At Home with Product Designer Ally Pereira-Edwards

We talk design process, object making and archive

Written by John Patterson – July 30th, 2019
Ally Pereira-Edwards is a Winnipeg-based designer whose practice is motivated by culture and curiosity. She focuses on the relationships between material, space, and form to design products and craft small, meaningful moments. After studying architecture at the University of Manitoba, Ally continued exploring materials and space through research and object making before joining EQ3, where she currently works as an Accessory Product Developer.

We visited Ally’s apartment on a sunny July morning to talk about her design process, being inspired by everyday life, and how to know when a project is finished.

John Patterson:
First, what do you think is the difference between what you’re doing now at EQ3 versus what you were doing in school? Were you working on objects or was it more spatial?

Ally Pereira-Edwards:
That’s a hard question to answer. In school, it was based around more spatial concepts, but I found that what I was doing was very object-based work. I loved making models and I loved crafting very small moments. My projects were never about large-scale buildings or huge spaces. I tried to do lots of projects that were about social and cultural ideas and how they influenced buildings conceptually, and really focused on the nuances of the spaces.

JP:
Right.

AP-E:
Then, I focused a lot on modeling and drawing. The drawings were more spatial. When I was modeling, I was very into the craft of the model itself.

JP:
That’s interesting. Even though you were still working on a more conceptual level, the production of objects still ended up being pretty important.

AP-E:
Yeah, exactly. I think that was because while I was in school, I was focused on what would make me the happiest to work on. I was still thinking about space and trying to understand it. That was always the first thing. Then, I was like, “Once I have a grasp on the space and the structure, I can just have fun doing these small models and small-scale, detailed things.”

JP:
Do you think 
that is still a motivating factor with what you’re doing now? The question “Is it fun to do?” and the exploration of materials?

AP-E
Yeah, I think so. It’s a little bit different now. The experimentation with materials and things like that often comes later in the design process. That’s not the first thing that I start working with necessarily, because I don’t always have the materials at my disposal that I’ll be using for a product. Materials for products seem more finalized than plaster or something that’s so easy to experiment with in a tactile way. When I was in school, I started with material experiments at the beginning. Now, the experiments with materials start as more of a concept, and then you see the result of that later in the process.

JP:
Are you thinking about how that production will scale up as you’re designing? Obviously in school, there’s no reason that you can’t just make one and then live with that.

AP-E:
I think that production methods are always a thing that I 
have to consider at the beginning, too. If I’m working with a material, it’s based on which vendor can produce it or what capabilities they have in working with that material. It’s really interesting, because it gets very specific when it comes to materials. It’s a totally different obstacle to figure out how the materials work than it was in school, which is cool.

JP:
Thinking about those limitations, too, in terms of material limitations and then pragmatic vendor limitations: are those limitations constructive or restrictive? Do you consider it in that way?

AP-E:
I guess they’re kind of both. They are restrictive in some ways, because you can’t just say, “I want this to do this. I want it to look like this and be constructed like this.” Sometimes that’s just not feasible. For me, learning what a vendor is capable of and
 learning what a material is capable of is freeing. The more times I go through that process, the more I can make deductions myself about a material or about a process. As soon as I know how a product would be made, it teaches me how I can make a similar product in the future.

JP:
So,
 it’s experiential in the sense that once it’s there, it lends itself to the next thing. 

AP-E:
Yeah, exactly.

JP:
Do you find that you produce or design things linearly? For example, with artists
, it’s rare to see an artist who goes from one project to a completely disparate project and goes back and forth. Do you find that you have a starting point and an end point of a project, and then that leads to the next starting point?

AP-E:
Not necessarily. Sometimes it does, but not always
Sometimes, we’ll get a sample of a new product from a vendor I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s how they did that detail. That’s amazing.” It will inspire me to make something with a similar construction because I know, from that same supplier, that they can do itA good example is some mirror samples that we got in. They’re really nice, just very clean mirrors. I was like, “Oh, these are so nice and just so simple in the way that they’re detailed.” 

From those samples, I had faith in that vendor to do another project that I’ve been sitting on for a while. They also got me to rethink how I was going to mount it. Sometimes it works like that, but other times there are projects and concepts that are kind of stored up. As soon as you finish one, you jump to something that’s totally opposite. 

JP:
Right. Because you’re waiting for the right moment to start the next project, to find the right materials or people who can actually make the things.

