March 1, 2003
The Next Wave
Aboard a new firm called Lolah, an unlikely crew of traditional boat builders and high-end designers finds itself riding high on the sometimes choppy waters of modern furniture design.
The Lighthouse restaurant in Bronte Harbor, Ontario, 20 miles west of Toronto, looks like a cross between a New England clam shack and a Howard Johnson’s. On a blustery weeknight in September, with the wind whipping off Lake Ontario and thick clouds casting gray shadows, a party has convened to celebrate the launch of Canadian beer scion Arthur Labatt’s new 56-foot motor yacht Ventana. Most of the guests are employees of Bruckmann Yachts, the revered Canadian custom boat-building firm, and they are jolly tonight. The yacht, finished hours earlier, represents the cumulative effort of 22,000 man-hours for them and a commission worth significantly more than a million dollars to Bruckmann. The Ventana is tied up on the dock outside. It is cold for stocking feet, but nearly everyone slips off their shoes before climbing aboard to take a look at the latest satellite navigation equipment, the twin 660 horsepower Caterpillar engines, the upright piano in the salon, and the plasma-screen television that rises from a butternut cabinet. The woodwork, all varnished and beveled, has been crafted by a crew of carpenters recruited from Europe; the boat’s lines are officially described as “traditional and classic”; its cushions are plaid. Speaking into a microphone inside the Lighthouse, Labatt thanks the woodworkers, metalworkers, painters, electricians, engineers, and naval architects that built the Ventana. Coming to the end of his list, he asks if he’s forgotten anyone.
“Bryan Sims,” somebody yells out.
“Bryan Sims?” Labatt asks, pausing a beat. “I thought he only made furniture.” The crowd erupts in laughter. Sims himself turns bright red. Bottles of Labatt Blue are raised.
Sims is on the receiving end of a lot of furniture jokes these days. As a partner and general manager of Bruckmann Yachts, he is the driving force behind Lolah, the 40-year-old boat-building firm’s recent—and somewhat incongruous—entry into the high-end modern furniture business. When Lolah’s first collection debuted at the 2002 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York, designers and journalists alike were in awe at what this brand-new company had accomplished: a full line of fresh pieces manufactured to the highest standards, with marketing and sales fully in place. Lolah took home the ICFF Editors Award, and the raves from the press.
For Scot Laughton, the Toronto-based designer of the majority of the collection, the recognition at ICFF was long awaited. Despite 15 years of solid design work for a handful of different companies, his reputation until now had stubbornly remained within Canada’s borders. This summer Laughton will teach a workshop at the Vitra Museum, and he has begun to seek out European manufacturers. “These are doors that are starting to open,” he says. In the meantime, he is working on a collection of furniture for manufacturer Keilhauer as well as the more conceptual work he craves. Along with Toronto designers Patty Johnson and Andrew Jones, Laughton recently completed a collection of products all based on the letterform I, as in I-beam.
For the boat guys the dive into the world of modern furniture has been an experience with “the high end of nothing,” as Sims puts it. They have seen the emperor’s new clothes—and he is naked. Who are these people in strange suits hawking funny-looking tables and uncomfortable chairs? For Laughton—who does not much subscribe to Wallpaper culture but acknowledges his ability to navigate it—there was the constant frustration that his good design work would go unrecognized by Sims and the manufacturing team at Bruckmann. “I’ve always believed in designing up, not down, to people,” Laughton explains. “If everything was done so the guys in the factory could understand it, we would have approached Leon’s”—the chain whose motto is “Canada’s most amazing furniture superstore.” The gibes are fair, and hard-won. Both parties may be loath to admit it, but their differences create a healthy discourse. The furniture is a perfectly pitched marriage of elusive opposites: witty yet highly functional, modern yet warm, solidly crafted out of innovative materials.
