Jake Whillans has a clear sense of his work—what might be called “brand identity.” As a furniture designer and maker developing his practice, Whillans knows where potential clients are, and he understands how to value the different kinds of work they enable. Commissions are excellent, but they don’t always lead to that all-important brand advancement. The production line work that Sheridan College helped him develop, and which he has grown in the three years since then, can be more personally rewarding. But then there are costs there too: as Whillans comments, “I can be overly self-critical to a fault.” Commissions where his and the client’s aesthetics and beliefs align? “Nothing beats it…but…” those are not common.
Whillans is finding the balance between the variables of creativity, individuality, skill, design, ecological principle, and business savvy. He is achieving this harmony better than he knows, due to his trademark intelligence and modesty. His commissions include a counter for Alo, one of the world’s best restaurants in 2018 (1), which he completed at the same time as a boardwalk for a community garden in Toronto.
“It’s hard to find the client with the long-term view,” he reflects. And yet he admits with sincere humility, “I am coming to be something of an expert and I can explain why ideas are bad” (not realizing how powerful and important a lesson is reflected in this admission).
But Whillans knows his selling points: that a client has a specific location, with specific needs, that he can address. Whillans’ attention to detail is what brings the clients in: his work inspires his clients to care about the overall feeling, and this in turn draws his work onward. He works with the client to create the experience of the space—whether an object in a commercial space with high visibility, or in an intimate, domestic setting.
“Experience” is very much a buzzword in business and is sometimes cited by craft’s worrywarts as a reason to expect declining craft sales—the fear is that the contemporary consumer is drawn to experiences and memories instead of physical things. This emphasis on experience connects to downsizing, and what Whillans calls “self-congratulatory minimalism.” But many, or most, experiences still need a physical setting and, more importantly, a physical quality. This creation of experience therefore lies at the heart of Whillans’ quiet, understated craftsmanship and business acumen: pure, honest quality. “And people like to know where a thing came from.”
With his integrity, creativity, and skill, Whillans will continue the best traditions of craft and design in the new era. And the future? He dreams of someday designing and making a hotel lobby but laughs at all the variables that would have to align for that, which means he’s probably halfway there.
(1) As determined by “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” a list produced annually since 2002 by an international award organization with over 1,000 jury members.
This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2018-19 issue of Studio Magazine