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A CONVERSATION WITH ZOE MOWAT

ZOË MOWAT is a Montreal-based furniture and object designer, who’s use of unusual material combinations and colours as well as her emphasis on the item utility and longevity make her a strong case for our first designer conversation.

THE FINE PRINT: How did you get into object and furniture design? Have these always been a passion of yours?

ZOË MOWAT: Out of high school I was set to be a sculptor, but at the last minute I decided to study design instead. Although I was completely surrounded by it my whole life, I had only really clued into design at that point. I think I was drawn to the very special equilibrium found in design — the balance of very refined and focused output with limitless creativity. I was also drawn to the physicality of design, that unlike sculpture in most cases, you can touch and experience an object in a more direct way.

TFP: Where do you get most of your inspiration?

ZM: For me, inspiration can come from many areas, and I find that architecture, art and particularly sculpture are frequent sources. However, my daily intake of visual detail — the materials, textures, colours and patterns I see through random observations in my everyday are my primary source of inspiration. Exploring and translating these observations into my own formal language is a large part of my process.

TFP: Your take on colours and shapes is so refined. How do you come up these mixtures that are so unique to your designs? 

ZM: Bold colours, simple forms and clean geometry have always been key components in my visual language. I think once again, it’s about balance, especially in the arrangement and interplay of these elements. I like to keep a form simple and have it heightened by the use of colour or the texture of a certain material. I love using colour and frankly I have a hard time not using it in my work. For me, colour isn’t simply an afterthought applied to form at the end of a project. Instead, it’s typically present from the beginning of the process and can often be the starting point of a concept. I have heaps of paint chips in my studio.

TFP: Wood and stones are very present in your artwork; are there specific types you prefer?

ZM: My work is very material driven and I have always been drawn to using natural materials that can speak for themselves and add a richness and depth to a piece. I use a lot of solid woods, metals and stone for this reason — things that will only enrich over time, develop a patina of use and love and hopefully add to a work’s longevity. It’s really my aim to make things that people will ultimately want to keep around for years to come. I also select materials for the way they can work together (or contrast) and I enjoy the process of combining and playing with the balance and proportion of different components.  

TFP: We’d love for you to tell us more about your creative process. Are there steps you follow religiously?

ZM: I find that my process isn’t formulaic and it actually changes depending on the projects I’m working on. What does remain consistent, however, is an emphasis on a more low-tech approach, at least in the early stages of a project. I use the computer as a tool only after I’ve gotten my hands dirty, so to speak, with a lot of scribbly drawings, sketch models, full-scale colour renders and mockups in my workshop.

I try to stay aware of the balance between the active and passive parts of my process.  In contrast to the active where I’m sketching, building, and refining, the passive side of things involves simply taking in ideas and inspirations and thinking things through; either directly or indirectly. I think it’s important to give yourself a little space so ideas can flow.

TPF: Your designs are very intemporal and useful. Each of your pieces has multiple functions and are mutable. How do you develop these functions?

ZM: I think it comes naturally out of the process of designing objects — for people. How an object is used, it’s adaptability to various contexts and individual users over time, are necessary considerations when designing. These ideas are most often the guiding concepts in my work, in addition to the aesthetic elements.

TFP: Which of your pieces is your personal favourite?  Why?

ZM: I’m fond of my Arbor jewelry stand and I think it’s a good representation of my approach to colour, form and materials. The idea to do a jewelry stand came out of a BBC documentary I watched about bowerbirds, a unique species of bird that collect and display an array of brightly coloured objects around their nests in order to attract a mate. I suppose I thought about our own tendency as humans to adorn ourselves with colourful, or shiny objects, perhaps also in order to attract a mate.

TFP: Is there a piece of furniture you haven’t tried to evolve within your aesthetic yet? If so, is there a specific reason for that?

ZM: There are many I suppose, but not for any particular reason other than I haven’t gotten to it yet. My process is always a process of discovery. Often I work more abstractly and begin from an idea, form, colour palette or production process that eventually materializes into a specific piece of furniture. I also work the other way and choose to design a particular object from the starting point of the process, brought about by a particular need or simply for my own take on it.

TFP: What are your plans for the upcoming year? Where will we be able to catch your new designs?

ZM: I recently launched a new series of mirrors and tables called Ora, at New York Design Week. These pieces are available to view at Colony, a showroom and design cooperative in TriBeCa, Manhattan. I also designed a leather trivet for hot plates for Umbra Shifts’ new collection that made its debut at ICFF in May. I have plans for a few collaborations in the future and I’ll continue to balance commissioned and spec work for clients with the development of new designs in my collection.