Design for the people

Design for the people

Since taking over Toronto's Design Exchange in 2012, Shauna Levy, with the support of Urban Capital, has reenergized this 25 year old institution, making it relevant to the general public and the design industry alike. By Austin MacDonald.

By reviving Toronto’s Design Exchange, President Shauna Levy leads a populist uprising in Canadian design.

Hussein Chalayan’s “After Words” (see page 32) is the centerpiece of the Design Exchange’s latest show, Politics of Fashion | Fashion of Politics, guest curated by Canadian fashionista Jeanne Beker. Initially, the simple five-piece living room seems oddball. Then, an explanatory video shows five models transforming the furniture into clothes. Once dressed, they vanish with the living room on their backs.

Designed as a commentary on war and displacement, Chalayan’s wearable décor items are the artifacts from a performance piece that was the finale of his Autumn/ Winter 2000-2001 fashion show. It’s a real showstopper. At second glance, with the knowledge that furniture was intended for those unexpectedly on the go, the lounge space looks decidedly less comfortable. Indeed: “Do not sit.”

Politics of Fashion is the Design Exchange’s second original exhibition and emblematic of President Shauna Levy’s bold new direction. Appointed in March 2012, Levy has revived the venue with an exciting approach, emphasizing robust programming and community outreach. She’s adamant about making the Design Exchange “fun,” “entertaining” and “democratic.”

“We made a very conscientious decision as a board three years ago to depart from the old Design Exchange that maybe people knew about but perhaps didn’t pay much attention to,” Levy offers.

“I think in the last two and a half years we have earned a lot of credibility. Our attendance has never been higher, sponsorship is growing and media coverage is increasing,” she explains. “Politics of Fashion is unprecedented and will be another strong moment for us in terms of our building and growing the institution.”

These early victories have been a result of Levy’s innovative approach. “You have to engage people about design in the way that they can relate and are interested,” Levy says. “We’re unique in how we use design as a ‘viewfinder’ to look at society and events. It’s almost anthropological.” 

“We’d never just do an exhibition on chairs, there would always be other layers,” she adds. For example, This Is Not A Toy (guest curated by Pharell Williams) was an intersection of art, fashion, industrial design, graphic design and music.”

In a sense, Levy is being pragmatic. “Today, design culture is very much entrenched in every aspect of life. Just going to a restaurant can be an amazing design experience,” she says. “So at the museum we have to be able to compete with that.”

Among Canadians, Levy is perhaps uniquely qualified for this role. Prior to the DX, she cofounded and ran Toronto’s Interior Design Show for over a decade. “IDS was really about democratizing design,” she says. “What excited me most at the DX was the coming together of all kinds of design—from basic human needs all the way to luxury—and nurturing this very broad conversation.”

Going forward, Levy envisions nothing less than transforming Design Exchange into Canada’s leading voice in design innovation at home, and an ambassador for Made-In-Canada creativity on the world stage.

“We are pushing the institution forward at breakneck speed, and our aspirations are pretty big. The next five years will be a very exciting time for Design Exchange.” 

The Happy Show

January 9 to March 3, 2013 - Design Exchange’s first exhibition with Shauna Levy as its President was the Canadian premier of Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Show, originally exhibited by Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. It showed the veteran New York graphic designer’s playful meditation on individuals’ happiness in modern society.

“It was really a breath of fresh air in January. A burst of energy during Toronto’s coldest and darkest months,” Levy recalls.

Sagmeister designed the exhibition as a rousing visual assault, using gigantic bright yellow panels as oversized infographics. The large surfaces were riddled with jarring eye candy: graphs, statistics and easily digestible and provocative blurbs and factoids about the human condition. Other panels included Sagmeister’s designy maxims from his journal.

The Happy Show’s mid-winter promise of exhilaration lured hibernating Torontonians out of their dens and into the DX. Once there, Sagmeister enticed them to interact. At the entrance, he set up a bubblegum poll, asking people to score their moods by taking a yellow gumball from one of ten numbered machines. The poll’s results appeared as the gumball machines’ glass cylinders emptied.

Elsewhere, a visitor’s physical exertion on a stationary bicycle illuminated large neon lights with different inspirational messages.

“What I loved about this show is that it was interactive, which is really important to us.” Levy says. “At the end of the day culture should be fun.” 

Christian Louboutin

June 21 to September 15, 2013 - “I like the idea of doing something fashion-related at least once a year,” Levy said. “When you look at all the different aspects of design, one that seems among the easiest to communicate to a broader audience is fashion.”

With this in mind, Levy booked Christian Louboutin, another travelling exhibition, to show at the DX. It was a tour de force with pieces gathered from the designer’s personal archive and curated to reveal all his pizazz and creativity.

The show had already been a hit during its first run at London’s Design Museum. “It made sense to bring in a traveling show that had a proven track record coming from an internationally acclaimed museum,” she said. At this early stage in the DX’s revitalization, she hoped the fanfare from across the pond would translate into strong attendance here.

In the end, it did. The show attracted people from all walks of life, including a large number of Sex And The City faithful. “The people who came to the show, yes, were those who wear Louboutins, but also those who aspire to wear them. And most of all, for most people it was just a fun and magical experience.” 

This Is Not A Toy

February 7 To May 19, 2014 - For the DX’s third show, a Toronto collector approached Levy with an idea for an exhibition on urban vinyl and designer art toys. Next, he recruited singer Pharrell Williams to be the guest curator. Williams did so gladly—he’s an urban vinyl collector too. In addition to curating pro-bono, Williams helped bring in some of the artists and lent some pieces from his own collection for the show. After a large collective effort, This Is Not A Toy was Design Exchange’s first original show and the world’s first full-scale exhibition of designer toys.

“Pharrell Williams personifies where we are hoping to go as a cultural institution—an understanding of the interrelationships between design disciplines and all creativity, for that matter. I heard Pharrell talk in a panel at Design Miami and I was immediately impacted by how he effortlessly segued between fashion, architecture and hip-hop, and very clearly drew the relationships between them,” Levy says. “We later discussed bringing him to DX for a number of programs but he was most excited about this.”

This Is Not A Toy became a worldclass opportunity for collectors and the uninitiated alike to discover the vast, intricate and colourful universe of designer toys. These limited edition sculptures in ABS plastic or vinyl have become highly collectible since the 90s.

For DX, the show was a big success, attracting record attendance. Levy also received several requests to tour the show internationally. 

Politics Of Fashion

September 18, 2014 To January 25, 2015 - “Jeanne Beker has been very inspiring to many of us,” says Levy of Design Exchange’s latest guest curator. “She is a fashion icon and through her 25 years as host of Fashion Television, has played a prominent role in the democratization of design in Canada.”

In early 2014, Levy approached Beker to discuss ideas for collaborating on a show. Beker outlined the beginnings of what a very short time later would become Politics Of Fashion | Fashion Of Politics. Beker and Design Exchange curator Sara Nicholson put the show together in just six months.

“I think it’s unprecedented. It’s not a traditional show for a Canadian museum,” Levy explains on the eve of the vernissage. “The content and exhibition design could be more easily found in Paris’ Palais de Tokyo than on Bay Street in Toronto.” It has a strong subversive counterculture approach. From an aesthetic perspective my best comparison would be Dover Street market.”

So far in the lead up, Levy says the response from media, RSVPs to the opening and ticket sales have been through the roof. “I hope it will be another seminal moment in the growing up of Canada’s Design Museum, and the appreciation of design in Canada, at large.” UC


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