Designing for an inn at the corner of the earth

Reiko Igarashi, interior design faculty at Marylhurst University, designed laser-cut hangers for the boutique Fogo Island Inn. This unique bed-and-breakfast resides on Fogo Island, which lies off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, and plans to open in summer 2014. How did she come to be a part of this design project? And what was that experience like? We exchanged a few emails with Reiko for the details.

Fogo Island is sometimes called “one of the corners of the earth,” it’s that remote. How did you get involved with a design project for Fogo Island Inn?

Two close friends of mine from architecture school worked for the Shorefast Foundation: Joe Kellner (project manager) and Eric Ratkowski (designer and production coordinator). The Fogo Island Inn is one of the building projects that the Shorefast Foundation spearheaded. When looking to do the interiors, they were interested in involving several different designers to create furniture and accessories for the Inn.

Though I know Joe through architecture school, my previous background was in industrial design and fashion. I love designing objects that can be held and touched, and I excel at using simple fabrication techniques and materials in interesting ways. Joe reached out to me to design this particular object, and I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the project.

Did you do all of your work remotely?

I had weekly Skype meetings with the client to talk about the project. In most of the work I do, I rarely have the luxury of working with or for someone who lives in Portland, so, in some sense, this was not an unusual relationship. My responsibility was for the design and prototyping of the hangers. Once approved, the Inn took on the responsibility of mass production. I did the prototyping here in Portland and shipped them off to Fogo Island for final approval and production.

I worked with a local woodworker, Miriam Linder, to test and create the wood prototypes. I did all the feltwork, finishing and assembly for the prototypes. I wanted the design to be executed as closely to the original vision as possible, so I created a series of instructional videos and production guidelines so the guild workers could see how the prototype was assembled. Projects like this require good communication skills — you need to be direct, use visual and verbal language and sometimes over-narrate.

Did you interact with other designers, and, if so, what was that experience like?

I didn’t interface with any of the other designers on the project apart from my direct contacts within the Shorefast Foundation. This was a relief of sorts — I’m around a lot of designers, and I often work in teams. It was nice to have an open dialog with the client without juggling the creative visions of other people as well.

Have you ever been involved in a project of this nature before?

This was the first of this scope but definitely not the last!

What was the highlight of this project?

Seeing the production happening on Fogo Island while in Portland. I’m a designer, not a maker. I respect the level of practice and dedication that it takes to learn one’s trade, whatever that may be. It was the ultimate satisfaction to see people producing these hangers in a way that respected their knowledge of making and way of working but also held true to my vision for the hanger. In a way, it means I did my job. I designed the object, and I knew enough about the material and process to make it real, but I also left room for the expert makers to do what they do best.

For the layperson, what, exactly, are laser-cut hangers? What kind of creative process did you have for the hangers’ design? Was there much flexibility for your creativity, or were there fairly strict boundaries, given the scope of the hotel?

Calling these laser-cut hangers is a bit misleading. Laser cutting is a production process that uses a laser to cut material precisely and quickly from a CAD drawing. For the final production, the plywood was laser cut — it is quick, efficient and exact. However, the felt and other materials were die-cut, and each hanger was riveted by hand. It is a great combination of new and old production techniques.

The process of designing the hanger involved a lot of mock-ups. I tend to make a lot of full-scale models out of whatever material is appropriate that I have around my studio. I drew a lot in my sketchbook and created 3D models on the computer. I threw a lot of very different ideas around and visualized each one of those physically and virtually. In our design meetings we looked at each of the preliminary ideas and came to a consensus of which one was appropriate for the scope of the project and reflected a sense of place.
The question of boundaries is interesting. I am not quite sure why, exactly, the Shorefast Foundation was keen on hiring many different designers to deal with the interiors and furnishings. But, what it says to me, is that the desire was to create a project that reflects a cohesive vision of a modern Fogo Island, but also harbors a kind of eclecticism and quirkiness that speaks to a long history of craft and inventiveness in an environment where there are not a lot of resources. As I was working on this project, once the creative direction was set for the project, they trusted me to see it through to the end. 
If you haven’t yet visited Fogo Island Inn, do you have plans to ever travel to the island?

I don’t have plans yet, but I would love to make them!


Reiko Igarashi is a faculty member in the Department of Art & Interior Design at Marylhurst University and a LEED certified designer. You can find an assortment of her sketches and creative thoughts on Instagram @rei_igarashi.