DESIGN SHOP / ARCHITECTURE OFFICE
Liane Veness, Kyle Munro and Stephen Faust
Words: Kent Mundle / Photos: Janine Kropla
On what seems to be the first day of spring, I walk my bike down dusty St. Mary’s Road, keeping an eye out for the home of Work/Shop. Though I’ve been a few times, I still find the ambiguous brown building easy to miss. Passing by a storefront window, I spot Liane working in the front space, papers and drawings strewn across a wooden table. She invites me in, saying hello as she helps my bike through the door. You can tell immediately that this is not a typical architectural office. In fact, Liane cringes at the sound of office; she insists that I not use the word. The front space is where Liane works. Visible to the street, it consists only of a large wooden table and a wall of old metal cabinets. The floor is unfinished. The exposed ceiling reveals old wooden beams. Several wires hang down harmlessly from above. Maintaining an image of approachability is important to Work/ Shop. “If someone wants to walk in off the street and chat, they should feel comfortable to do so,” Liane mentions. Many architects distance themselves behind sleek front offices. However, I stand in Liane’s workspace pulling a few Molson Dry’s out of my backpack. My bike now leans against the wall. I follow Liane from the front room to a long space lined with worktables. Evidence remains of the projects completed by the resident architecture students. At the end is the shop, which contains the essential woodworking tools, the faint smell of sawdust and a window overlooking the river. Liane opens the window to call down the riverbank to Kyle, the second member of Work/Shop. He is cleaning the bonfire area, making up for hours of work lost during the school year. Instead of making his way around to the door, Kyle climbs up through the window. He emerges with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and a beer in his hand. This is definitely not a typical office. After a quick tour of Liane’s apartment in the back, we reconvene in the front space to discuss the limits of architecture, the difficulties of going out on your own and how the traditional practice of architecture might be falling short.
Muddy Water: Although Work/Shop is just beginning, does it have a working definition?
Liane: Oh man, we were trying to get our story straight before you got here. I knew you were going to ask that.
Kyle: I guess how I see it, is even though we’re just starting out, we’re an architecture office.
L: Shop. Not office. Shop.
K: Right, we’re an architecture...shop that tries to do what we say we’re going to do, in regards to actually building, and taking on small projects that might not make us lots of money, but have just a little bit more attentiveness.
L: We’re trying to do what we love. I don’t know if we’ve been able to summarize Work/Shop into a neat little package. It’s so new, so we’re trying to figure everything out. But I think a good way of explaining it is that it’s been about a process - learning from a process and being able to react, rather than assuming that everything is going to be as you draw it. There’s a really big disconnect between drawing everything in straight lines (and) going on site and seeing that everything is different.
MW: Does Work/Shop fit more into the design/build type of practice?
L: I think that design/build is a default way to describe it – it’s a bit different than that.
K: We’re a design shop that could also build if need be [laughs]. Within the process of working with clients, it starts off as design and hopefully as it gets going we can fill in the gaps of actually making things. I think this summer is where we start nailing that kind of stuff down.
L: We’re also trying to extend the boundaries of what people define as architecture. With Work/Shop, while the cafe that we’re working on is under construction, we are able to design the menu boards etc., which I think is part of the experience of eating in that cafe, just as much as sitting inside the cafe itself is. It’s a nice way to show the client that the design or architecture goes beyond just the four walls. Every time people come in here, I feel like we have no models to show them. Most offices have models, but our models are the things that we build. We’re more inside the process, rather than just building a little tiny model of it. Maybe we’ll have some eventually, but so far we’ve just built through it.
K: I think most of our drawings have been on blocks of wood.
L: Yeah, or on the wall.
MW: In a creative field, finding someone that you’re comfortable working with can be difficult. How has your design relationship progressed together?
L: Are you asking when our anniversary is? I don’t know that. It’s easy to find people to get along with in design. I find with Kyle, although we sometimes challenge each other, we always come at problems the same way, which is hard to find. I work well with quite a few people, but working with Kyle is just easier.
K: One nice thing is that I rely on Liane for being the official architect, but I approach it as a builder. Those two things allow us to hash out ideas quicker. There’s never been an ego trip either. We just try to come together to do cool stuff. That’s how it’s gone so far, and that's how it’s always been really.
MW: Have your individual backgrounds influenced the Work/Shop design sensibilities at all?
L: I grew up less privileged than most, so I feel as though I approach the work with more humility. I have no desire to be famous or rich, but just to do good work, and to be a good person. I don’t mind doing projects with limited budgets; if that’s all a client has, then lets make a really nice project out of it.
K: Well I grew up in the bush with unlimited material. I come from a forestry family in Kenora, so there was always wood around.
Summer after summer I framed cottages and did a lot of work on aboriginal reserves. The best thing that I found about working with contractors in Kenora was that we saw projects all the way through. More often than not, it was just you and another carpenter, and you’d drive two hours on a boat on the Lake of the Woods and build a house start to end. To always see them through was really nice.
L: One of the reasons why I liked working with Kyle when I first met him was that I valued his knowledge of building. I completely believe that to be a good architect, you need to know how to build.
MW: After working in traditional architectural offices, was there a moment when you realized that you needed a change?
L: There were three reasons why I went on my own, and two of them came from working in offices. One was from living in Berlin. In that city you meet people who say what they have done, rather than talk about what they are going to do. That was a big difference between Berlin and Winnipeg, so that was really inspiring to me - do what you say. It’s a really nice thing.
