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ARTS AND CULTURE

5 MIN

Who's Behind that Store Window?

We talk with four of Toronto's most interesting store window display artists

Window shopping takes on new meaning when what’s behind the glass is the masterful work of a talented visual display artist. Stoic mannequins can’t compete with store window crafting feats like a cardboard cactus garden, or an homage to a new album with speakers stacked like a castle.

Billy caught up with the creative forces behind some of Toronto’s most instagrammable storefronts to find out what inspires them, where they source art supplies (hint: Dollarama is a goldmine) and where we’ll find them when they aren’t knee deep in papier-mâché.   

Kalpna Patel, Type Books

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Kalpna Patel has a way with paper that would make Pinterest acolytes drool. Best known for her intricate displays at Type – a spinoff gig from her part-time job at the bookstore – she has also done set design for local theatre and created an installation made of a boatload of cardboard boxes for the Pan Am Games. This summer, when she’s not biking along the West Toronto Railpath or hanging out in High Park, Patel will be preparing for the 10th Annual City of Craft, the independent craft fair held in December that she helps organize.

Window inspo

“I try to make most of the window displays look like picture books come to life,” says Patel, who mines children’s books for ideas. “These days it’s Carson Ellis' Home, Mark Boutavant's Edmond, and Isabelle Arsenault's illustrations in Cloth Lullaby.”

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Patel’s first window for Type nearly six years ago celebrated the release of The Anthology of Rap. “It was full of old boom boxes, and gigantic paper cassette tapes,” she says. Among her other favourites: a science-themed window with beakers full of glitter, and one for Michael Cho's Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes. “I made a three-dimensional recreation of one of his incredible illustrations from the book.”

Supply closet

For materials, Patel hits The Paper Place, ARTiculations and Aboveground Art Supplies in the Junction, Designer Fabric Outlet in Parkdale, and one less obvious source: “The dreaded/beloved Dollarama.”

After hours  

“If I'm not crafting I'm usually eating,” says Patel, who frequents Me & Mine or Maha's for breakfast, and Little Sister, Banu “or anywhere that has fried chicken for dinner.”

Kalpna Patel

Tim Oakley, Sonic Boom Records

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Tim Oakley’s gig as the window designer for Sonic Boom came through his part-time job as a cashier at the record store. The self-taught designer has since created some of the coolest album-themed windows, helping to make the store a bit of a landmark. “Usually, I emulate the cover art, but try to find a way to either make it three-dimensional or oversized,” Oakley says. “If the cover art isn't strong enough, I try to just convey the intent or feeling of the album. Next up, he’s working on a window for Field Trip, the Arts & Crafts music festival.

Window inspo

“I'm always super jealous of the displays at Anthropologie,” says Oakley. (His wife, April Walsh – with whom he shares a design blog, Wall and Oaks – was previously the brains behind the fashion retailer’s windows.)  

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The Chemical Brothers' Push the Button was the first record Oakley reimagined as a window display. “Back in the day, record labels used to send us giant banners,” he says. “I used one as a backdrop and made a castle out of old speakers in front. It was something I did on a whim and the success launched my whole career.” His work has also landed him face time with his favourite band: “I've been lucky enough to do window displays for two Superchunk albums—one of which the band saw in person!”

Supply closet

Oakley has employed some unusual materials in his displays – from fur, to the front half of an old car. He scopes out places like Weiner's Home Hardware and Smash Salvage. “It’s always great to find one unique piece to anchor the display.”

After hours  

You can most often find Oakley in the Dundas and Ossington area. “I'm a huge fan of a bar Bathurst Local, and a great brunch spot The Hub,” he says.  Otherwise he’s out and about with his family. “I'm really just trying to spend as much time with my wife and son.”

Tim Oakley

Ashley Barron, Leaves of Trees

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An OCAD grad and illustrator, Barron is new to window design. Nonetheless, her work for natural beauty brand Leaves of Trees – including bright paper poppies and a travel-themed vignette featuring clouds and vintage suitcases – has stopped plenty of passersby in its Queen East hood. When she’s not dreaming up new display ideas, she’s illustrating children’s books for Owlkids and Kids Can Press. Barron was part of a group of artists who collaborated on a colouring book for Syrian children arriving in Toronto.   

Window inspo

“I go to the library three times a week. It’s kind of insane,” says Barron, who browses among the books to help fuel her creativity. “Sometimes I’ll just walk into a library without an objective. I’ll graze the aisles and see what covers attract me.”

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Barron met Leaves of Trees founder Dr. Roohi Qureshi at Makers Cartel, a gift show where Qureshi tapped Barron to help create interest in the her then not-yet-opened shop during the winter months. The result: Barron’s first display, where she turned foamcore and paper into a flock of feathered friends for a scene she calls “Wintering Birds of Toronto.”

Supply closet  

Thrift shops and places that sell discarded wallpaper are Barron’s go-to sources. There is also Gwartzmans for affordable art supplies, and Vintage Hunter, an antique store in Little India for vintage finds, Barron says. “It’s a gem.”

After hours

“I absolutely love Broadview Park. I like the view of the city, and I like going down into the valley and visiting Riverdale Farm.” For Mexican food, she heads to Liberty Village. “My very good friends own Maizal. They grow their own corn for tortillas.”

Ashley Barron

Michelle Smith, various

If you’ve ever stopped to stare at one of William Ashley’s epic windows, you know Michelle Smith’s work. But the self-taught artist almost missed the opportunity to showcase her talents at the Yorkville institution. “I saw an ad for a window dresser in Now Magazine about three times over a year,” recalls Smith. “The third time I thought, ‘Well, they can’t find anybody. I might as well apply.’ ” Smith got her start in window design when she was working part time at the Queen West Dufflet, creating the displays for fun. She still does windows for the pastry shop, as well as eyewear retailer Squint, where her eye-catching designs are garnering new customers for the store. “I was taking a window down and twice someone stopped and said ‘I never noticed this place until you started doing windows.’ ”

Window inspo

“I have a huge collection of vintage craft books that I look at a lot,” says Smith who also browses store windows in Soho and on 5th Avenue when she’s in New York. “Bergdorf Goodman has all these vignettes that are crazy intricate.” Smith also cites Simon Doonan’s work at Barney’s. “It’s always good to have a little bit of humour.”

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One of Smith’s favoutite projects was a Christmas window for Dufflet featuring faux stained glass, an artistic spin on a traditional children’s tissue paper craft. “I liked the caption. It said, ‘Holy cake!’ which makes no sense but I thought it was funny.” She also made giant origami ice cubes for a cold-drink themed window for summer. “It took forever because I had to figure out how to make the cubes from iridescent cellophane and blow them up.”

Supply closet

In addition to searching on Craigslist or Kijiji for props, Smith has a secret weapon. “I work one day a month at Michaels so I can get a discount,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m here all the time looking, so I might as well get paid to walk around this floor!’”

After hours

“I like to go to Toronto Island. My favourite thing to do in the summer is rent a kayak and hang out there for the day.”

Michelle Smith

Published Tuesday, May 24th 2016

Header image credit: Michelle Smith

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