Designers of the Year Photo Credit: Martin Tessler

Furniture Designer of the Year 2012: Shawn Place

A bike shop manager walks into a furniture store—and emerges as one of the West's best new design talents.

Shawn Place fell in love the way most of us do: by accident. “I saw the wooden Danish furniture and something just clicked,”he explains, describing his first visit to Vancouver’s Inform Interiors. The Ontario-born bike shop manager was exploring Vancouver after moving West with a girlfriend in 2005, and found himself unexpectedly inspired after popping into the Gastown shop. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do that,’ and just started researching furniture and design.”

He took his first prototype—a hand-caned rocking chair inspired by the curved lines of Haida art and Scandinavian design—to Inform owner Niels Bendtsen, whose own legendary work has found a home in the Museum of Modern Art. Bendtsen was immediately taken with Place’s workmanship and passion; now, his work sells alongside the likes of Eames, Vitra and Le Corbusier—not bad company.

Place’s handmade chairs are built with obvious care, and designed with thoughtful balance: light flows through the neat woven back of a lounger; the curving lines of chair frames are elegant and simple; exposed joinery is snug and smooth.

Judges Ross Bonetti, Cobi Ladner and Maddy Kelly were delighted by the results of Place’s home education. “He could possibly be defining the Western style vernacular,”says Kelly, while Bonetti points to Place’s innovative approaches to classical forms. “There’s a wonderful timeless quality to the pieces; they display an evolution of the craftsmanship art form.”

The girl who brought him out West is long gone, but Place—along with his wife and their child—has made Prince George, B.C., home. He has a workshop, but often weaves chairs in his basement. “I’m interested in pushing the value of craftsmanship,”Place says. “I think there’s great societal value in people learning to make things and becoming masterful at their chosen craft. To be able to put the ‘person’ back into the product not only adds value to that product, but to the maker as well.”

Though he’s done side tables on commission, Place is focused on creating the perfect seat. “There’s just something about chairs,”he says. “They can have such interesting personalities—there’s a little story with each of them.”His inspiration is varied, but each piece clearly bears Place’s mark. A sketch of an owl becomes an open, high-backed seat that envelops you like a hug. The iconic PK 11 seat gets reinterpreted in smooth, curving wood. They’re at once sophisticated and homey. (Wallpaper magazine cited Place’s chairs as its No. 2 reason to visit Canada.)

A trip to the Milan Furniture Fair last spring started talks for collaborations with some of the design world’s most respected brands—not bad for a former bike mechanic from Northern B.C. “Designing doesn’t feel like a choice,”says Place. “I see something and look at it and wonder how I can make it better. It’s just who I am.” Wl

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