Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Stylish Saskatchewan: Modern Element

Today I have a Stylish Saskatchewan feature to share with you. I've had the privilege of interviewing Ryan Janzen of Modern Element, a Saskatoon-based design firm. Modern Element designs and manufactures mid to high end furniture and interior furnishings for residential, commercial, and retail environments.

1. How did you become interested in designing and manufacturing furniture and other interior furnishings? What is your background in this field?  It’s been a process through the years. I didn't just decide after high school that I wanted to do what I'm doing now. I couldn't have planned the road to where I am now if I had tried to, as it was a process and combination of learning and acquiring different skills as I grew up. As a kid, I guess you could say that style and how things looked were something that appealed to me, although I wouldn't have noticed it as something then. I used to spend time as a kid looking at house plans books, drawing floor plans, and daydreaming about how things looked.  I also had access to my father's wood shop growing up, so that also had a huge impact on where I am today. As a kid I used to build stuff, just little junk, but it was a critical role in developing my skills. I can also remember that at some point growing up, I realized that I liked to be creative and challenge myself to think differently.  I enjoyed the challenge to come up with interesting and unique ideas.

Being good with my hands along with having a creative mind led me to many different jobs after high school. As a person who enjoys a good challenge and likes to learn new skills, these diverse jobs helped me grow my skill set immensely.  My first attempt at business was about 8 years ago.  I tried starting a long board company (making skateboards) that, in the end, didn't go anywhere, but it helped me realize where I'm gifted and what I enjoy doing.  Mostly, it showed me that I loved to design, and be creative with that design.  Even though it failed as a business, it didn't fail at all in teaching me about the administrative and technical side of starting and running a business. 

Most of my skills in making fine furniture came at around the same time in my life when I met a local furniture maker, James Hopper.  He was a HUGE influence as he taught me the finesse involved in making fine furniture.  This wasn't too much of a stretch, as I am quite the perfectionist, so the two fit well together.  I've worked for him throughout the years, a little here, a little there when he's needed a hand.

Several years ago I also held a job at Laser Impressions. This also was very influential in shaping me, as the type of work there was very creative and diverse.  It was my first introduction to using CAD drawing programs (corel draw), and gave me some graphic design experience. I was also given some creative freedom there in designing desks, signs, and displays for customers.

At the time though, I couldn't see how all of these somewhat 'random' jobs/experiences were shaping me. All of this job bouncing felt rather discouraging in trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a career.  I felt pressure to commit to one thing for the rest of my life but I just couldn't bear the thought of doing the same thing forever. Now that I am where I am today,  I can see how going from job to job was actually incredibly beneficial as they were important steps in developing me as a designer/maker.  The hands on experience with so many different materials, from steel to glass to wood has improved my ability to design, as I know what certain materials can or can't do, and how they can work together to create better design.

After spending 6 months on a contract for James Hopper, I had the opportunity to try to start my own company, which I had dreams of doing for a while.  That happened 2 years ago, and I've been working on Modern Element since then.

What got me into design specifically, I don't know if I could pinpoint it to one thing.   I think it's just the way I've been wired.  I've been given an eye for detail, an eye for what looks good, and a mind that thinks creatively.  And on top of all that, I've been given the ability to actually create what I design.  Put all those things together and that's how I got here.