The second was going to a job site and constantly feeling a disconnect between the guys that are building and my drawing. So I knew that there was something wrong there. Third, there are a lot of really talented people working in offices, but it’s talent that often wastes away when working towards someone else’s ideas. So I know when I approach anything that happens here, or work with anyone that collaborates with Work/Shop, it’s about everyone’s ideas having value, and everyone having a say. I have no desire to be a boss. That’s not why I am doing this.
MW: Would that philosophy extend to people outside of the Work/Shop team, as in clients, contractors, etc?
L: Absolutely. I don’t see myself as being
the architect, superior to anyone. That’s why I work with the front space visible to the street. Just today a contractor parked right out front, came in and chatted and that was it. If someone wants to walk in off the street and talk to me, they should feel comfortable to
do so - client, contractor, or anyone. Everyone here is equal.
MW: Have there been any speed bumps in the beginning of Work/Shop?
L: Not really, no. Sure, everyday I wake up scared. But you just have to be brave and go figure it out.
Following an initial meeting with Kyle and Liane in the spring, the Muddy Water team returned to check up on the progress of Work/Shop’s current projects. Since the first interview, Work/Shop has welcomed Stephen Faust as a collaborator, and so he joins the conversation.
MW: So the Lunch Bell Bistro is just about finished. Is there a tight final deadline for you guys to meet? How are things going?
L: No, it’s not too intense for us. There’s a little bit of finishing work, but it will probably be done this week actually.
MW: This project has been one of the first opportunities for the woodshop to be in full operation. Is the workshop/office collaboration working as you had imagined?
L: It’s just been two weeks since the shop has been up and running full time. I think for sure it’s great, it’s super exciting, but still I would prefer to be more in the shop. The guys are having tons of fun, but I’m still stuck up front at the computer.
[Kyle and Stephen laugh]
K: The last two days weren’t that fun. There was a lot of planing. Fir takes a lot of effort to run through the planer, and we were running 14 foot boards.
Stephen: The whole process of using reclaimed wood is that its beautiful, but you can’t just call Home Depot and ask them to drop off everything that you need. You have to find it all, track it down, move it to the shop, and then process it all. You save money on material, but the labour is quite a bit more.
K: But it’s fine. People should spend money on it. You’re supporting our families.
MW: What’s interesting about the Lunch Bell project is its location, right between Siloam Mission and Salvation Army. Who is the intended clientele for the project?
L: I wouldn’t be the one to discuss the operations, however my understanding is that they’re trying to attract the local businesses and people who work in the area. A local organization called Changes will be working in collaboration with the café to provide a kitchen that offers life skills training to people who may have (struggled) with drugs or homelessness. Through donations and the creative operations of the café, they intend to support people who are less fortunate than we are.
MW: Having such a diverse demographic, did the neighbourhood affect the design in anyway?
L: I think it did for sure. You’re always aware of the site context. I think I was more aware of the need to create an approachable space, perhaps. When I first walked into the existing space, I felt that it was not the right scale. I initially had the idea to create a lowered blanket suspended from the ceiling, enclosing the space while offering a more approachable experience. But anytime you understand your site context, it’s going to change the way that you approach a design, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously.
MW: Kyle and Steve, now that you’re officially finished with architecture school, which is design/drawing heavy, it must be nice to get in the shop and work with something real.
S: It’s the best.
K: Its nice to be doing something for other people, not just yourself. With school you have to be pretty selfish. It’s nice to think about how other people are going to appreciate the work, rather than you do it and in 10 minutes everyone has forgotten it.
MW: So, if the café is nearly finished, what’s next?
L: In Gimli, for a fish and chips restaurant, we’re doing a pop-up patio in the back alley using a reclaimed shipping container, as well as building custom furniture for the interior. The summer is the busy season for the restaurant. We can’t just go in and re-do it all. So the project will work in phases - right now it’s just the furniture (custom tables and benches) and eventually we’ll get to the façade.
K: The project is a bit of a challenge. If you’re doing a fish and chip restaurant downtown, it’s easy to go straight to high design. But with this, since it’s mostly locals and tourists who frequent the place, you have to step back a little bit and really think it out. You can’t go so quickly to your standard black and white.
S: Chalkboard paint [laughs].
K: We’re not doing that. The restaurant will do (that).
MW: As you said before, that’s the nature of designing for other people. Sometimes you have to appreciate what they want.
K: Yeah it’s not necessarily our favourite sometimes, but if people like it, you have to make it work in some way that’s thoughtfully considered.
L: It has to be comfortable. Especially at the scale of furniture, you have to know that people are going to be touching it and sitting at it and eating at it. It doesn’t just become an object, but a part of the whole experience of going to eat fish and chips. It shouldn’t just be beautiful from a distance, which in architecture is easy to fall back on (since) buildings are objects in a landscape. At this scale it’s different - like the size of your connections, and what it’s like to touch them, or if someone carves their initials into the table.
MW: Has anybody carved into the project that you already have in Gimli?
K: I hope not. I wouldn’t want them to open up the wood finish for water to get in. I’d only be okay with it if they pulled out a legitimate pocket knife, like a Leatherman, instead of just scraping with a fork. Then I’d be fine with it.
The project that Kyle is referring to is “Fiskaoist.” Located in Gimli, the wooden fish hut recently won a Prairie Wood Design award for Work/Shop. They may not be an ordinary architectural office, but the Work/Shop team is doing extraordinary work.
St. Mary’s foot traffic can be sparse, but Work/Shop welcomes anyone who wants to stop by the storefront. If no one is in the shop, check down by the river.