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Listen to the conversation between Rosanna and Stacklab.

A story-teller and a problem-solver, Jeffrey Forrest of STACKLAB understands the romance of a good story and the efficacy of clever design. Based in Ontario, Canada, STACKLAB has a tangible and meaningful connection to this specific location, with roots that extend to a 100-mile radius, incorporating local industry, infrastructure and the environment in its remit. An astute and highly-analytical designer, Forrest grew up in the mountains of Western Canada. Sailing around the world as a young man, he experienced the power and determination of the natural world, and was exposed to the efficacy – and the beauty – of engineering and design.

Studying history and architecture before working at a timber mill, Forrest now describes himself as a “proud generalist’’, having actively avoided becoming an expert in any one subject or trade in order to maintain his objectivity as a designer.

“I am no expert when it comes to making. I have a good handle on how things are made, but it’s my job as a designer not to be an expert – because if I was, I would have an implicit bias … Every problem has an optimal solution, and so I want to remain nimble.”

Borrowing from the experimental methodology of the laboratory, STACKLAB incorporates data, technology and analysis into its design process, producing functional objects by thoughtful means. Forrest notes that, “for me, design is an applied science” rather than a creative pursuit, and so it follows that his practice focuses on finding design-based solutions.

“The [STACKLAB] approach is unique in the sense that we don’t set out to make ‘a chair’ or ‘a light’ – instead, we identify regional capabilities that we find interesting or relevant to a certain issue or problem – and then we hack that infrastructure in order to create design outputs”.

Optimising the available resources is the starting point for any STACKLAB project – whether that is a material, a tool, a space or a skillset – after which, the studio collaborates with craftsmen, artisans and industry to work towards their goal of designing circular systems that reduce waste and improve efficiency. Whilst Forrest ‘prioritises systems and concept’, the studio also produces objects that delight the analytic mind, and the observant eye.

With a knack for creating neat solutions to industrial-scale problems, Forrest’s precision-of-thought is translated into his systems, processes and objects. Striking a balance between the sensuous and the strict, the technological and the tactile, Forrest notes that, “[whilst] we are extremely rigorous in setting up a system, we will often allow for some variability – say a 10% variance at the end, where you allow the material and the process to just do what it wants”.

STACKLAB’s products have a sense of delight – they are playful, witty and without pretence. Forrest’s deep respect for his materials is tangible: the metal is buffed to brilliance, wood is turned by hand in harmony with its grain, and sheets of felt are piled high and allowed to sag under their own weight. Each object produced by STACKLAB is the best solution to a given problem, yet it also possesses a strong identity – its own story and personality. The Ash Collection came into existence as a way of repurposing the diseased ashwood that is commonplace in Ontario, which – through a combination of design, technology and alchemy – is transformed.

“What’s around, what’s interesting, and what can we do with it?”

The pleasingly solid and weighty wooden forms have been imbued with a sense of permanence that would have been unthinkable in its previous state, and the egg-shaped volumes have a sculptural quality that is reminiscent of the Land Art movement. Inspired by the scale of notable Land Artists such as Michael Heizer, the concept of the Ash Collection also takes inspiration from the artistic movement of the 60s and 70s – which aspired, above all, to leave no lasting mark or trace on the land.

Nothing is wasted in the production of the Ash Collection, as each element follows a single mould and all of the tooling is eventually incorporated into the product itself. Even the shavings from the factory floor are repurposed, forming part of the mould for the cast bronze element that crowns the design. The sawdust imparts texture on the surface of the bronze before disappearing entirely, burned away by the heat of the molten metal.

The Cube Series has its own distinctive and intriguing visual language. The uniformity of the cube is disturbed, cut-through with shapes that feel at once recognisable and alien. Cast from decommissioned industrial tooling – which is in plentiful supply in the foundries of North America – the mechanic forms look purposeful, poised, ready to whir into action. A celebration of industrial forms, STACKLAB’s Cube Series recognises the importance, craft and beauty of this particular piece of America’s design history.

“There’s a lot of personality that comes out of this [recycled] material … and we develop a relationship with an object because it has a story to tell”

Michelangelo described sculpture as a process of finding the form within the stone, rather than imposing a design onto it; Jeffrey Forrest has a similar relationship to his materials, looking to realise the potential that is already present, but that is perhaps laying dormant. There is a delight in discovering a neat solution and a deep satisfaction in finding a clever design – a problem, solved.

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