Canadian Design: The Cooke Files

Design up-and-comer Terence Cooke infuses industrial objects with a unique Canadian cool.

Clad in dark jeans and a black wool turtleneck, surrounded by stacks of art, architecture and design books, industrial designer Terence Cooke, 32, perches on the edge of a leather chair in his apartment-cum-studio, chuckling about his first big break. It was 2003, he recalls, and he had just finished his industrial design degree at the University of Alberta. He'd been selected to display his work as part of Pure Canadian, a special exhibit promoting Canadian industrial design timed to coincide with the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City. But he was in the midst of moving from Edmonton to Toronto, and was behind schedule with his installation, a giant chandelier made of LED lights encased in 120 hanging Ping-Pong balls. “I finished it at the last minute, in a friend's loft in Tribeca around the corner from the show,” says Cooke.

More than two years later, Cooke is ensconced in Toronto's up-and-coming Parkdale neighbourhood (he recently bought a triplex in the area, which he describes as a “designer ghetto”–neighbours include furniture designer Scot Laughton and architect/interior designer John Tong of 3rd Uncle Design) and is establishing himself in Canada's design community. “Furniture is my strong point,” says Cooke, who gained substantial international exposure to the international furniture industry working at Edmonton-based Pure Design Studios throughout his university career. (The well-respected furniture design shop has since merged with San Francisco-based Offi.) But Cooke is a fan of smaller consumer products too.

One of Cooke's most innovative ideas is infusing dental instruments with LED lighting, so that when dentists and hygienists go poking about in someone's mouth, the light source is literally at their fingertips, instead of from an overhead lamp. (Cooke's skill with lighting stems from seven years' experience working as an engineering technologist.)

Another invention of his is the Fruity Bowl, a synthetic patch of oversized plastic grass in which you can nestle apples and oranges. Cooke made the prototype by pouring sky-blue-coloured silicone into 144 test tubes. Cooke showcased the product on HGTV's House & Home with Lynda Reeves in late 2003 to rave reviews. He has a manufacturer lined up, but finding a distributor in design-wary Canada is proving a challenge.

Cooke's true talents lie in his ability to blend creative thinking with technical expertise. Take his current project, a line of acrylic tabletop items, such as salt and pepper shakers. By manipulating computer-assisted design software, Cooke generated gorgeous images of the pieces, which pair opaque tops to clear bottoms, and provided accompanying technical specs so a manufacturer can easily reproduce them. And a recent collaboration with colleague Johnny Lim resulted in Lunair, a stainless steel chair perforated with more than 3,000 holes that create a digitized image on the chair. He admits it's difficult to classify his work, referring to it loosely as “contemporary modern.”

At present, Cooke pays the bills by assisting better-known designers such as Toronto's Patty Johnson, with whom he designed the Par line of wicker furniture. He hopes eventually to earn a living from his own merchandise, and is encouraged that Canadian businesses, increasingly attuned to the value of aesthetics, are more comfortable hiring industrial designers. Still, he knows by choosing to be independent, he's picked a risky career path. “I revel in my work now,” he says, “But it would be a lot easier if I had a trust fund.”