2. Where or from whom do you draw inspiration?  On one level, my inspiration comes from everything around me. From the things I see, in magazines (azure, dwell) the internet (,, books, and other designers. Those are what I'd like to call "surface" sources of inspiration.  There isn't a specific designer either that I would say I look up to.  Well okay maybe that's not 100% true.  Philippe Stark is somebody that comes to mind, but not in a typical sense.  Of his actual work, I couldn't name one object that he's designed that I'm in love with.  My respect of him comes from his philosophy on design/creativity.  I read in a recent magazine article that when he's hired to design something for somebody, he doesn't dive into the magazines or the blogs or even other current designs. He doesn't focus on what has already been designed, but rather removes himself from those influences and retreats to a place (a remote house) where he is free from those 'surface' inspirations and then comes up with original ideas.  I find that inspirational.  Sometimes the best creativity comes in not having any idea of what has been done before because it challenges you to think differently and originally, instead of going off someone elses' ideas. To an extent I am much like this, but it is not always the case.  I find both can be extremely useful in design.  Stark also surprised me one day in an interview I read in an Azure magazine.  When asked what his dream was, instead of replying with what I expected, he answered with "my dream is to have more time to love the woman I love."  This really shocked me.  Here is this world renowned designer, and all he wants is to design less and spend more time with his love.  It helps me put things in perspective about my dreams for Modern Element and what really matters.

On a much deeper level though, at my core, my inspiration is rooted in knowing who I am, and knowing who I am is found in my faith and my relationship with God. God has tremendous creativity. When I look at what he's made, I see his creativity at work everywhere. It's impossible for me to ignore it.  Genesis says that not only did God create everything, but that God also created us in His image, or in other words, modeled us after himself.   He made me like He is, with a creative side. It was life changing for me to understand and realize that God has given me such creative potential.  Something that speaks so much to me about his creativity is one of those little maple seeds that spin when they fall to the ground (see this video to know what I mean). He could have made it just simply fall to the ground like any other seed. But instead, just for fun, designs it so that, as it falls, it spins and flutters gracefully.  It amazes me to know that God delights in creating such little details!

3. Which of your designs/projects has been the most exciting/challenging/rewarding for you?
  Oh man.  So many of them!  Probably the most challenging has been the BP island.  EVERYTHING about that was tough.  The design, the curves, the way the walnut veneer is laid up.  I would say that out of everything I do, design is probably the most stressful stage.  Creative pressure is tough, because when I design, I don't want to design with average in mind.  I try to design with awesome in mind.  I would also say though, that the projects that are the most challenging are also the most rewarding.  I can distinctly remember the incredible 'highs' after installing the BP island or other similar projects.  To see a client absolutely love what you've done for them is an amazing feeling.  I find that excitement in a project comes in finding that awesome, creative design solution for my clients.  My client for the BP island had given me a couple ideas as to what they wanted (literally, it was like 3 lines on a white piece of paper!), but when I sat down to sketch out what they envisioned, I couldn't make it work.  Half way through the design process I had to scrap everything and start over, which was really scary.  That's when the creativity kicked in and I came up the final design.   When I proposed the new design to them, they loved it, and that is very exciting. 

4. Which of the pieces you’ve designed and created is your favourite and why?  Hmm.  I like so many of them! But so far, I'd say my favourite piece is either the sideboard (from the homestyles show) or the "sway" wine rack.  I love the sideboard because it’s so clean and simple, and so beautiful.  I really like the wine rack as well, because the inspiration for that was a "stark style' in that I didn't research wine racks before I created that. It just came out of nowhere, first try.  Designs are always awesome when they hit like that, especially on the first crack. It's a better experience knowing that you nailed it right away.

5. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a designer and small business owner?  This is a tough question. Designing comes more naturally to me than the ins and outs of business and how to run a design firm, so most of what I'm learning is the business aspect.  I don't know if there is one lesson that I could say is the most important, but lately, I've been learning how to be more efficient with my time, especially when it comes to qualifying potential clients.  I’m also trying and learning how to come up with new and better ways to market Modern Element in Saskatoon, as this is a challenge for me.

6. How would you describe your personal design style? In other words, what style would you design or decorate your own home in?  I really love modern. Not all modern, mind you, but I really love simple and clean lines, free of clutter. Oh how I wish my own house was like this! :) My personal style is to keep things simple, but not to the point of minimalism.  I don't find much appeal to an empty white room with nothing inside.  I love the use of different textures, sheen and materials.  Right now I'm a huge fan of wood that is finished with a really dull finish, so it has a really raw and natural feel to it.   I wouldn't be able to re-design where I live in modern, as I just rent the 3rd floor of an old character home.  That being said, I wouldn't say that I'm exclusively modern.  In their respective settings, I have an appreciation for other styles, such as character homes in older areas with huge trees. The way I would design my future house would depend greatly on its location. 