Sims makes a strange modern furniture magnate. Prior to joining Mark Bruckmann, the second-generation owner of Bruckmann Yachts, as a partner in January 2000, Sims ran a company that made equipment to clean up oil spills—a turnaround situation, he says, that he helped expand out of Canada. He arrived at Bruckmann just as the economy threatened to turn. “It’s really difficult to manage a boat company because the sales are so hard to predict,” Sims says, sitting on a couch in the modest suite of offices adjoining Bruckmann’s 25,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. Photos of yachts mounted on wooden plaques adorn the walls, and a telling assortment of magazines lies on the table: Profit, Net Worth, Yachting. Wearing Bermuda shorts and a gray T-shirt on an Indian summer day, the 39-year-old Sims lays out Lolah’s beginnings as clearly as possible. “There’s really no compelling business case to sell a boat. When times get tough, it’s hard to justify very expensive purchases,” he says. “So we asked ourselves, what could we get that would diversify the workers here and take out some of the swings in the sales, just to give us a little better footing? We looked at everything from making rotor blades for wind turbines to furniture. A buddy of mine suggested we look at higher-end furniture. He thought there’d be a market for it, and some margin dollars that would make sense.”
Acutely aware of what he did and did not know, Sims went looking for help. His old friend Doug Shimizu, a Toronto graphic designer and designaphile, found Laughton through a friend at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where Laughton teaches. The initial plan was that Shimizu would “design” the furniture and Laughton would be the draftsperson.
“Well, I don’t do that,” Laughton says to me across the stainless-steel kitchen counter at his home on the fringes of Queen Street West, Toronto’s hipster strip. “Bryan, myself, and Doug meet. Doug goes for a pee. Bryan asks me, ‘Do you think this could work?’ I say, ‘I’m confident it will work, but not the way Doug is suggesting it will work, not with him designing it. You need to do some research, really figure out pockets to design to. If you’re going to spend the money, man, you may as well do the research.’” A physically powerful 40-year-old, Laughton exemplifies a particular type of Canadian dude: endlessly nice, sympathetic, big, outdoorsy. The son of a machinist, Laughton says he has always been around the making of things and, like Sims, he has a strong affection for the atmosphere of the shop. And yet he is now a presence on the international design circuit, flying off to Europe for meetings and lectures. Laughton’s designs challenge traditions—nearly as much as Bruckmann’s yachts strive to maintain them.
Regardless of Laughton’s initial reservations, they agreed to move forward with the furniture—with Laughton designing. For him the boat-building skills on hand at Bruckmann were too much to pass up. “What furniture often is, and where furniture often fails, is the union of multiple materials,” Laughton says. A competitive sailor, he had spent time in boat yards building spawning tanks and canoes for Canadian Fisheries. “I knew with the boat industry that they knew how to use metal, plastics, woods, and upholsteries—so right away they’re a couple of steps ahead. They had the bones to become a furniture company—a company that could do something—so I didn’t want to let that pass as an opportunity.”
At Laughton’s suggestion the young design consultancy Klinik was brought in to help with market research, and to eventually handle sales and marketing. Klinik specializes in being “the gel that holds the creative and business objectives together,” explains its founder, Adrienne McNicholas, a former marketing manager at Canadian design powerhouse Umbra. For Lolah at least, they have been very successful at that—though not without effort. From the beginning, the difference in cultures—and personalities—could be volatile.
After a few preliminary meetings, Sims, Laughton, and McNicholas went to the 2001 ICFF to survey the market. The three of them walked the aisles, talking about the furniture being shown and searching for niches Lolah could exploit. “I used the stuff at ICFF as surrogate products of my own. I wanted to satisfy myself that Bryan got it,” Laughton says, explaining that if he was going to spend the time required to design these objects, he needed Sims to appreciate them—at least from a manufacturing standpoint. “Bryan was asking all the right kinds of questions: Why is that product better than this product? Is that an easy product to manufacture for us? How many of these do you sell? What’s so different about this product? There was a common ground that we had to establish.”
