what often happens is in the sort of negotiation between the realities of different things, like time, budget and even when you actually start to present the idea of a production you start to put together this whole basic palette for what this project is. It starts to become as open exchange and everybody starts to understand that it evolves, so we’re always in communication through the whole process from start to finish about each change and each evolution, and it’s always a consensus which ensures that no step is taken without everybody agreeing. Which is great. But when it works a lot of times it’s about disappointments or it’s about fighting but typically that’s how we get to the end of a project.

 Michaela, in your case, a lot of projects from Polymetis would qualify as public art and in that case the client really is a municipality or a civic body of some sort which, while a bit of a cliché, seems to me like they are not that receptive to push back. They’re a little more rigid in terms of their expectations than some of the clients that maybe some of the other panelists have encountered. What is that working relationship like? How do you execute what you want to do in a fairly tight and not very organic client structure?

Michaela MacLeod: I guess for us a bit of the commercial aspect is removed, so we don’t have a lot of, let’s say, design feedback from towns and the cities we work for. Their considerations are mainly maintenance: how many hours is it going to take to maintain; who’s going to weed-whack around it; who’s going to repaint this thing. And safety issues: are kids going to climb and fall; what’s the surface beneath it? So I think it’s a completely different set of issues. We just try to push the boundary of what’s possible in public art. Often they’re asking for a bronze object that is a solitary thing, just decorative, and I guess our focus is to create pieces that contribute back to the park and complement the park.

Within all your presentations there is a lot of similar language that illustrates just how much overlap there is in these different design disciplines, and that’s great. Everyone I think is going to agree that softening the boundaries between the different disciplines, when done well, is a great source of inspiration. But I’m curious to flip that around a bit and I’m wondering is there any point at which certain types of certain topics or certain design disciplines would be inappropriate to borrow from or appropriate from those other inspirations? Or is everything fair game as far as borrowing design ideas and design inspirations?

JF: I think everything’s fair game. Design is everywhere, and I find as much beauty in an Excel spreadsheet as I do a floor plan. I would say we should not be discriminating for any particular reason. I think that there’s a lot of value in looking cross-platform no matter what and frankly, we have a lot to learn from people who are specialists in areas that we wouldn’t even think to necessarily approach.

I would assume that would be the case for most creatives, but the reason I put the word “appropriation” out there is because it’s a big word these days. What is the difference between “borrowing” and “stealing”? “Homage” versus outright ripping someone off? This is a big issue in various disciplines within the design industry in terms of IP ownership and copyright. I’m not sure how much of an issue it is in fashion in terms of litigation, but how do you protect your ideas yet also borrow without getting blowback like “you stole my idea, and I’m going to sue you!”?  I know in the film industry, it’s a big issue these days, isn’t it?

MS: Well, it is on certain levels. I think on a larger scale the film industry is all about keeping an audience and building an audience and things that worked get recycled and reworked. There’s always that idea of “Do it like that, do it like Game of Thrones or do it like 2001.”  Often the very beginning of my process is actually about an appropriation of an idea. Like I said, when they pitched The Umbrella Academy to me it was like, “it’s The Royal Tenenbaums meets X-Men”. Right away we’re already talking about genre expropriation or a mash-up of genres that have a whole bunch of licensed ideas inside of them. But we don’t sort of run at that and say we’re doing exactly that, but we always try to stay adjacent the to? idea by saying we want the energy of an appropriation. We want the energy of Stanley Kubrick; we want the energy of Wes Anderson to infuse our project, but we don’t want to be accused of actually doing exactly what they do. We always sort of run up as close as we can and then we bring a new idea in at the last minute. That’s sort of how that works. Where we get into trouble is when we do a literal appropriation where we might take an artist’s piece and put it on the screen without their permission. That’s the thing studio lawyers try to keep from happening — copyright infringement. There are some very complicated and very rigid rules about that. But creatively speaking we always are just trying to get away with being as close to some other idea that we all really love and appreciate and know and then add our piece to it.

Christopher, how do you protect your designs? Or is that even an issue in fashion?

