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Heartfelt by design: Jeremy Vandermeij makes cutting-edge ideas both accessible and delightful

The idea that an isolated genius produces the best ideas has lost much of its cache in our networked and crowdsourced world. But Jeremy Vandermeij's vision of collaborative art and design is a whole lot more individualistic and experimental than what any ordinary crowd would produce. And a whole lot more joyful.
Vandermeij's work as a self-described "creative generalist" employs friendship and camaraderie to extraordinary creative ends; no one, from a work's creator to the attendee or consumer or patron is left out of the process. As creative director at the Gladstone Hotel, former curator of the hotel's annual Come Up to My Room event, which invites creators to create an immersive experience in the hotel's rooms, and co-founder of Toronto Design Offsite and Public Displays of Affection, Vandermeij has worked to surmount the often artificial boundaries between art and design, personal expression and public service.
"The synthesis of more diverse minds makes for a better product and a better show," says Vandermeij, 31. Traditional art shows, for example, can often leave viewers in the dark, unsure of where the artist's head is at. The Come Up to My Room experience requires creators to be present to talk about the work. "We create a dialogue around the work that's very lively. There are as many failures as there are successes, and we celebrate those failures just as much as the successes."
One of the founders of Toronto Design Offsite (TODO), Vandermeij is still buzzing from the event's just-finished second year, which featured 19 exhibitors, scattered mostly off Queen West. Now Vandermeij is hard at work turning TODO into a not-for-profit organization that will have the staying power to promote Toronto's indie design culture citywide for years to come. Conceived as a more alternative companion to the mammoth Interior Design Show (IDS), TDO blows open the conventional idea of a trade show, showcasing Toronto talent where it lives.
"We definitely believe Canadian design is amazing and deserves to be purchased," says Vandermeij. "Part of the goal is creating a better market for Canadian designers in Canada and outside of Canada. It's not our only goal because I think the best goals don't involve trying to make money, but it's definitely a result of what we do."
The seeds of TODO were planted by Harry Wakefield, the Montreal-based editor of web magazine MoCo Loco, who has been visiting Come Up to My Room for years. Wakefield started needling Vandermeij to come up with a larger-scale showcase of Toronto designers who may not have been getting their fair shake at IDS, either due to the cost of exhibition space or because their offerings were more offbeat.
"Harry saw the opportunity for a community to grow up around our values," says Vandermeij, who works with co-producer Deborah Wang and a cross-disciplinary team including the Design Exchange's Noa Bronstein, Joy Charbonneau of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, editor and writer David Dick-Agnew, MADE's Shaun Moore and Julie Nicholson, industrial designer Katherine Morley and Gladstone president Christina Zeidler. Like in so many of his other endeavours, it's the collaboration spirit as much as the individual brain trust that matters most. Asked to name people who have inspired him, Vandermeij does not rattle off a list of international design superstars.
"The person who has inspired me the most is Christina Zeidler," he says. "I'm more inspired by people I get to meet and know than by people I don't know."
Collaborative inspiration is also a vital part of Public Displays of Affection (PDA), which Vandermeij also co-founded. The project puts together a team of designers which produces furnishings for low-income housing developments. Its most recent effort, launched in January, saw work by local designers—such as Brothers Dressler, Studio Junction, Rob Southcott, Parimal Gosai, MADE and Kathryn Walter—donated to the community spaces of 40 Oaks,  which is part of phase one of the Regent Park revitalization. The effects of PDA's first effort, four years ago with Edmond Place, are still felt.
"PDA came to us with a proposal to work with the men and women who use our services to design and build furniture. At the time we weren’t sure how to accept their offer but they were persistent and persuasive," says Victor Willis, executive director of Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre, which oversees Edmond Place. Through the process, Willis fell in love with PDA. "I have been in the field of community work for 30 years but have never been so engaged and excited about the cross pollination and connections that PDA brought to PARC members and the residents of Edmond Place."
Part of what impressed Willis was the attention paid to the meaning of objects, not just their appearance.
"The furnishings have a communal intent in the design and build that encourages residents to join and socialize, as opposed to a design that encourages solitariness or isolation," says Willis. For example, "the Brothers Dressler slab trestle tables that the residents share lunch and dinner at, or the benches and coffee tables in the main common room where group activities and movie/hockey nights take place."
Because of the collaborative process, class and income boundaries are, if not erased, then at least bridged.
"PDA puts a lot of emphasis on recycling and repurposing of goods which, for a middleclass aesthetic, is a matter of intentional choice, whereas for people who are poor, there is often no choice in the matter. Poor people are often recycling," says Willis. "Jeremy and PDA understood that and therefore a new language and engagement was required to make their manifesto work for the potential tenants."
"They feel the love that was put into these objects and the effort that was put into them," admits Vandermeij, who is working with downtown YWCA for PDA's next project at the new Elm Centre.
Despite all his work with artists, designers and others who are dedicated to making our surroundings thoughtful and beautiful, Vandermeij laughingly concedes that his own digs are not particularly well-designed.
"I get quite a few requests from the design media to shoot my home. I say, 'Absolutely not,'" Vandermeij says. "I'm still living like a university student, by force of habit. I have some artwork I'm starting to collect but it's happening really slowly."

Paul Gallant is Yonge Street's managing editor.

Photos of Come Up to My Room 2012 by Laynna Meyler, courtesy of the Gladstone Hotel.
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