Soon after, Laughton started designing, first visiting the Bruckmann yard to see what they were capable of manufacturing. No design brief was offered. “It was very much ‘This is what we want to accomplish—diversify X amount of sales, and it’s got to be profitable. Now go away and come back,’” Sims says. What Bruckmann didn’t have on site, they outsourced, using craftspeople with whom either Bruckmann or Laughton had previously established relationships: a ceramicist; a lasercutter; a specialist in foam molding; an eccentric self-described “tinkerer with resins,” who developed the strange texture of the Situ stool. It was an intense process for Laughton. He took on an assistant, industrial designer Sam Kump, who had previously worked at Umbra and Kerr & Company, to bounce ideas around and help build models. The two of them worked out of Laughton’s home, making models in a small basement workshop and heading out to the garden when the weather was nice. Sims, Klinik, Laughton, and Kump met for weekly maquettes, leaving more than one design on the drawing board. By all accounts the triangular structure worked well, with Klinik there to mediate between designer and manufacturer.
And though in some ways Sims was an ideal client for a designer—offering Bruckmann’s manufacturing resources for prototyping, maintaining a clear grasp on what he did and did not know, and funding the whole venture—his inexperience with high-end design was a source of tension. “It was funny from Mark [Bruckmann] and my perspective,” Sims admits, “because some of these things are outside of our head space. We wouldn’t particularly have them in our own houses.” When I ask McNicholas if Sims was sympathetic at the beginning to Laughton’s designs, she replies, “Not at all. Bryan had all kinds of fun names for us whenever he got stressed out. But he took a big leap of faith and figured that we were experts at what we did, Scot was an expert at what he did, and he would leave it up to us. And as long as there wasn’t any clear evidence to indicate that we were insane, he was going to continue to follow the directions that we suggested in terms of the look of the line.”
Insanity became the benchmark. Sims would take prototypes home to Oakville, a staid Toronto suburb, and return pleasantly surprised. He would come back and say, “People like it! I guess you guys aren’t nuts!” McNicholas deadpans: “That made us a little nervous. We thought maybe we hadn’t gone edgy enough.”
The difference in cultures spills out onto the factory floor. On a Tuesday afternoon a handful of men in white coveralls and face masks prepare a fiberglass mold for a 30-foot cruising boat, while in another room a young woman packs Jube Jube lights for shipping. The whole place smells of sawdust and epoxy. Along one wall, a stack of flattened boxes taller than a man attests to the expectations for Lolah’s sales. Pointing at a polyurethene cover for the Situ stool (which the Bruckmann employees call “the condom”), Sims says, “From a manufacturing standpoint, there weren’t any issues that caused the guys concern. They were just more concerned that we lost our minds in what we were asking them to build. Now they’re quite keen, and they read all the articles.” But Sims himself still seems ambivalent. When I ask if he reads the design magazines, he replies with characteristic self-effacement, “I look at the pictures.”
Lolah’s launch at ICFF last May was a designer’s dream. Within hours of its opening, the buzz began to build. Laughton says that he disappeared for a few hours that first morning (“not stage fright, but I didn’t want to be around to see people not walking into the booth”). When he returned, McNicholas walked up and gave him a big hug: the stuff was being received fabulously. People from companies they had identified as models—Blu Dot, for example—had stopped by to compliment the work. “I just sort of knew immediately that it was going to be the media darling, and that’s worth its weight in gold,” Laughton says.
At the same time Sims and Bruckmann were on a plane from Toronto to New York, still wondering if they had done the right thing for their company. “We weren’t sure how it was going to go over, if we were going to be laughed out of the place, if it was acceptable quality or not,” Sims says.
When confirmation came the next day in the form of the Editors Award for furniture, Bruckmann had already returned to Toronto. Sims, Laughton, Kump, and McNicholas went to a bar on Seventh Avenue to celebrate. At the time Sims didn’t understand the weight of the award. “He thought the award was for best newcomer to furniture,” McNicholas says. “Bryan gets on his cell phone to Mark, and he’s like, ‘Hey Mark, that award was for the whole show—the whole show!’” McNicholas recalls. “Then you see Bryan look at his beer and say, ‘Only one.’ You get the impression that Mark asked, ‘Are you drunk?’”
“I think it was probably a very tense process for him to go to that show and not know, other than our word, whether or not this was going to be a fabulous collection,” McNicholas reflects. “Bryan becomes the butt of design jokes, but it’s a very good business plan to say you’re going to work with the experts and not get in the way.”