Studio Robazzo Rethinks Modern Design


Few people would believe Studio Robazzo began over a table.

The eco-design studio is laying the foundation for new-age architectural design in Victoria and is earning accolades for its work around the city. It’s responsible for the backdrop of Fashion Splash, the Mayor’s Medals at Thinklandia, the graphic installations of TEDxVictoria and the Vancouver Island EcoStar awards.

Robazzo is also behind the pop-up booths for Pacific Rim College, the marble retail displays for Elate Clean Cosmetics, the branding for the Greater Victoria Festival Society and a host of events that occur at Studio Robazzo headquarters, like the Victoria Food Swap. All of this within the studio’s first year.

But back to the table.

Architectural designers Andrew Azzopardi and Christina Robev were fresh in the makerspace of Victoria when they were asked if they could custom-create a console table using natural materials for a unique space. The two had just arrived from Ontario, but took up the challenge and created the prototype for a responsibly sourced, live-edge maple table, resting on a single strand of folded steel to create a look of suspension. The design was eye-catching and unique and left impressions for its practicality.

It was this table that would play a role in connecting Azzopardi and Robev with their third partner, Sarah McFadzen, as well as with their studio space and even some of their first clients. It would also set the stage for their guiding principles: they wanted to create by hand and use sustainable, repurposed or salvaged materials, and they wanted each creation to make life easier — and more beautiful — for the user.

“We’re surrounded by materials and opportunities on the West Coast to break through the mundane and help people see things in a way they never have before,” says Azzopardi. “We want to change people’s perceptions of what’s possible.”

A Feel-Good Footprint

When Azzopardi and Robev met in architectural design school at the University of Waterloo, they shared a vision: they wanted to bring nature back into design, but they wanted to moderate it in a way that worked for today’s standards.

“There’s almost a checklist people go through to be ‘sustainable’ — are we using the right light bulbs, the right suppliers, the right resources? — but we want to take that further,” says Robev.

“We want to create something new and usable out of something that would otherwise go to waste. More value is being placed on creating by hand, and there aren’t many people converting garbage into value. We’re excited to do both.”

With a mix of laser cutters and homespun materials, the crew’s mission to create “a well-designed future that’s environmentally, socially and economically sustainable” has redefined what it means to reuse. For example, the Elate Clean Cosmetics retail displays are fabricated from fine particles of marble slurry, compliments of a partner who discards it. The installations created for TEDxVictoria were built out of cardboard boxes collected from surrounding furniture stores. That same cardboard was then deconstructed and reused for laser-cut art and subsequent projects.

“The irony of Studio Robazzo’s impact on TEDxVictoria is that the very reason we worked with them was to reduce our impact,” says TEDxVictoria creative director Dylan Wilks. “Andrew, Christina and Sarah produced a beautiful package focused on using recycled, reclaimed and locally sourced materials. It was the most distinct, consistent and complete visual identity we’ve ever had.”

Melodie Reynolds, creator of Elate Clean Cosmetics, felt a kinship with the studio’s mission. When it came time to create her displays, the match was clear.

“I could have ordered something plastic from China [for my cosmetics packaging], but I wanted to go with a company that reflected the values Elate stands for,” says Reynolds. “The studio’s ability to innovate and adapt is incredible — I can shout ideas into the ether and they run with them, knowing I’ll be looking for the most sustainable option … It makes me feel good about my footprint on the world.”

The Texture of Reality

While visuals are crucial in design work, Studio Robazzo aims to enhance the sensory experience, with texture being of top importance. The crew is experimenting with materials like plastic bags to discover how to reform them into household objects — and maybe even create a natural feel. Meanwhile, the team has developed a reputation for reframed work with uniquely cut WestCoasters, made from hand-salvaged Vancouver Island driftwood.

“People are seeking a way to reconnect with nature, but not necessarily in that cottage-plaid lifestyle,” says McFadzen, originally from New Brunswick, who first joined the team by helping sand the famed table. “What we create has to work for modern life in 2016, but it also has to offer that chance to touch and feel something real … it’s almost like we are curating nature.”

Their enormous 3,000-square-foot Douglas Street studio, which they refer to as a “creative playground,” is an extension of this tactile experience, dedicated to local collaboration. It features the largest white wall in Victoria to support professional and amateur photographers, as well as a rotation gallery of local artwork and a free space for artists to create. Visitors may also be surprised by the floating hammock and accessible treatment floor. Studio Robazzo routinely opens its doors to the community for use as a venue, whether for rock concerts or meditation gatherings.

Making People’s Lives Easier

While the young team is well versed in finding new solutions, problem solving is a big part of the work. In fact, it’s what lured Azzopardi away from his high-profile design job in Toronto and into his own business. The studio is constantly faced with complex projects, like the pop-up trade-show booth recently completed for Pacific Rim College. The parameters: it had to fold into a small suitcase, be illuminated, have a simple setup and be ready in two months. The team nailed it. Shortly after, the college hired them to complete an herb-crate display at the Hudson.

“Situations like this are our dream come true — that’s what drives us,” says Azzopardi. “People come to us with a problem, and we fix it. Our work is designed to make people’s lives easier, in a way that combines functionality with something that’s esthetically pleasing.”

To this day, the table remains one of Azzopardi’s proudest solutions. The steel base mimicked the shape of a reformed coat hanger, and the floating wood top highlighted nature in pure form.

“I love the ‘aha’ moment of surprising people with design — that’s where success is for me,” says Azzopardi. “The big ‘aha’ moment we’re all facing right now is that we have to care about the planet. But whether or not you identify as an environmentalist, if you choose your products carefully you are supporting the planet, and that’s a huge success for everyone.”

Originally published in Douglas Magazine in August, 2016.

PressChristina Robev