By DAYANTI KARUNARATNE
There’s a little design shop on Somerset Street West called Jackpine Digital. Here you’ll find the so-called Chinatown Museum — a collection of large signs that once graced neighbouring storefronts. Part decor, part memorabilia, the signs represent the changing streetscape — and what CEO and creative director Liam Mooney calls the “destructive nature” of the design process. After all, the cone of a jack pine tree needs the intense heat of a forest fire to open and release its potential.
Mooney was waiting outside the office — he had lent his keys to another designer — when he spotted a large bright red sign behind a dumpster. Wa Kiu had closed months before; Phuket Royal had yet to open its doors. “Maybe [Wa Kiu] wasn’t the best grocery store, but it was part of the landscape,” Mooney says. After getting the A-OK from the new owner, he hauled the 3-by-14-foot sign in through the fire escape and installed it in one of the main work areas. Upon close examination, it’s clear that the sign was hand-painted, the pencil lines from the stencils still visible after all these years.
Last year, Mooney traded design services for office space — and furnished it with borrowed pieces from Highjinx, a social enterprise that sells used furniture. Eventually he bought some pieces, but the move to Chinatown called for a new aesthetic (or, as Mooney says, they needed to “break the space”). Enter Malcolm Cairns of FoundDesign and Ken McKay of Furniture Affairs. Cairns gifted a few mid-century modern items to Jackpine; others are loaned on a consignment basis (“We have a strict coaster rule,” Mooney says). McKay will get design services in exchange for a huge custom table and bar. “The generosity — I can’t even begin to understand,” says Mooney.
The museum is fuelling Mooney’s fascination with Chinese culture, especially the characters that adorn many of the signs. One large blue hand-painted sign — badly peeling but still legible — taught him about embellishments in the written language. “It’s like a serif in a font,” Mooney says, fingering two little lines on the character for “Chinese.” “It makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t one of the oldest languages include some flourishes?” But it’s not all design parlance: the signs also act as reminders of the systemic racism that excluded Chinese Canadians from joining professional associations and led many to work in restaurants and laundries.
Fans of pho and other Vietnamese food know that many of the businesses in Ottawa’s Chinatown aren’t serving Chinese food. Similarly, many Jackpine staffers don’t come from traditional graphic-design backgrounds. Mooney has a degree in political science; two years ago, he was working on the Hill. Lead designer Taulant Sulko is also a skilled visual artist keen on installation collaborations that push the envelope. Plus, Jackpine often invites other professionals to use the space, all in the name of collaboration. “As long as we’re brushing up against each other, that cross-pollination will happen,” says Mooney.