CB: It’s difficult. One of my signature designs is a white dress shirt with a kiss on the collar. Now as far as I know I was the first person to do this commercially, but there’s been several brands since that have copied it, it my opinion, because I’ve really put it out there. It’s what I’m known for. I spoke to a lawyer early on and they just thought that that wasn’t something that you could copyright. It’s a good idea, it’s kind of particular but it didn’t seem like I could actually protect it. I’m still looking into this, it’s kind of an active thing and something that I do want because it’s a real signature for my brand. But fashion is really tricky and fashion law is still kind of a new emerging realm, so there’s not a lot of precedent in my industry.

 JF: First an editorial comment: copying is not design; its unlicensed manufacturing. So while those people are bad people I don’t think that it’s bad to consider the great design canon as you work. I mean, if somebody does work here and you feel that you can add positively to it by referencing it or paying homage to it than I absolutely think we should be doing that, so long as it’s advancing the conversation. But more with respect to protecting IP, there’s an interesting way around that. We in my practice on the product or speculative side, we straddle the line between goods that can be made infinitum as products that you buy in furniture showrooms, and we also make items that are sold in the art market and in limited editions. Anything that’s limited and qualifies as art can be protected very easily: anything that is a product that is mass manufactured cannot. So sometimes what we find ourselves doing in the luxury market is we will just make a larger limited run to protect it. So I’ll make a hundred units instead of 10 and if I can sell a hundred of something in that market then that’s good for me anyway, but I’ll just cap it at that and I know I can protect it because it’s “limited.”

Christopher, you said something that caught my ear. I was talking about ownership protection and you brought in the word “brand” which I think is an interesting extension of what I’m talking about because you’re right: the white shirt with the kiss on the collar is in essence a brand and one you’re known for but I’m wondering how you think about brands as potentially limiting to your ability to go beyond what that is. I’ll apply it to all four of you as well because a brand can be like a cloak: it could protect you a bit, but the same time it can limit what your future expectations could be. Clients might come to you and ask, “I just want more of the same,” similar to Mark’s language about the film industry. Is a brand something to aspire to, something to avoid, or an “if it happens it happens”?

CB: My goal is to build a brand, and it takes time and it takes consistency. There’s some repetition in consistency which kind of goes against the grain of being a designer and creative because you always want to do new things and push yourself out of comfort zones and push your customers out of their comfort zones, but you do have to be consistent if you want to be successful. I can’t just do whatever I want and expect people to buy it. So, I stay consistent and I evolve, and that evolution happens over years, really. It’s kind of a slow and gradual but consistent evolution and that’s something that the most successful fashion brands have done. If you think about the mega brands like a Ralph Lauren or Armani, they had this consistent aesthetic over the years, and it’s worked for them. Like I said before, 80 per cent of my line I’ll keep pretty consistent, pretty commercial, but there’s still that other 20 per cent where I can do things that I can flex my creativity with using some exotic materials or unusual cuts or different style pieces. So I’m able to satisfy that designer in me and also pay the bills.

Stacklab has its hand in many different areas: furniture, sculpture, architecture. Do you see Stacklab having a brand that’s recognizable through those different iterations or is each one a chance for you to change how people perceive the Stacklab name?

JF: That’s a good question. We talk about it all the time. I don’t want to be known for an aesthetic point of view: I want to be known for a point of view. Hopefully, if something is intriguing or speaks to a broader conversation, somebody might be like “that might be those guys,” but I don’t think that brand recognition must be aesthetic recognition. It can be ethos based. In the fashion world look at Patagonia: they’re more about ethos than aesthetic, love it or hate it but they’re very successful regardless. I think it can be both things. There is some artistic or even design license when you strip the idea that it all has to look a certain way out of the equation and just focus on what you care about. But I’m the same as Christopher, I care about my bottom line in a big way and I probably would not pursue something that I didn’t think was viable, but I’m not necessarily going to continue on a trajectory just because I know it’s viable.

