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Eco, Industrial and Furniture Designer of the Year 2009: This is it Design

Industrial designer Robert Studer has always been ahead of the eco-conscious curve.

Robert Studer at his Roberts Creek, B.C. studio. His SLAB recycled glass (above) can be used for walls, furniture, countertops, stairs or to make custom signage.
Robert Studer at his Roberts Creek, B.C. studio. His SLAB recycled glass can be used for walls, furniture, countertops, stairs or to make custom signage. Photo by Martin Tessler.

Ever since he was a boy in Surrey, B.C., Robert Studer has been “cooking with what’s in the kitchen,” as he puts it. In junior high school he built a drafting table from old wooden pallets-a piece that’s now been repurposed as his six-year-old daughter’s art table. This love of reclaimed materials comes partly from Studer’s upbringing. His mother was talented at crafts and his contractor father used to bring home old two-by-fours, bent nails and railway ties. “He’d say, ‘Here are your materials,’ and my brother and I’d get to work, figuring out how to straighten the nails and work with the materials at hand.”

At the same time, Studer is a skilled industrial designer creating accessible, mass-produceable furnishings in steel, aluminum and glass, a medium that has always fascinated him. From signage for a park in Maple Ridge, B.C., to architectural panels for a Manhattan restaurant to collaborations with a Japanese furniture designer, his glass work is, as judge Roger Bayley puts it, “inspired, creative and intensely practical.”

“Glass is so finite and unforgiving,” Studer says, that it helps you “get past the idea of materialism.” His SLAB blocks unite art and industry into a versatile product: reclaimed glass pieces, infused with ethereal colour and light, that can be used in walls, furniture, stairs, countertops or custom pieces. “This product not only finds a use for old glass but arguably up-cycles it into a more durable, better quality product than the original,” said judge Helen Goodland.

Studer’s studio, which he built on a rural property on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, is a perfect expression of his design philosophy. A few years ago he moved from Vancouver to Roberts Creek with his wife (and design partner) Beth Hawthorn, their young daughter and newborn son. It was a time of personal re-evaluation and reflection, which led to Studer’s commitment to “making things that stand a chance of being around for a long time.” The studio began to take shape when he got wind of the demolition of a decommissioned lumber mill on the Fraser River. Studer went down to the site, and-$8,000 later-walked away with everything from wooden beams and steel posts to metal halide lights and rusted metal roofing to be used as siding. The whole lot was loaded onto a flatbed trailer, barged to the coast, delivered and then craned onto his property.

At 2,600 square feet the studio is capacious yet unobtrusive, and looks as if it’s been there for decades, not just for a few years. So, too, does the “living table” around which the Studer family’s life revolves. A massive, rough-hewn slab of ironwood, the table wears its history-bandsaw marks, log-sorting number, knotholes-even as that history is being rewritten, week by week, in nicks and stains and children’s markings. As judge Shelley Penner points out, Studer’s furniture, like his studio, “encourages us to look at reclaimed materials in a fresh light.”

“We’re so schooled in the notion that new is better,” says Studer. “Partly it’s the ethic of consumerism, and partly our notion of convenience.” He describes seeing a whole lot full of glass “overage”-windows that were the wrong size-at a supplier’s yard, destined for the landfill. “The customer is paying for this waste.”

Instead of being discouraged, Studer is inspired by the challenges he faces in producing sustainable, accessible design. “I’m constantly learning,” he says. “That’s what keeps me engaged.”

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