Design is Everywhere – Shauna Levy
As she celebrates her fifth year at the helm of Canada’s Design Exchange, Shauna Levy looks back on the progress she’s made as a champion for authentic design, the lifeblood of creativity — and is making larger-than-life plans to continue her mission of using design to better the planet.
When Shauna Levy was 25, she sold her belongings and booked a one-way flight to Paris with nothing but a scrap of paper in her hands. On this piece of paper she’d scrawled the names and phone numbers of people she didn’t know — friends of friends, family members of former co-workers. After a few months of living in the City of Light, Levy had managed to turn those anonymous scribbles into new friendships, a place to live and even a job.
While she only stayed in Paris for a year and a half, the experience caused a shift in Levy’s life. As the daughter of Steven Levy, founder of Toronto’s One of a Kind Show, she had grown up with an appreciation for craft, but in Paris she’d fallen in love with not only the city but one of its driving forces: design.
“I discovered that design really was part of every aspect of life,” says Levy. “I found it so cool and exciting. To me, it represented something I hadn’t experienced before.”
A lot has happened since then. Levy has become one of Canada’s most trusted authorities in the world of design, having co-founded the renowned Interior Design Show (IDS) with her father. She has also helmed the Design Exchange for the past five years, and throughout her time as president and CEO of the now internationally acclaimed design hub, she has helped further Toronto’s status as a world-class design destination.
The success bloomed from Levy’s sharp, progressive and curve-ball-throwing leadership style, which she’s used to champion true design and make it more accessible for all Canadians. This is the mission of the Design Exchange, providing a space for all people to gather, get educated about and appreciate design in all its forms. It’s also a place for design to stretch its legs.
“I discovered that design really was part of every aspect of life”
When Levy initially stepped into her role at the DX, the first exhibition she oversaw was The Happy Show by graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister that chronicled an experiment in which he used design to increase his happiness. Then came the Christian Louboutin show in 2013, which, Levy says, “was an opportunity to talk about the magic and the artistry of design.” A year later came the chance to take the sometimes abstract concept of design and bring it back down to earth via the wildly popular 2014 exhibition This Is Not A Toy, curated by Pharrell Williams.
“When [Williams] was asked why he did it for us pro bono, he said it was because it was an art form that he felt was accessible,” says Levy. “There are people who are intimidated by that conversation, people who don’t feel welcome in a museum, who feel that it’s not for them. This was an opportunity to actually work with and present an art form that was really accessible to everyone. We were getting phone calls from young people asking what the dress code was, because they had never stepped foot in a museum before.”
This year, Levy is furthering that agenda by launching Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology (EDIT) in September, in partnership with the United Nations. Taking place in the former Unilever Detergent Factory in Toronto, the 10-day design festival is meant to stir discussion on how design can be used to make the world better for everyone, summoning 100,000 influencers and enthusiasts to ponder the event’s four themes: Shelter, Nourish, Care and Educate.
EDIT, which Levy is planning as a biennial, world-scale festival, is a testament to how far Toronto has come to earn its place in the spotlight on the industry’s international stage, but it’s also proof of how big Levy’s role has been in that progression. Ever since that milestone chapter in Paris, she has developed an eye for finding untapped potential in the design market. After returning to Toronto, the young Levy was working for Designers Walk, which was exclusive to industry professionals, and was inspired to found a publically accessible show — and shortly after, IDS was born. The Levys didn’t know what to expect that inaugural weekend, but the success was overwhelming, even though the event was darkened by a power outage.
“I remember Brian Gluckstein had a flashlight and [gave] flashlight tours of his space,” Levy says with a laugh. “Then we all went back into the show office and we ordered pizza and drank beer, and we were so upset but at the same time so happy about how well things had gone.”
Today, IDS is one of the most celebrated design shows in the world, luring the brightest of the industry to come and make waves for the forthcoming seasons with authentic and inspired craft. And come September, it appears Levy will be one-upping herself with the highly anticipated EDIT, which she hopes will educate and inspire design lovers of all ages, income brackets and backgrounds.
“It’s important to give people different types of experiences,” says Levy. And I think design is something that runs through it all, so it is easy for us to talk about music, for us to talk about art, for us to talk about major grand challenges, because design is a part of all those things. We have the flexibility and the ability to move all around that continuum of cultural experience.”
Design is the lifeblood of the creative world. It appears in toy stores and in homeless shelters, on runways and in display cases. It takes the form of a child sitting at a table sketching a city, beginning to understand that they have a say in how the world works. It’s a 25-year-old woman boarding a plane to Paris and turning a list of names into a future.
photo by mike ford