THE SITE MAGAZINE X VANCOUVER DESIGN WEEK
To launch Volume 38: Feminisms and this year’s Vancouver Design Week, The Site Magazine’s Michael Taylor discusses “Impact” (the theme of VDW 2018) and its overlap with the themes explored in this issue. Three designers, Jennifer Cutbill, Andrea McLean, and Jane Cox, who are active in the leadership of Vancouver Design Week, share their experiences and ideas pertaining to “Bodies”, “Work”, and “Stories”, the three sections of Volume 38: Feminisms.
To read the issue, and the full breadth of content under each section, please visit our buy page where you can find a stockist or order a copy online. To see the VDW 2018 agenda and read more about the theme “Impact,” visit Vancouver Design Week’s website. VDW 2018 will be held from May 7–13, 2018.
WORK // IMPACT
Discussing new models for professional contribution with Andrea McLean.
Andrea is Principal of Andrea McLean Design Studio Inc. and Co-Owner of The Aviary, a co-working space for Architects and Designers in Vancouver’s Fraserhood.
Michael Taylor: The quote above was provided to us by VDW for an advert in Volume 38 that was used to promote our collaboration with VDW, and that ended up giving us the inspiration for turning our partnership into this discussion series. So, I want to start by understanding how you became an Interior Designer and an Architect, how these professions led you to create The Aviary, and how running this space has given you a critical perspective as female professional.
Andrea McLean: Studying architecture is something I always wanted to do. I discovered design at a very young age through my aunt who was a self-employed interior designer. To learn more, I signed up for a drafting course in high school but the course was part of shop class, so I ended up drawing a lot of machinery and doing very technical work.
MT: In the other discussions, Jennifer and Jane both talked about how valuable female role models can be. Do you see yourself as lucky for having one?
AM: I realize how challenging it can be for young women to begin their education or career and not see any women ahead of them. I was lucky to see my aunt and my mom flipping houses and starting a furniture business together. I showed up in shop class and continue to show up in my career without ever being burdened by the thought: a woman can’t do this. I am lucky, but I think everyone has a strong woman in their life. Wherever you are in the world, women are the ones managing households, raising children, and doing incredibly valuable work. There can be many archetypes for a leader, we just need to see them as such.
MT: After producing the issue, I felt like any debate around a woman’s value in the workplace was resolved and feminist discourse was poised to take on the next set of challenges. Then I read your quote. Why do you think work-life balance is still so important?
AM: I can’t speak for all women (especially younger women!) but that quote came really naturally, because balancing work and family is something I struggle with on a daily basis. Even with the confidence to show up, the bravery of my feminine approach as Jane might say, it doesn’t mean these practical aspects are suddenly easy. The Aviary was born from this struggle. My business partner Stella and I experienced two sides of the same coin when we began working as parents.
I started my own studio within a year of graduating with a bachelor in Interior Design. I worked independently in Canada, Australia, and Japan, before coming back to Vancouver to do a Masters in Architecture. I was pregnant during my thesis so following the typical path toward architectural licensure didn’t seem like an option for me. I continued with my practice and got a small studio space in downtown Vancouver. By the time I had my second child I was so busy, I was typing emails while I was in labour. Business was great, but when we moved to East Vancouver my studio was no longer within walking distance so I gave it up.
At the same time, my business partner Stella was working for a big firm and after her first child she found it hard to get to day-care drop-off while her team worked all hours. Eventually, she felt like she couldn’t pull her weight and quit.
The Aviary was our answer to the challenges of working independently with a family. Support, feedback, and collaboration can be hard to find when you are at home working between family obligations. Similarly, your work can lose all visibility when it’s done in your home office. We believe that The Aviary: a store front with flexible work space that provides one with space to think, but also collaborate, and engage with the community at large, is really fundamental to supporting a balanced way of working.
MT: The prospect of alternative models is really exciting for the future of work in practical terms. But, are you and Stella at all concerned about the prospect of co-working spaces at scale, as an urban amenity? If The Aviary were to become heavily replicated, facilitating freelancing and the gig economy, will it have lifted the burden of making fair and equitable work environments for women off of large organizations?
AM: I myself have always avoided big offices, I found them stifling and that is irrespective of gender. I think concerns around creating a generation of freelancers are valid—we can’t forget about worker rights and the labour struggles of the last century. If we do, we as designers especially risk falling into a professional working class with very little agency.
In my personal experience though, as an independent practitioner and a mother of two, the concerns felt by most freelancers—lacking employment insurance, health coverage, maternity benefits—were all outweighed by my own ability to manage my resources. By working a few more hours a week at my professional rate, I could be better off than what these benefits would have provided me. That said, I think the way to put pressure on corporations to create better conditions is for more people—men especially—to pursue new ways of working. If men take it upon themselves to balance parental and community obligations alongside women, then the need for organizations to rethink employment models will be ubiquitous. Men and women alike are victim to workplaces where feminism is not valued. I sympathize with men who still subscribe to the idea that as the breadwinner they need to put work first or prioritize their career over family and their life.
MT: That really resonates with me because I actually left Vancouver when I felt like the system wasn’t providing adequate resources or opportunities to have a balanced life. Similarly, I left the profession because I felt like the path forward came with too few prospects. I believe that my ability to make an impact within the discipline and on the world around me was limited as a practicing architect, and I am saying this as a man with no family obligations. How have you stayed so optimistic about your own career and its potential for having impact?
AM: I believe in feminism, I am aware of the systemic challenges facing women and men alike, but I believe in my own agency. Perhaps I rely on my naivety? In 1995 I was living in Osaka during the Kobe earthquake, my neighbourhood was shaken, people died; but I was an expat and I didn’t speak any Japanese. Despite being in the middle of it all, it wasn’t until my parents called me and described what they were seeing on the news that I realized the gravity of the situation I was in.
I’m not advocating for raising the blinders and pressing onward, but these systemic forces that can act as modes of control are not always tangible in the day to day. Grassroots movements start when people are unhappy with the status quo but individuals can still have a huge impact by doing work they believe in and working in ways that are meaningful to them.
Michael Taylor is the Commercial Director of The Site Magazine. He spoke with Andrea as she fixed her daughters toe nail polish on April 27th, 2018 during a family vacation in Ibiza.