7. Why did you choose Saskatoon?  Honestly, I had to chuckle a bit when I read this question.  I was born and raised here, and so this is home. Saskatoon chose me.  Sometimes I find it really frustrating being in Saskatoon and have considered going elsewhere.  When it comes to design, it feels like Saskatoon is so far behind and it isn't appreciated.  However, I can see the design scene in Saskatoon moving towards modern and it is encouraging to me. 

8. Where do you like to shop and dine locally?  This question makes me feel like I'm expected to be all fancy, but these things aren't huge priorities on my list.  I'm a regular, down to earth, fancy free kind of guy. Jeans, a t-shirt, and a good bunny hug are all I need. Shopping is painful, although I will say this:  I bought a pea coat this last year from Le Chateau, and I absolutely LOVE it.  I also picked up a fantastic scarf to go with it!  Being in business has challenged me to step up on my style game, as I feel the need to look good for client meetings and such, but I feel most comfortable in regular casual clothes.  If I were to purchase something nice like that, my favourite stores to go to would be Le Chateau or MEXX.  MEXX has some really nice collars. As for dining, again, I'm quite low maintenance. I don't eat out much. I do enjoy a good meal once in a while at Earls or Moxies and I can't turn down a good noodle bowl either!

9. What might we catch you doing in your spare time?  Spare time is hard to find these days. Modern Element has been more than a full time job for me. But when I do find spare time, I love to be outside. Going for walks, coffee with friends, campfires, and camping are things I really enjoy in the summer.  When you do what you enjoy for a living, sometimes the lines between work and play are blurred. Even in my spare time I like to design and have fun with ideas.  Once in a while I need to distract my mind from design, so I resort to a good movie or one of my favourite tv shows like Modern Family, House, or CSI.

10. If you could renovate/redesign one room in your home, which room would it be?  I would definitely re-do my bedroom, which also happens to be my office.  It's pretty tight in there and could use some serious organization!

11. What does the future hold for you/Modern Element?  Starting a design/build firm in Saskatoon is definitely challenging, but I would love for Modern Element to be the 'go-to' in Saskatoon for modern interiors, whether it is kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, anything interior.  I have dreams that modern element would be synonymous for exceptional modern design.  I think it would be great if some day, Modern Element consisted of 5 core people including a couple great designers, and a couple great builders.  It's not anywhere close to that though, as it's just me at the moment.  I'm still trying to feel out the market in Saskatoon, if it will survive here, or what direction it needs to take so that it can not only survive, but grow here in Saskatoon.  Some days I have my doubts, but other days like today have been really encouraging.  I've had a really great response so far and been really encouraged, even this interview for your feature has been encouraging and exciting for me.

Even though there has been a positive response in terms of admiration of what I do, in view of reality, it's been hard finding the right type of clients in Saskatoon.  That part has been a bit discouraging.  If I can't make it work here, then who knows?  I don't feel as though Modern Element is the 'destination' of my life. Modern Element is just the next step along the road.  In some respects the future is very exciting. Who knows what can happen, and where this road will lead.

Some of Ryan's work:

Sway Wine Rack

Teak Kitchen

Modern Island

Modern Island

Red Birch Cabinet

Sideboard for HomeStyles Tradeshow Booth 2011

Tilty Entry Table

Thanks so much for participating, Ryan! You're certainly talented, and your work is stunning. I wish you all the best. 


1 comment:

  1. Fantastic interview! I really love what Ryan said about 'surface inspiration' and removing yourself from external influences. It’s also really refreshing to read about designers that didn’t just ‘fall’ into the industry straight after school but worked hard and learnt loads along the way – using those experiences to get them to where they are today. P.S completely in love with the sway wine rack!


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