Rustic barn board chairs cast in aluminum, a functional dining set made of maple candy—these are just a few of the seemingly disparate qualities and surprising constructions that make up the practice of Castor Design. Founded in 2009 by principle designer Brian Richer and chef and architect Kei Ng, the innovative team have centered their projects around challenging the ordinary from the beginning of their partnership. When Ng asked Richer to do some design work for his restaurant, Richer suggested that they open a new restaurant together instead, and that Ng should collaborate with him at his design firm, Castor. Over the past several years, Castor has been invited to showcase their work everywhere from Milan to San Diego. According to Richer, “We were the guys who stuck it out and forged a path for young designers in Canada.” Together, the formidable team has opened popular restaurants, won numerous accolades (most recently, Best Lighting Design 2014 at the international AZ Awards for Design Excellence) and put Canada on the design map.
Castor first made its indelible mark in 2009, when, at the invitation of the Toronto International Design Show (IDS), Richer and Ng barreled through the typically refined fair with a refurbished 1975 Winnebago outfitted with custom seating and lighting on the interior. “People were quite upset over our booth because they spent $70-80,000 on their buildouts and we pull up with a $4,000 rickety Winnebago,” says Richer. But this wasn’t a brazen stunt. “One of the proudest moments I can remember was driving the Winnebago out of IDS,” Ng remembers. “There is so much waste involved in quite a few of those shows. We managed to drive out without leaving any waste behind. That is quite an accomplishment as far as design goes.” Castor embodies an innate, unspoken inclination to reuse existing materials for designs that are elegant and unexpected. Their bold and modern pendant lamps are made from repurposed and refinished empty fire extinguishers. Collecting used, burnt out light bulbs, they fabricated the Invisible Chandelier, a 3-foot long gyre of cast off fluorescent, incandescent and colored bulbs given new life with an interior LED panel.
These creations are exemplary of Castor’s simultaneous irreverence and deference for the design industry and history, a contradiction that results in exhilarating innovation. “We don’t take design too seriously,” Richer says. An element of playfulness emerges in design objects such as the Castor Stool, which pays homage to the beaver-gnawed log. This classic image of rustic Canada is given an unexpected update by Castor—instead of wood, the stool is carved out of solid, hefty limestone. “The stool was meant to be a nod to an iconic image of Canadiana,” explains Richer, a former stone carver. “I started off doing those completely by hand. I was the beaver.”
In a similar style, a chair and side table design Castor calls “Forever Barnboard” emerged from the pairing of familiar concepts with unexpected materials. “Honestly, I’m tired of barn board and I’ve hated it for so long,” Richer says about the near-ubiquitous reclaimed material of pastoral country cabins and faux-rustic restaurants. “But I thought it would be interesting to participate in exploiting that overused material in a new way.” Castor’s version of the table and chair appears to have the coarse, folksy surface of barn board, but the set is actually cast from cool aluminum, in what Richer refers to as a kind of “Donald Judd minimalism.”
Their oil lamp is yet another unconventional mix of contemporary and old-fashioned, created in collaboration with Harnisch, a lighting company founded in Denmark in 1842 and based in Canada since 1976. Wanting to offer something more than just the typical candleholder, Castor designed a simplified and streamlined kerosene lamp. They were attracted to this light source that largely fell by the wayside with the invention of electric light in the late 19th-century. Instead of the typical curves and adornments of historical oil lamps, Castor’s version is restrained, minimal and angular. Richer muses that the partnership with traditional, centuries-old Harnisch was somewhat unlikely, but worked out: “With their history they could really contribute to the functionality of the oil lamp and how it actually operates, though, they thought our design was a bit weird looking without the usual flourishes and filigree.”
Richer sums up Castor by describing their delightfully campy headshots and press images: “Two guys with mullets drinking beer in the Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House. It’s the dialectic of high and low and everywhere in between.”
All images courtesy Castor Design