Up and Coming
Oeuffice, Furniture Designers

Had Jakub Zak and Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte met and not formed a partnership, it might have seemed almost sacrilegious, a kind of fuck-you to the gods of fate. After simultaneously studying design in their native Canada, and then again at the very same university in Berlin together, the pair only became aware of one another’s existence once they’d both moved to Milan to start their professional lives — Lecompte as a roving member of the Montreal-based Samare studio and Zak as a designer for Patricia Urquiola. As if the shared condition of being the only two Canadians they knew who were actively working in the Milanese design scene weren’t enough, they happened to meet at the precise moment in each of their careers where they were yearning to try something independent, experimental, and new. Samare was three years old and growing quite successful, but its physical manifestation was way across the Atlantic, and it maintained a relatively narrow focus on Canadian crafts and heritage; Zak was — and still is — working full time for Urquiola, “which is pretty demanding,” he says. “You reach a stage where you want to start doing projects of your own. Oeuffice is a research-minded collaboration where Nicolas and I can play with new techniques and materials in ways we might not have the opportunity to otherwise.”

It also helped that at the time they started working together as Oeuffice, last fall, Lecompte was finalizing plans to co-found the Carwan Gallery in Beirut, the first commissions for which would launch during the Milan Furniture Fair, giving the pair the motivation of a deadline. The duo looked to a mutual obsession with architecture — Lecompte’s undergrad degree — to define their opening collection, researching structural details they could scale down to the level of domestic objects, yet looking for ways those objects could maintain the monumental presence of buildings. “We were trying to think of a typology that doesn’t already exist, but could be a useful and dominant piece in the house,” explains Zak. The resulting seven-foot-tall Totems take the place of a normal library or shelving unit, but with a much more imposing presence. One called Centina — which resembles a stack of angular coffee tables — mimics the formal and structural language of concrete pillars, but with the added warmth of wood; Calico takes architectural louvers as its departure point, rendering them in hand-poured methacrylate resin and playing with notions of lightness and transparency. Laveer, a steel core coated in turquoise rubberized paint, is based on industrial architecture. “We did research into everything from Russian Constructivism to the basic mechanical structures that are at the core of any building,” says Zak, underscoring another serendipitous element of his friendship with Lecompte: a shared enthusiasm for spending their free time this way.

With their original three totems — all of which were handmade by craftsmen in northern Italy, “the best place to get anything produced in the world,” insists Zak — on view at the gallery in Beirut until September, the pair are beginning to think through what this mutual side project may yield next, including a possible collaboration with artisans in the Lebanese capital. “What we really want is to experiment with craftspeople and various techniques,” says Zak. “Architecture might be part of the expression but it won’t always be the defining intent. And obviously we’re not just going to stick to doing totems — there’s a certain end to that.”


What inspired your Totems? “For our premiere collection we decided to propose ‘totems for living’ — they’re intended as monolithic objects that dominate the habitat, yet remain entirely functional.”


“They’re inspired by the geometries and proportions found in monumental architecture and conceived as domestic altarpieces, dominant and narrative objects around which one is invited to stop, to contemplate, and to display artifacts of importance.”


Design or art hero: “Brian Jungen, a native Canadian artist whose work and approach is incredible. His ability to transform banal everyday consumer goods into beautiful installations that are both visually stunning and rich in narrative is absolutely inspiring. He recently did a series of totems sewn out of golf bags that are fascinating to gaze at as you shift between the totem as an object and the material with which it was produced.”


Design movement you most identify with: “A mix of Italian Rationalism, Brazilian Tropicalism, and some Canadian Modernism. It sounds like an irrational cocktail, but we like the idea of finding new avenues for experimentation by mixing the various precedents that have shaped us or inspired us.” Pictured: B 08 Glass Bolide 02 by Hélio Oiticica (1963-64)


Objects you keep around your studio for inspiration: “A good bottle of Bourbon for the many late nights! Apart from that, we tend to collect various crafts, artifacts, or particular techniques discovered on trips abroad.”


Describe the first thing you ever made: [Jakub] “Growing up on the west coast of Canada, the treehouse was a must. I was blessed to have giant trees in my backyard and was able to construct elaborate structures assembled with various found materials. It was truly amazing, but an eyesore for my parents.”


Describe the first thing you ever made: [Nicolas] “I like building forts made of whatever. I have to laugh when I think of the labyrinths I was building in my basement as a teenager, and about the parties I was throwing in there!”


Design object you wish you’d made: “The gold-plated DeLorean. The DeLorean is the dream car we would die to have a ride in, stepping out of those vertically hinging doors and saying it’s ours. And the limited-edition Gold series... Need we say more?”


Favorite material to work with: “Wood for its natural elegance, black marble for its weight and presence, and copper for the way it ages.”


If you had an unlimited budget to make a single piece, what would you make? “A huge totem to live inside.”


Moment that inspired you to be a designer: [Nicolas] “My grandmother Marthe — who attended Academy of Fine Arts of Toronto and who also had her pilot’s license — told me one day that it’s fundamental to follow your dreams and realize them. So I did.” [Jakub] “Childhood trips to Europe, and a Ron Arad installation at the V&A back in the year 2000.”


Most-listened-to album while working in the studio: “Recently we've been enjoying the sound of James Pants.”


Favorite place to shop for materials or inspiration: “The Italian mercatini dell’usato (flea markets). All over northern Italy you can find amazing warehouses or street markets dedicated to the resale of secondhand objects, furniture, and clothing. There are some really amazing and rare pieces to be found here.”


First thing a stranger would think when they saw your work: “Monumental!”


Fictional character who would own your work: “Alex DeLarge from Clockwork Orange — according to his exceptional taste, our Oeuffice Totems would be the ideal type of objects to crash.”


Last great exhibition you saw: “‘Usus/Usures’ by Rotor, for the Belgian pavilion at the last Architecture Biennale. It was a beautiful and subtle display of the way building materials and finishes wear with age and use. To enhance the importance of this otherwise unnoticed decay, the salvaged pieces were hung like paintings in a gallery setting, emphasizing the wear inflicted on the surfaces and the preciousness of the materials.”


Most interesting thing you ever brought back from your travels: [Jakub] “I tend to collect small items during my travels as souvenirs or inspiration, anything from receipts to packaging, clothes pins to mechanical parts. All things strange or banal that pique my interest.” [Nicolas] “My old Argentinean gaucho poncho from Patagonia, made with a great raw llama’s wool.”


Most inspiring place you’ve ever been to, or inside: “The Pergamon Museum in Berlin. We were both impressed by the incredible way the content is displayed, especially from a spatial point of view. The Pergamon Altar, for instance, is a remnant of antiquity that has been transported into a giant room of the museum, and through this metamorphosis a new architectural experience is created, all the while preserving the past.”


Thing you love most about Milan: “Bramante’s false perspective at the church of Santa Maria San Satiro and Portaluppi’s Villa Necchi Campiglio. Both are very beautiful and particularly Milanese treasures.”


The Villa Necchi Campiglio


Thing you hate most about it: “The new ATM bar. We hate the way good old things can be ruined by bad architects — some things should just stay the same.”


Right now, Oeuffice is: “In Beirut (pictured) at the Carwan Gallery for the summer, and working on a new craft project in the Middle East.”