With a master’s degree in architecture, ten years working as an architect, and 15 years of experience in his family’s business making plastic displays, designer Jonathan Dorthe’s unique background gave him nearly everything he needed to build his own top-notch creative studio. (Having free rein over all the industrial machines in the family shop didn’t hurt, either.) Still, his initial aspirations for his original products were a little less lofty than all that: “The first object I made was a table for a new apartment I had just moved into with some architecture friends,” Jonathan says. “Then I did a few more tables, and then more objects after that.”
Six years after starting his business — and three years into making Atelier D his full-time gig — Dorthe’s perforated pendant lamps, minimalist wood wall clocks, slatted side tables and fresh takes on classic table games have appeared on design blogs like MOCO LOCO and Design Milk; been distributed by architects, designers, and retailers in his home city of Montréal; and even been sought out for international hospitality projects. But he still finds inspiration close to home. “I tend to design things that I’d like to have or that I need in my own life,” he says. Considering that his life is soon to include a pair of twin babies, we can only assume that a slew of new designs will follow.
We caught up with Jonathan to learn more about his approach to design.
Almost all of your products are made from wood and plastic. What is it about working with those materials that appeals to you?
I started with plastic because I have access to large quantities of it, for free, here in the family shop; many of my products are made using off-cut pieces from other big projects that we do. Then, when I started to do shows, people liked my objects but found them a little bit cold; after that, I started to work with wood to warm up my designs. When I saw that my product line was getting a much better reception, I began using even more wood, and I really fell in love with the process of working with it. So now I use mostly wood, but I do incorporate some plastic. I especially like Canadian woods like birch and maple, because they make a really interesting contrast with the dark plastic that I use.
What’s your process like for taking an idea from inspiration to finished product?
When I worked in architecture I was mainly doing 3-D models on the computer, so that’s how I learned to design, and for me that’s still the easiest way. I usually do sketches on the computer, then 3-D models; sometimes I do renders just to see the scale and proportions, and to test different colors for an object. Then I do a first prototype in the material right away — sometimes I can have an idea and finish the prototype in the same day. Designers used to have to wait months or years before they could come out with a new product, but now, with laser cutting, CNC machines, and printing machines, it’s much easier to do a small production line.
Once I have a good prototype, I take pictures and post them on Facebook and on Etsy; when I see whether a design is doing well, I’ll do a small production run. Sometimes I develop new products specifically for shows, like Christmas shows; then, when I know which products really interest people, I do a higher-quantity production.
How does your background in architecture influence the work you do now?
Well, I like black, and every architect loves black. The way I design my objects in a really minimalist style is something else that I developed while working in architecture. At the same time, I am now mixing in a lot of patterns and graphic design with my objects. I like to work with the architectural vocabulary; I like to play with shadows. When I’m designing a lamp, that’s what I’m looking for: In addition to creating light, I’m also playing with shadows.
Tell us about your studio! Where do you work? And what is the tool you use the most in your workshop?
I do all my production at the family shop because I have access to all the tools, but the design part happens mostly in my home studio (I mean, in my kitchen). I do a lot of cutting with the laser tool, but probably the thing I use the most is sandpaper, unfortunately. Working with wood is beautiful, it’s great, it’s rewarding, but it’s a lot of hours spent sanding.
What’s the best selling item in your shop, and how did that design come to be?
Sometimes it’s really unexpected when a product blows up. The vinyl separators I made last year have been really popular — and at first, I just made them for my girlfriend and me, for our vinyl collection at home. I wasn’t planning to sell it. But then the product looked interesting, so I took pictures and put them online, and then it was published on a design blog. That brought a lot of people to my Etsy shop, and that’s how things really got going for this product.
What do you love most about working on Atelier D?
My favorite part of my job is really designing — that’s the part that I love the most. I’m always working on new products; even if I’ve just done a photo shoot, I’m already thinking of new products I’m going to design. I typically have three or four projects that I am working on at once, and I would say that I finish at least one new project a month.
What are some of your biggest sources of inspiration?
There are a lot of things that I love in life, and all those things inspire me. Lately I am very interested in graphic design, and I love to make food, I love to travel. When I travel, I like to go see manufacturers if I can, to see how things are traditionally made; I love traditional techniques and I’m friends with a lot of artisans. Last year I was invited by the city of Montréal to present my work in Austria at a big design festival, and it was really, really inspiring to go there and meet a lot of designers and see their process.
Last year, after taking a few ceramic classes, I started to work on a couple of ceramic pieces and made some friends who are ceramists. Going to their studios, finding out the ways they work, and looking at how the material is different and the way they make an object — that’s something else I find really inspiring. Sometimes, I’m thinking of doing an object in plastic or wood, but then if I want to do it in ceramic after, it’s very different.
Will you tell us about some of the other artists, designers, or Etsy sellers whose work you admire?
There is a woodworker named Loïc Bard who does a lot of organic pieces and has really interesting lamps and tables — I find him really inspiring. We did a couple of shows together in Toronto and Montréal, and we had a lot of time to talk about our projects and our philosophies, which is always interesting for me. And I have a lot of friends in my area who are designers; one, Amanda Moss, is a fashion designer who also has a shop on Etsy, and we often talk together about design and about having a small business, because that’s a whole subject in itself.
What are your goals, plans, or hopes for the next year — for your shop, or in general?
For my shop, I just hope everything continues to go well like it has been, and that I can continue doing what I love. And on a personal level, it’s going to be a really big year because my girlfriend is pregnant, and we’re waiting for twins. So it’s going to be a really big change in my life, in our life.
Congratulations! So are you going to start designing children’s furniture then?
Maybe! I have started to work on some art pieces for a new project I’m doing with a friend; at a small scale, it’s going to be a puzzle, but at a bigger scale, it’s going to be wall panels for a kid’s room. And I’m sure I will get inspired to do other objects in the future years.
All photos by Atelier D.