JP:
When you’re designing, are you thinking about the objects as objects in
 a mental space? Do you imagine a physical space, in a home?  Or in a completely different space?

AP-E:
If anything, I picture it in my home first, but I don’t necessarily think “What would I really like?” Or, “What would look really good in my house?” I think about what I’m designing more in terms of the scale of my life, and in terms of how others may be able to use the object I am imagining. Then, I always try to mock up a full-scale model of the thing because I like seeing the details and proportions at one-to-one. 
So, I guess designing happens first in mental space and on paper, then back and forth between digital and physical. 

JP:
There
 are certainly practical questions of scale and usability but then its also interesting to project yourself onto another experience and use that as a designer.

AP-E:
S
o many things that are inspiring to me as a designer, and I think to lots of other designersare the random things that I‘ve seen in my life. Like, there are some things that my grandparents had that were just such weirdcool objects that I will always remember. Those things, I think, are so inspirational. I love when the starting point is something like that. Or it could be nice products that I’ve seen at stores or at shows. Something that is stored in the back of my brain that is interesting or nice that I remember. Then, I go from there. 

JP:
You’re pulling stuff from the archives, 
whether they are actual archives or just stuff you remember.

Two of Ally’s favourite things – An Inuit sculpture carved out of bone, depicting a seal and hunter & an antique Japanese spy camera purchased by Ally’s grandfather (instructions enclosed). 

JP:

Okay. Painters, I feel, do this most often but they like to talk about knowing when a painting is finished. I’m wondering about that from a design perspective. Obviously, it’s actually finished once it’s in the stores, but how do you know when to stop working on something, or when something’s overworked? That’s a hard question.

AP-E:
(
laughing) No, it’s not. I’m laughing because I’m so bad at telling when something is done. I can go on forever. I could keep a project going infinitely and always find something to change. Sometimes I’ll have a project that I’m working on and I sit on it for a little while and don’t work on it for a week. Then, I go back to it and I’m like, “Why did I do it like that? Why did I do that?” and switch it around with fresh eyes. 

One thing that keeps me in line to finish a project is deadlines that I’ve set. I know that I need to have it done by a certain point, otherwise it won’t get made in time for another deadline that I have in the future. I’m notoriously bad at accepting when something is totally done. 

JP:
I like that. That’s not what I 
expected actually. I feel like with design, there’s sort of a popular understanding: there’s a problem and then you design something that acts as a solution. So, the designer is viewed as a problem solver. But if you’re working something over and over again and it keeps changing, it complicates that relationship because you can’t just say like, “It’s done because it solves the problem. Do you think about it in problem-solving terms?

AP-E:
I think I do. I can finalize a project conceptually and roughly 
pretty easily. It’s mostly the fine details that take longer to wrap up. When you’re working on accessories, things come down to the millimeter so often. It’s like, “Should this be five millimeters or three millimeters?” Then, you go back and forth from five millimeters and three millimeters. I’ll 3D print both version and compare the two. When you see the end result, it isn’t going to make a big difference to somebody who hasn’t been looking at that forever. To me, those details have so much weight.

JP:
Right. You’re starting at this larger view and going down into minutiae.
 With that three- to five-millimeter example, from a retail perspective, on the shelf, that won’t determine the sale. But I think that is where the conceptual ideas become relevant. If you want a spoon or you want a chair, you’re going to find the one you want in the store. That’s still important. But someone who lives with the product, if it’s something they use every day like a knife, will really get into those details. You’re exposing yourself to that product for so long that the millimeters actually do start to matter over time. 

AP-E:
Totally, totally.

JP:
Are you considering the longevity
 – what something will be like in five years or ten years or fifteen years? Or is it more just like, “Let’s produce this thing, so it works when we put it out?”

AP-E:
I think that we would always want to be producing things that have longevity. I don’t think anybody in product development at EQ3 is hoping to produce something that has a short shelf life.

JP:
It 
can be contrary to the design philosophy at a lot of companies.

AP-E:
At
 EQ3, we used to do a lot more seasonal product. We would do something that was in a seasonal color or it was a seasonal item. Then, we would order it once and it would never hit shelves again. We’re moving away from that territory, because everyone is on the same page. We don’t necessarily want things to only be applicable for one season. We’re not a fashion brand. We’re trying to outfit people’s homes and lives. I think that there’s so much value in things that are passed down or that you can live with and come to know as something that you really appreciate. We’re all on the same page of wanting that for everything that we do. 

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