 MS: Every producer hopes that their project becomes a brand on its own. I’ve worked on Star Trek, which is a huge brand that has a deep and long history and a huge number of followers. Umbrella for instance is becoming a brand: there are parodies on YouTube actually — really quite well-funded parodies — of this show that have taken our sets and re-created them themselves almost exactly, re-created the costuming, re-created the characters and performed their version of storylines that we didn’t do and that we encourage. They actually reached out to our producers and we gave them a thumbs up. We’re actually open to being mimicked: it’s just sort of a way of feeding the brand. When the next season drops there will be another sort of reinvigoration of the Umbrella brand and with it, maybe the future is that everyone will be a household name. That’s the goal.

 I think an interesting parallel phrase that goes along with the idea of brand is “acknowledgement” or “attribution,” but I know acknowledgement means different things in different design disciplines. Michaela, I’m curious what your thoughts are in terms of how important it is, especially in the public art spheres which is a difficult place to be acknowledged as the one that created this object. How important is fair attribution or honest the acknowledgement?

MM: We’ve tried, in our limited means, using Instagram and the web to acknowledge everyone we work with, the engineers, the consultants, the public art coordinators, the curators. But actually, we don’t work with that many consultants, it’s just me and Nick and sometimes no one else. But yeah, I think it’s extremely important to acknowledge every single person that has worked on the project.

In the film industry you have the end credits, so everyone’s getting their acknowledgement. But in the architecture field, it’s difficult in many cases for proper recognition to the sub-trades who worked on different projects. For me in the media, it’s something I must always try to stay on top of but it’s not that easy, because not everyone bothers to give reference to everyone who’s worked with them. I’m going to shift slightly to a topic that drives me a little crazy, but it’s the issue of digital communications — social media — and what it’s doing to the design industry. We can’t ignore its power but I’m also curious: is there an effort to either reign in or control a bit its power as it relates to, for example, the difference between design juniors doing less brainstorming and more just Instagram referencing? Is there a pushback on that or is it just another source of inspiration? Because the problem with social media is that it just gives you more of what you already like. It’s not really a tool that you can use to explore sources of inspiration that you don’t already know.

CB: You can get inspiration from anywhere, but if it’s already on Instagram or Pinterest, I consider it to be a little bit stale because everybody else has already seen that too. If you were to reinterpret it, you really have to make it an abstract reinterpretation. If you’re looking for inspiration, I would suggest going offline. That’s what I do with my team, we try and find inspiration in the real world away from screens through travel and experience and living your life and getting out a camera and taking a picture of something or sketching something when you’re out. I find that to be a much better source now.

MS: I do the same. The algorithm of online image browsing really becomes a limitation very quickly. Now, to find a theme or a resource I usually try to go to a printed version, like a book. But even that is hard to do now. It’s getting harder to find even those resources. Sometimes I go to some of the archives that exist in some of the studios in the States. But I do try to get offline as much as I can and I also try to encourage my team to get involved with the language of a particular design for a set and really explore where it might exist in reality. Open your eyes, look around, because a lot of what we’re doing is just recreating worlds that we already live in and you want people that maybe actually travelled around and understand the world there. Look up, look sideways, look down. It sounds really basic but it almost is necessary now because so many people are just changing their field of view to a very kind of short perspective.

 JF: I agree with you in principle. Although I wouldn’t discount the computer. Look, the algorithm doesn’t own us. If the algorithm owns you then you’re being lazy. I think we all have the ability to go search for content actively. Instagram is way easier than the Dewey Decimal System and it’s easy to go in and search for content that you are legitimately interested in. I think that while there’s a lot of vapid trash on social media there’s also an incredible wealth of information on there. Plus it’s a good capture what’s happening currently with our peers. I think that if you spend the time to access what’s good, then it’s incredibly valuable. All the same, I’d love to do it while walking through the streets of Milano or outside at the cottage. There’s inspiration everywhere. I just don’t want to shit-talk Instagram because I think it’s a very important thing if used wisely.

MS: I don’t disagree. I just think it’s not the only resource. When I’m under a time constraint and we’re trying to conceptualize design and execute in very short periods of time, it becomes a sort of the shorthand. But when you’re at the beginning of a project where you’re trying to do the much larger conceptual design, it’s great to get out of that world when you have the time. But nobody has the time they used to have.

