A new exhibit celebrates Montreal, UNESCO City of Design

The Talked About Town, Place Ville Marie's new exhibit, is part of the Montreal landmark itself (Natascia Lypny photo).

You wake up and pour yourself a glass of Ovopur filtered water. Then, you don your new Philippe Dubuc shirt and trousers. An Aribus STM shelter protects your designer outfit as you wait for the bus that will transport to your office in the Quebecor Building. After a late lunch meeting in the Square des Frères-Charon, you dash to Place des Arts to catch Opéra de Montréal’s newest production.

Like many Montrealers, you are mostly unaware local designers have defined your day. “Design is everywhere,” says Jean-Philippe Tardif. “Design is in park benches; it’s in how the sidewalk is built and the lampposts.”

Tardif is the vice-president of branding and design at Bleublancrouge, the marketing firm behind Place Ville Marie’s public exhibits. Their newest, The Talked About Town, or Une ville si souvent citée, celebrates Montreal’s fifth anniversary as a UNESCO City of Design. Montreal was awarded this title in June 2006, making it the first North American city to receive this designation. Ten cities around the world now share this title.

“What this designation gave us was it helped Montreal make a big leap forward in its support in showcasing of local design talent,” says Helen Fotopulos, the city’s executive committee member responsible for culture, heritage, design and the status of women. That talent, she notes, stems from some 40,000 Quebec designers. Fifty two per cent of them are based in Montreal.

The exhibit presents three contest-winners from seven design disciplines (see insert). “Nous, c’était les sept (disciplines) qui étaient le plus près de nos activités à nous, à la Place Ville Marie; les activités de nos locataires,” explains Place Ville Marie’s senior adviser for communications, public affairs and marketing Marie Caron. The exhibit is incorporated into the infrastructure of Place Ville Marie itself: a staircase, two food courts, and pillars along a shopping corridor display photographs of the chosen projects and blurbs describing Montreal’s progress as a City of Design.

The seven disciplines on display in The Talked About Town
FASHION DESIGN: styles change, success remains
INDUSTRIAL DESIGN: when ideas are mass-produced
EXHIBITION DESIGN: the art of showing the art of others
ARCHITECTURE: build, renovate or grow; it’s all a part of the plan
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: fresh ideas down the street
INTERIOR DESIGN: inner beauty is important for buildings too
GRAPHIC DESIGN: when words and images marry, colour is always at the wedding

The exhibit is just as much a showcase of Montreal designers as it is an advertisement for Place Ville Marie. This third exhibit in a series of annual shows executed by Bleublancrouge acts to promote the building as much more than a place of business, commerce or transit. Tardif hopes the exhibits will help distinguish Place Ville Marie as a downtown landmark, while simultaneously highlighting Montreal’s uniqueness as a design city. “C’était une façon pour nous de se distinguer en temps que galérie marchande. On voulait avoir des activités qui n’était pas carrément juste commerciales,” adds Caron. “C’était une façon d’attirer une publique chez nous: une publique nouvelle dans nos espaces et de faire décourvrir la Place Ville Marie.”

Promoting design as an integrated element of a city’s many sectors has been central to the 2007-2017 Montréal, Design of the City/City of Design action plan. As a result of the plan, “design got integrated into economic development; it got integrated into cultural development; and it’s being followed on a regular basis in terms of the responsibility of various city departments,” says Fotopulos.

Such was not always the case. Fotopulos explains that with a few exceptions, design used to be the “cherry on the sundae” when it came to urban planning—and only if it could be included cheaply, adds Tardif. Recently, urban landscape workshops, architectural competitions, and a slew of design competitions have encouraged those in charge of building Montreal to do so with design in mind. The municipal government’s bureau de Design Montréal wants to expand design-oriented planning to every urban project and every borough on the island.

Design Montréal was created in 2006 to implement the action plan. After Montreal was designated as a UNESCO City of Design, it was also assigned the task of ensuring the city lived up to its title. Five years later, Fotopulos is unsure whether Montreal has achieved this goal. Tardif agrees: “When I look around, there isn’t much of a statement.”

But Doyun Lee, the assistant programme specialist in the division of cultural expressions and creative industries at UNESCO, says that the designation is much more than a recognition the design a city has exhibited in the past. The title acknowledges a future commitment to, and engagement in, the field of design. In that respect, Tardif sees Montreal as a city with the will and the talent to become a full-fledged city of design.

But this ambition must extend outside the design community to ordinary citizens. Hundreds of people walk by the Talked About Town exhibit each day without a second’s glance. Design Montréal has noted the same ambivalence toward much of the design Montreal has to offer its residents.

Design Montréal is trying to counteract the ambivalence to design seen in these exhibition loungers (Natascia Lypny photo).

To counteract this disengagement, Design Montréal organizes an annual Opening Doors event inviting Montrealers into the design community. The fifth edition occurred June 4 and 5 with 75 design agencies, venues and projects holding open houses for the general public. Design Montréal hopes this kind of exposure to the design world will incite in citizens to take pride in Montreal.

“A design city is first and foremost built by talent and those who conceive design, make decisions, and finance, create, and most importantly, those who live there,” says Fotopulos. “So, that’s why we say that the most important element in Montreal are Montrealers: they’re the people who make this city, they’re the ones who make the economy, propel it, and they support its creators.”

This focus on “local audience development” is particularly strong in Montreal, says Lee. While some Cities of Design, such as Sante Fe have emphasized design as a tourism asset, Montreal has stressed how to include citizens in the initiative of becoming a City of Design.

“With that type of dynamism behind design,” concludes Fotopulos, “Montreal is developing into a real, cultural metropolis with design as one of its foremost values.”

The Talked About Town runs until September 30. Monday to Wednesday 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; Thursday and Friday 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5:00 p.m.

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