by Zohra KhanOct 05, 2020
Matthew McCormick worked as a creative director in an advertising company for many years before he started creating products and crafting spaces. As the principal of Matthew McCormick Studio in Vancouver, Canada, his work ranges from designing simple stand-alone light fixtures to large-scale illuminated art installations. He sculpts crazy forms that pull and yank at each other, and designs compelling experiences that elicit contrasting emotions.
“Everything started off very organically,” he says while reflecting on his journey in design. It was during the time that he bought his first house in Vancouver that he found no lights in the market catered to his taste. Curious enough, he designed his own. Once a friend who came for dinner saw them and was so fascinated that he asked McCormick to design lights for an upcoming restaurant. “So, literally, in the parking lot across the street from my apartment at that time, with some blow torches and some hand tools, I made some lights for this restaurant. And what was funny is that I had a mentor at that time at the agency I was in, and he said this is so obvious that this is what you need to be doing,” McCormick recalls.
“You have got to imagine the mind shift from me going from a very white collar job that I worked a decade-and-a-half to get to creative director roles to now be on tools; I was pulling and cutting wires all day. But I knew I needed to learn this stuff if I wanted the lighting company to take off”.
Later, McCormick took the leap, and as the story goes, partnered with an electrical contractor - who originally discovered him - and worked with him as an apprentice to understand the electrical side of designing lights. In about a year-and-a-half, lighting just took off and as McCormick frames it, “it took off like a rocket”.
Starting with a career in arts, from creating two-dimensional graphic work to getting into designing products for a three-dimensional canvas – McCormick’s journey sees a lot of parallels in the two trajectories. “When I used to do graphic design, I always designed by iteration. A product for me is a process of refinement by iteration. It's about stripping everything away. You know you are done not when you have put everything in, but when you have taken everything away,” he says.
“One of the things I always tell people is to really pay attention to where you are right now because you never know how that's going to culminate in the future.”
Back in the art world, he was an active listener as he consciously observed every aspect of a project – be it the clients’ gargantuan brief or the minutest details in design processes. “In the beginning, I may have pulled inspirations from being an active listener but now I allow myself to have the opportunity to pull up from everyday life,” McCormick reflects on the transition.
He started his own product line with site-specific projects. Halo for Presecco, an Italian wine company, was one of Matthew McCormick Studio’s first commercial products. A series of bold lamps inspired by the warm glow of their illuminaire, the product was originally conceived as a graphical interpretation of effervescence, depicting the essence of the brand.
“The work that I do right now, I want it to be able to elicit something.”
AVALANCHE, a temporary experiential installation that debuted at the Victoria & Albert Museum for the London Design Festival in September 2019, encapsulates the industrial designer's approach to creating work that resonates with personal experiences. The project draws from McCormick's own passion of hitting the mountains and snowboarding (one of the reasons why he moved from eastern Canada, where he grew up, to the majestic west coast), as well as a sensitive understanding of the climate shift that causes an avalanche.
AVALANCHE sought to fuel thoughtful introspection on the effects of climate change through an interpretation of what it feels like when one is trapped inside a torrential snow slide. It was designed as a large infinity room with completely mirrored walls and ceiling. At one end there was light and on the other, it was completely dark. Within the exhibit, there were reflective panels that interrupt the space to bring forth the idea that once you are inside, you don’t know how to get out. Moving through the space, which looked a little disoriented, a soundscape comprising 100 instruments played recorded sounds of the mountains and the winds. From feeling the vastness of the mountains to suddenly sensing a chaotic avalanche crunching oneself, the sensitive yet timely installation required one to be there in order to truly experience it. McCormick believes this project to be one of the biggest in his career so far.
“For me, my biggest reward is that if for a moment when you look at an object or an art and you would get that kind of, like a quarter head turn for a second. Boom! That's the magic.”
Whether it’s designing a product or creating an experience with an art installation, McCormick’s work reflects an underlying sense of balance. Beautifully structured dichotomies take shape in his work. One such product called MILA light by Matthew McCormick Studio demonstrates a tension between beautifully polished and diffused surfaces; a globe attached to the bottom of the frame reveals an impossibly balanced assembly. “I want things to be very effortless and to look impossibly hung,” says the designer.
“When I think of the people who have inspired me the most, Ingo Maurer is the name that comes to my mind.”
Late German industrial designer Ingo Maurer, who is often quoted as the poet of light, is one of the most prominent inspirations for McCormick and the reason why he chose lighting as a career path. He came across Maurer’s work 11 years ago at a furniture store in Vancouver while he was on a hunt to buy lights for his home. It was a serendipitous encounter. A peculiar lamp made of a floating orb and little whisks attached to a skinny wire system caught his attention. The product seemed to be made of parts one would easily find around home. It was not until the lamp was turned on that McCormick learnt of its magic. Everything disappeared in the face of a perfectly diffused glow, revealing the true nature of the light. This was the famous Mozzkito lamp and speaking of its creator’s most distinct quality, McCormick reflects, “Ingo Maurer’s work has these magic moments where he truly understands light in perspective, in shadows and this opposition.”
To this day, his most prized possession is one of the last manufactured pieces of this lamp that his wife gifted him one Christmas."I think anyone who has design or artistic sensibility walks around with a slightly different lens on."
Lastly, when we ask him how he would like to STIR up the future, the spirited McCormick says, “When designing and working with other creatives, you really have to check your ego at the door. For me, I will continue try checking my ego at the door. It would be great to be able to be recognised as someone quintessentially Matthew McCormick, but in parallel, the intention is not pigeonholing myself to just this work that I do.”