Space Explorers: Inside Vancouver’s Coworking Studio for Industrial Designers

In the pricy city, Pat Christie saw the need for a place for artists to work and connect. So he built it himself.

By Rachel Sanders 11 Aug 2017 |

Rachel Sanders is a Vancouver journalist, editor and photographer. Her work has been broadcast on CBC Radio and has appeared in the Toronto Star, The Georgia Straight, and the Victoria Times Colonist. Find her on Twitter here.

When Pat Christie graduated from Emily Carr’s industrial design program in 2011, he saw a huge gap in front of him. The lack of connection between schools and industry in this city, he said, can leave emerging designers adrift.

“We export so much talent,” he said. “If we don’t have the local industry connected to the education... we can’t breed anything and we just export talent.”

The gap Christie saw inspired him to try and build a new way for industrial designers and other creatives to work in Vancouver. Two years ago, he signed a lease on a building on Clark Drive with the idea of creating a creative hub and coworking space — called Space — for people like him.

“A lot of the big design companies aren’t participating at the grassroots levels. They’re not providing access points for emerging designers to work,” he said. “So leaving school I thought ‘I’m not going to be them. I’m going to be different, I’m going to be accessible, I’m going to be open, I’m going to be available.’ Because I know I needed that.”

It’s taken the past two years to build some community and momentum around the idea of Space, which at various times Christie has used as a gallery, a showroom, a workshop and a performance venue.

This month, he signed a lease on the space next door to take the project to the next stage.

“Space is like a playland. It’s fun and collaborative and open,” he said. “It worked when there were a few of us. But now there are more, and there are so many distractions. They’re good distractions. Because you want to talk to people, you want to engage, because that’s what it’s all about. But getting work done is hard.”

The space next door will be a quiet working area for people to build their businesses. The original room will remain a collaborative flex-space. Christie is setting up a model where designers and other creators can pay for access to both spaces. Half of the available spots are already spoken for. Coworking creative spaces are a time-tested idea, he said.

“Artists have been coworking for hundreds of years,” said Christie. “Artists have always been using shared spaces because it’s the way to survive.”

But he takes issue with the lack of community focus at many contemporary coworking spaces. He wants to create more than just a rent-by-the-square-foot studio.

“People get something else by being here. They get human connection. And that’s really what we’re offering, human connection and a space where you can explore yourself and find others that are interested in working with you,” he said.

Christie’s own career is taking shape. He won Emily Carr’s Emily Award for alumni this year — he’s the first industrial designer to do so. Through his company, Daly Co., he specializes in wood production and wood technologies.

He’s designing the furniture pieces for 312 Main, the new coworking space opening at the corner of Main and Hastings Streets in the fall. Among his other plans is the idea of taking a team to Tokyo Design Week in 2018.

“We want to help share West Coast Canadian design with the rest of the world,” he said. “We know that there’s an interest in Canadian-made things with a Canadian design identity.”

In fact, part of the impetus for Space was creating a more connected community of designers in Vancouver in order to elevate and promote Canadian design.

“We’re so disconnected,” he said. “If we act as a larger group we can participate on a larger scale.”

It’s not easy to build a creative career in Vancouver, but Christie sees the bright side of the city’s high cost of living.  

“Tough constraints and high rents, all of this stuff breeds innovation,” he said. “When things are tougher, you’re challenged to think differently. You have to work together. And in turn, innovation emerges. I think that’s what’s really exciting.”

Christie is taking time to work out funding and structure details for Space. He’s been speaking with Vancity credit union and looking into various grant options. What works in some cities, he said, may not work in Vancouver.

“I think that’s a big thing is really considering the context of the city and spending time researching that and then building the project from that framework — building something that’s Vancouver-centric,” he said.

For the past two years Space has been open to anyone who wants to work there. People have come and gone, he said, and many have benefited from the open, collaborative environment.

“It changes their lives, gives them confidence to move into where they are now,” he said.

It’s paid off for Christie, too.

“For me, my life’s changed the more people have shown up. My happiness has increased. Working in isolation is super hard,” he said. “Every day feels like success these days. It’s better than the one before.”  [Tyee]

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