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NAME: Courtney Hunt and Alex Witko
OCCUPATION: Designers, architects and artists
BASE OF OPERATIONS: Organelle Design Studio, Vancouver
Part Architects, part Artists, part Environmentalists and wholly committed to their craft, Courtney Hunt and Alex Witko are Organelle Design, a Vancouver-based company that specializes in taking discarded items and transforming them into functional fixtures for the home, office, or public space. Riding on the back of some strong press and their popular Hangolier — a chandelier constructed almost entirely out of coat hangers — these partners in business, design and life are starting to get some attention in an industry that can be tough on newcomers
So what made you guys decide to come out West?
Courtney Hunt: I had just done an AmeriCorps, which is like domestic Peace Corps in the US, and I was really interested in environmental architecture, so I looked at schools in Oregon and Washington and then BC and I thought: “why not study in Canada? Why not check it out?”
So, after you graduated, what led you from that point to the birth of Organelle?
Alex Witko: It was a natural transition for us… Courtney was working full-time for a firm, I had graduated and was teaching part time at UBC so it was a combination of being frustrated with the normative practices of architecture, in North America in general, but specifically in Vancouver. And, we had done the office thing for awhile and it was okay, we learned a lot, but it just wasn’t really for us, so we decided we’re young, we don’t have much debt, let’s just go for it.
It seems like you guys have been gaining more notoriety lately.
CH: Yeah, since September. We did a Pecha Kucha presentation and it was really pivotal for us. There was a ton of people in the audience who talked about it, blogged about it or whatever.
What’s Pecha Kucha?
CH: Oh, you should totally know about it.
I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to architecture.
CH: It’s not just architecture or design really. It’s an international, sort of…
CH: Phenomenon, yeah. It happens in 300 cities. The one in Vancouver is run by a firm called Cause + Effect. Basically every one or two months they invite around 12 speakers, and you have 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide and you just run through them and you present to a bunch of other people who are interested. They normally have them at the Park Theatre on Cambie, and you pay $10 and you have beers and go and hang out. There are epicureans, designers and artists, all sorts of people.
People with their finger on the pulse are at this event.
CH: Yeah, and this specific one was at the Interior Design West show, and there was a bunch of heavy hitters there, and I think somehow we were refreshing in that audience of really established people we were on the total beginning end of it and people were like: ‘this is really interesting stuff.’
AW: I think people were maybe a little bit numb to all the high end design stuff they’d been seeing. And the audience was packed because it was at the convention centre. We just got up there and started presenting, and we have a very strong position within architecture and design, and we tried to make that clear and people were clapping after the first slide. That was a huge boon for us.
Is Vancouver a good place for design and architecture?
AW: It’s good and bad. It’s good because there are a lot of people that appreciate design as a general comment. I think there a lot of people who are interested in craft and fabrication, and, kind of making things in this city. And that goes for anything from textiles to clothing and epicureans and industrial design. It’s bad though in some way because the quality of architecture is pretty mediocre. Vancouver isn’t known for its architecture.
Where do you guys get all your materials from?
CH: A lot of stuff we find in and around our neighbourhood– we live at Main and 23rd. We kind of scour the alleyways constantly looking for stuff. We literally drive down the alleyways to look for items. We search Craigslist and basically pick free shit up. We have 750 square feet of hardwood that we went and picked up from North Van the other day that’s just sitting and waiting.
AW: Something we talk about a lot is, when you’re working on projects, do you go out and seek out materials? Or, do you take materials that you maybe have available, or are just sitting around your workshop and try to make those work with the project? There tends to be a back and forth, it’s never one or the other, we try to find a balance between that. We also realized it’s a bit foolish to think you can just take things from an alley and make them work somehow.
What are you two working on right now?
AW: We just finished a couple of installations. One was a gallery space that we created in Chinatown. It was a city sponsored public art project. And the other one was CODE Live, that was a small little installation that we did. The Chinatown one took a lot of time and effort and it actually wrapped up last night.
What did that involve?
AW: We made a canopy of 800 umbrellas that were illuminated by LEDs that were suspended above this hidden courtyard.
What inspired that piece?
AW: It was a combination of working with the Yi San Chinese society based out of Chinatown; they had this really awesome courtyard that has a lot of history to it, and we also wanted to create a covered outdoor space, which, surprisingly, Vancouver doesn’t have a lot of.
And the umbrella is a city staple.
CH: Yeah, It’s kind of iconic Vancouver.
AW: Our original sketch was a giant umbrella.
Where do you see Organelle headed in the future? What’s the goal?
AW: Architecturally Vancouver has been good to us with projects like we have right now. But one of the things we learned working in other firms is that the architecture economy is so fickle. That’s one of the reasons you see our process here is so different from a typical architecture firm. In terms of smaller scale furniture design that’s something we hope will fill in the gaps between larger projects and might be something that reaches a wider audience.
CH: Product design can go anywhere, but other design is very site-specific. If we could keep our larger scale architectural projects local, we’d be happy with having a distributor for our product line in Europe or Asia. It would be interesting to still be making our stuff by hand and shipping it out to the world.
We wander into an adjoining workshop, filled with tiny piles of material. In one corner, a mound of wood sits awaiting a touch of inspiration. In another, a stack of colanders has been transformed into light fixtures for Lu’s Pharmacy on the Downtown Eastside.
My photographer Liam’s shutter snaps as the couple sits on a recently rescued church pew. We talk about last night’s event at the umbrella canopy, and Alex expresses relief that the umbrella project has come to a close.
Was that project in particular time-consuming?
AW: With a lot of our work there is this Doctor Frankenstein-type feeling, where you’ve gone ahead and created this monster, and now you have to deal with it.
Upcoming projects for Organelle Design include the renovation of a bike shop on Broadway called La Bicicleta, and the design of a bar for the art gallery Vivo on Main Street. To contact either Alex or Courtney for more information or to order product from Organelle visit their website, www.organelledesign.com.