Cross-Pollinator: Jeffrey Forrest


Jeffrey Forrest (Portrait by Stacey Brandford Photography)

Jeff Forrest

Founder at STACKLAB


This Calgary-born, Toronto-based designer has successfully executed projects in furniture, sculpture, installation and architecture. Working in close collaboration with experts in fabrication, craft and science, STACKLAB’s work has been exhibited at fairs in NYC, Chicago and even Paris Fashion Week; has received multiple awards, and been acquired by the City of Toronto’s Fine Art Collection, and the permanent Collection of the Embassy of Canada to Iceland in Reykjavik.

We’re very dedicated to cross pollination and really the exchange of ideas between disciplines and industries, it’s become a pillar in our firm and it’s really a commitment that we dedicate ourselves to more and more every day. But before discussing cross-pollination, I really want to discuss innovation. It’s really the root of today’s conversation in my opinion. It gets my team out of bed in the morning: to speak boldly, I think it’s responsible for moving civilization forward, for advancing the human conversation, and it paves the way for meeting qualitative improvements in our lives. I really do believe that nothing is worth doing if it’s not in its name.

I admit as a practice, we don’t always succeed. But as time passes, we were becoming more and more committed to this ideal.

In order to bring innovation to my practice, I’ve looked for inspiration and leadership from a variety of disciplines and sectors. Hands down the best source has been the tech sector. Odd, maybe coming from somebody speaking at an interior design panel, but it’s relevant whether you agree with what these companies are doing or not, you must admit that they’re producing the most rapid iterative disruptive products in the world today, they’re provocative and elicit action and reaction at an alarming rate.

I’ve researched these companies and there’s a single thread that links and enables them, and the overwhelming majority of their peers, to do the work that they do and the way they do it. It’s called a tech stack. In tech a stack is broadly defined as leveraging a plethora of existing technologies, infrastructures and human resources to make a product.

Two observations I’ve made about the stack that are relevant to today’s conversation are: one, as a model, it’s implicitly collaborative. In fact, it’s completely dependent on third-party input. Two; it centres around design not invention.

A quick aside: when I say design, I don’t mean the way it’s been appropriated by society as a hashtagable or pinnable sort of aesthetic-only concept. I mean it according to the true definition as a way of problem solving through applied critical thinking. It’s a practice that involves the collection of data, critical interpretation of that data and then measured holistic response to it: that’s design. That’s what these companies are doing. They aren’t reinventing the wheel: they’re proudly standing on the shoulders of giants and affecting small, but mighty incremental changes that propel us forward. It’s brilliant really. So brilliant, in fact, I’ve rather shamelessly adopted the model as my own.

But it’s for good reason. At Stacklab, we operate within a constellation of trusted experts in fabrication, engineering, science, craft, business and even politics, we learn from them and engage them all in dialogue that centres around applied critical thinking. The second part of my practice came to me more honestly. The lab is researching relevant fields of inquiry and experimentation as a way of applying and testing our research. All of this is done collaboratively.

So at the end of the day our practice looks a lot like this. This is where we play. This is where we cross pollinate so that we can innovate.

Staying on tech for a moment longer. It’s worth pointing out that these companies that I mentioned before are almost all offering product rather than a service. It might seem strange then that a firm like mine that spends approximately half of their time on design as a service would borrow this much from a speculative model. You might ask where does the client fit into this idealistic model. That’s what I want to focus on for the remainder of my presentation.

In my opinion, this is a traditional service model in service of client. I call it a model of dilution. It starts with the client coming up with an idea and sort of half-baking it with a series of consultants before passing it down the chain to a series of designers who add to it as best they can in a way that’s myopic and discipline focused. So that by the time it reaches the bottom it’s not necessarily cohesive and not really offering anything new necessarily or innovative. And unfortunately, even if one of these siloed thinkers has an idea that they want to run back up the chain, it becomes too expensive to implement. That’s where the trope comes from about clients getting in the way of a project reaching its full potential.

I think this is a big problem and I think it warrants a much-needed cognitive shift in the way we understand the role of clients in design. I believe every client, private or corporate, is a product designer either designing their own brand or their business. The key is not to remove the client from the equation or view them as an obstacle. It’s rather to welcome them into the stack as a strategic innovation partner. The key is to engage them in a product design contract not a service contract. This is a stack-based product model. It de-segments critical thinkers so they can contribute to the idea at the point of genesis to make it stronger collectively.

Our role in all this is not necessarily to be an expert. More than anything, it’s to provide a forum for design to really take place. That’s Stacklab.

The newest addition to Toronto’s Stackt Market, the Forme Pavilion by Stacklab is a 5,000-sq.-ft. food and beverage area, covered by a scaffolding structure, itself wrapped in an undulating Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) roof. (Photo by Sean McBride)

In my remaining minute or so, I’d like to reference an example where we recently and successfully brought a client into the stack. You won’t believe it when I say this, but Stackt Market: the name is pure coincidence. We have of course stacked and Stacklab operating a design stack that they borrowed from tech stack. It’s too much I know. I won’t go into too much detail about the project itself due to time constraint, but what’s noteworthy is the client came to us to design a food and beverage tent on a temporary plot of city land and we ended up rewriting the brief with them assembling a team of exciting consultants and local trades to instead design a prototypic cultural space made using off-the-shelf construction materials, the goal being to make an argument to urban developers that they can feasibly convert portions of their notoriously antisocial job sites into real cultural hubs.

These are a few images of the project at Stackt Market.

The system is fundamentally based in standard scaffolding. It employs the use of standard shrink-wrap — all recyclable. It’s the same material that water bottles are made from. There’s over 90,000 pounds of concrete ballast — all materials that you find on construction sites that have been converted into something useful and engaging.

Collectively, we elevated existing technology, existing infrastructures and existing human resources through design. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, but we sure as hell put it to fresh use and we did it all with our client right there with us. Thank you.