JF: We can push back on that a little bit. There might be an allowance professionally for all of us to tell our clients or tell our customers or tell whoever to just wait hot second for us to take pause and really do what we need to do to produce good work, and sometimes that’s a matter of a day extra.

To your point, Christopher, I love what you said where if you see it, you already know it’s been used and is stale. Do you almost use it as a way of defence to see what’s being done to make sure you don’t do the same thing?

 CB: That’s a good point as well. I actually do pay attention to what is currently out there. I go to a site called Mr. Porter, which is kind of

like the benchmark for menswear in my industry. They have everything from all the top brands. I go there and look and say, “Okay. What are they stocking and what’s in?” and then I make sure that I’m not doing something that someone else has already done. That said, I also don’t want to be doing something wildly different necessarily. I kind of have to know what’s going on and then gauge it and react accordingly. It’s important to know what’s out there.

Michaela, on your side, is there any sort of relevance to the public art sphere for either inspiration or defense mechanisms using social media? Do you spend any time seeing what other projects have been done? I have a hard time seeing that social media connection for you.

MM: Nick doesn’t even have Instagram and we don’t have Facebook. But I do see it. I mean, I teach first year studios at Ryerson and UofT and they come to me with a Pinterest board of what they like, which I think is fine. You have all these inspirations, but then they have to make the second, third, fourth, tenth pass to distill all these ideas and make them their own. I would say that’s fine. Do your thing and come back to me with a drawing that incorporates all those ideas. I do see Instagram a lot. I do see Pinterest. That’s the main one for students. But personally, we don’t do that. In our training as architects, your mentors tell you “Go to the space. You measure it, you experience it.” You’re never going to do that in a photo.

 JF: I think it’s really interesting, too, to emphasize the importance of going out to see these things in real life because, for example, you go see Heiser in person and you realize that it’s this beautiful monumental thing, but there’s imperfection in it that the photos don’t capture. I find that when you see them in real life, it actually makes it more accessible to people and maybe to designers you think “I could maybe do that if I just put myself out there.” But when it’s always seen from the lens of a screen it maybe seems too perfect and untouchable. I agree: you got to go up there and see it.

There’s one topic I would love to get each of you to chime in on because in the creative exercise it figures prominently, but it’s a topic that not everyone wants to talk about. It’s the topic of failure. I’m curious about failure as it relates to different creative disciplines because it seems that each of you are coming from a different temporal angle where, for instance, if an architect fails the results potentially are the building collapses. So there seems to be a bigger potential scale to that failure. Whereas in fashion, there’s a shorter lifespan for these products, so maybe the issue of failure isn’t such a big deal (not to minimize it at all). But I’m curious how each of you have handled an element of failure in your in your different disciplines and what you took from that to either bounce back from or to make sure you don’t do it again.

 CB: I think in fashion you must have a really thick skin just to start because you put in all of your time and effort, blood sweat and tears and a fortune into making a collection. It’s expensive and difficult to do. And then you go out there and you pitch the collection to a lot of different stores and you’re just really hoping and wishing that you can get in there. You just want a chance to get in with a department store, but it’s really difficult. It took me years and many collections before I would get a chance at that level. That’s pretty serious rejection. I was able to get orders from some boutiques and so on so it’s not like you’re a total failure, but it’s really tough and even then, you’re presenting

50 pieces and they only order 20. So what about these other 30 prototypes here? That’s also kind of a fail. I think in my industry you have to just keep rolling. Right now, I’m working on my new collection for fall/winter 2020, we’re doing promotion for current fall-winter 2019 and spring 2020s are in production. We’re managing three different seasons’ collections all at once, so you really don’t have any time. The speed of my industry is rapid, so you don’t have any time to really be concerned too much. You take it into account, and you want to go with what’s working, but you also still have to keep trying other things.

MS: I would say my entire processes is a failure exercise. It’s set up to fail in a way. What I didn’t say [about what I showed you earlier] is we had 12 weeks to design, a Jacobian manor with a Gilded Age Fifth Avenue Apartment attached to it with a hallway with a whole bunch of features within a very large 4,000 square foot structure, all in 12 weeks to design, build, prepare and finish it. At some point it’s impossible and in those impossible moments there isn’t really a failure, it’s just a series of compromises where you try to preserve the best intention of what you started out doing, put it up there and let the edges of the frame get less of your attention. You just have to let go. Another phrase we use is “you have to be prepared to kill your babies” because you will fail if you try to do everything you set out to do. We start with the biggest idea and we basically fail to the point that it becomes the finished product. If you’re lucky you don’t go so far that it’s horrible.

