Affective Change

TEXT Adele Weder

The big mean Olympic machine has gathered its share of detractors as it lumbers through town. From the old-boy distribution of the Olympic venue architecture, to the Draconian bylaws prescribing exactly what bon mots an individual is allowed to hang in his window, the epic process has occasionally seemed overzealously corporate and artless. But in a city of Olympic-sanctioned everything, a unique design firm is providing a refreshing counterpoint. Cause+Affect is a design and branding firm that has already done more to raise awareness of architecture and design in the lead-up to Olympic-frenzy Vancouver than the architects themselves. And crucially, they’ve proven that edgy, risk-taking design is actually good business.

Principals Steven and Jane Cox were both educated at the University of Manitoba–Steven in architecture, Jane in interior design. After completing their studies, they migrated to London, and spent several years career-building at multidisciplinary design firms. “I don’t think we realized what we learned in London until we came back here,” says Steven. One glaring North American predilection was towards compartmentalization–“siloed design,” he calls it, rather than interdisciplinary design.

Cause+Affect was founded five years ago on the couple’s dining-room table. A year later, they moved to their present abode, a century-old converted meatpacking warehouse with a view that looks out onto mountains, ocean and a jumble of rail cars.

Everything starts as an open-ended concept, most notably their Pecha Kucha nights–the Vancouver franchise of the worldwide series of cultural micro-talks. And, the pair have almost single-handedly transformed the fusty image of the city’s Vancouver Museum with their Movers & Shapers exhibition series: its beautifully understated slogan is “20 designers you should know.”

Now just in their mid-thirties, they seem at the top of their game. As for those Winter Olympics, it’s no surprise that they weren’t on the old-boy radar of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC). But Cause+Affect is making an Olympic appearance after all, as co-creators with fellow maverick firms Haymaker and Brand Live–of the symbolically important Vancouver House, the temporary Olympic pavilion that will be the city’s calling card to the world. Comprised of an exhibition component, a networking lounge and other “spatial experiences,” as Jane puts it, the pavilion will showcase Mayor Gregor Robertson’s “Green Capital” promise. Their basic ambition for Vancouver House, according to Steven, is that people will walk away and say, “Vancouver is cool.” Jane adds, “You’ll want to move here, set up a shop and produce wonderful things from here.” CA

Adele Weder is an architectural critic and curator based in British Columbia.