How forgiving is the film industry for you not achieving your own goals?

MS: Well, funnily enough, we’re all doing that. Everybody in a collaborative production are doing the same thing. We’re all being put through the same sort of mill, whether you’re on the set photographing and blocking or you’re directing you may run out of time that day, so you change your intention, you change your plan instantly and the rationalizations start to form after that. It’s really a big huge post-rationalization, like, “Oh it’s better that way,” or “That’s what we were going to do anyway,” or we’ll fix it in post, or visual effects will come in to do something. There’s always another solution that isn’t the one that you’re currently not achieving. It’s much like having that thick skin: [you] can’t control what people received or liked what we did and want to do it again or go another way. You just have to live with it.

It feels like in architecture, you don’t get to fix it in post. You put your piece out there and it’s gotta work. It’s got to be a home run.

MM: [There’s definitely] photoshopping in architecture. I mean, people Photoshop whole storeys out of their buildings or huge mechanical units on the roof and stuff like that now to get published. So you can fix it [in post]. But rejection and failure are just a daily part of my life.

JF: Same here. I feel like we need to hug.

MM: But you get used to it, to a point and then yeah, you decide not to do those things or take another path.

JF: Failure. Oh man. It’s the story of me. The reality is it’s kind of a cliché, but I want to fail a little bit because I learn from it and I also know that I’m not pushing myself if I don’t subject myself to the possibility of failing. But I find the stack model that I was referring to before protects us in a lot of ways. I mean if we legitimately buy into that and legitimately work collaboratively in this sort of environment of cross-pollination, you’re bringing insurance to the table by having other people validate the process, validate the idea and protect you. My experience with it mostly has been when I try to go it alone or when we try to own too much of it. Maybe bringing in more people we can avoid it.

I don’t mean to be a downer by throwing out failure and asking “How have you failed? How did you deal with it?” Because obviously in the creative process you learn from those failures, and you become a better artist or a better creator. If you didn’t, you’d be stuck in a void somewhere and you wouldn’t actually be producing anything. But what I’ve always found interesting about these different design disciplines is the level to which you’re either afraid of it at the outset and then therefore don’t do things to avoid it, or if you think that there’s enough of a safety net that if I blow it, fine. Not to put the film industry in the spotlight, but it feels like you can get away with a lot more of just trying something to see if it sticks if it doesn’t, who cares, as you said “we’ll fix it in post.” But Christopher in your industry the consumer market decides if you win or lose and they’re not forgiving at all.

CB: So that’s true. I mean if you don’t have a good sell-through in one of these department stores, they will boot you. When I was pretty early on in my career, I got into Holt Renfrew which was a huge achievement and we had two seasons where sell-through was good actually, in some categories very good and others a little softer, but it wouldn’t warrant exiting the brand. Nonetheless when there was a buyer turnover, and that happens a lot in my industry where new buyers come in, and these new buyers exited 35 brands of which I was one. So there’s really nothing you can do about it at that point. You say “Oh, but I had a good sell through and now we’re just ramping things up here.” But literally you’re just out it’s that easy. It took me another few years to get into a department store after that. It was really a tough blow but you learn a lot from the process and you’ve got to keep fighting. I feel like a boxer, like Rocky. In my industry, you’ve got to fight for every single inch that you get. When I first started the business I met with John Fluevog, a legendary Canadian designer, and the first thing he said to me was “Christopher, how brave are you?” That was his first question. And that’s all he really wanted to ask me. And I said “John, I’m totally brave. I’ll do anything. I’m going to make it happen.” And he’s like, “Okay, we’ll see.” But it was the right question to ask and that’s the same thing I would ask a young aspiring designer nowadays, “How brave are you?” Because courage, failure, all these things are real and they’re daily.