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Raising the bar and turning heads
December 10, 2007 | Sarah Milroy | Globe and Mail

"Going bravely where few corporate collectors have gone before, a Toronto law firm hires two Canadian artists to create works for their revamped office space that will push the envelope. This is more than decor

When you think of corporate art, the picture in your mind is probably pretty consistent: the polite enfilade of paintings and prints down the hallway, the Big Kahuna landscape paintings in the boardrooms, the deceased paterfamilias in his gold frame presiding over the stale Dad's cookies and reheated coffee. Boring.

Torys LLP, a leading Toronto law firm, has been one of a handful of corporate collectors in the city to have broken with this dire tradition. Though they have been buying art since the seventies (the firm now owns more than 400 works of art), the notion of crafting a collection really took hold in the nineties, when the firm's art committee – lawyers Richard Balfour and Philip Mohtadi – appointed Fela Grunwald as consultant to help them redefine their focus.

Instead of decoration, the collection came to express ideas and meanings relevant to this working community sometimes pushing past the collective comfort zone only to redefine it. (One of their most talked about acquisitions, for example, has been the giant colour photograph of a bulging garbage bag by photo-conceptualist Kelly Wood, a work that toys with viewer curiosity – what's inside? – suggesting, to my eye at least, a comic commentary on client confidentiality.)

As well, the firm has collected the work of such established artists as Yves Gaucher, Gershon Iskowitz, Guido Molinari and rising stars Rodney Graham and Ed Burtynsky, expressing a patriotic Canadian identity appropriate for one of the country's leading blue-chip firms. Today, this seems like the obvious thing to do. In those days, though, it was leadership.

This fall, with the unveiling of two new commissions for their recently revamped 33rd floor, Torys has once again moved the bar. Redesigned from the ground up by Marianne McKenna (of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects) and her colleague Steven Casey, this new space is now equipped with a series of north- and south-facing board rooms, which are linked by folding screens that can ascend or descend. (The screens tuck up, flush to the ceiling, when they are not in use.) This might seem like a rather unlikely canvas for art, but there's the surprise. The resulting art commissions – those by Montreal artist Pascal Grandmaison on the north side, and Toronto's Robert Fones on the south — constitute one of the most sophisticated forays into corporate art this country has to offer. Here, the art is braided into the architectural DNA of the space, becoming not just part of the environment but part of the brand. This is more than decor.

Visiting the firm not long ago, I was able to see how these commissions have rallied the lawyers and staff at the firm, and engaged their visitors.

“Who is she? That's the question that most people begin with,” said Andrew Bernstein, a partner at the firm. He was referring to the hauntingly lovely, wall-high apparition beside us, the androgynous beauty photographed by Grandmaison whose image is reiterated on the series of north-side screens. In some of these panels, she is seen close up – we are into every follicle and pore of her pale skin. In others, her image appears to be captured on a thick plate of glass, tipped on a variety of oblique angles, slipping away from view.

“It's either that question, or they want to know if it's a man or a woman. People will have long arguments about this,” Bernstein continued. “Gender is a big deal. They'll ask me, and then I will walk them down the hall to show them the others in the series, and then we're off.”

She's nobody in particular, of course – a model chosen by the artist. In fact, if you talk with Grandmaison, he was more captivated by the opportunity to marry her face with the moveable geometries of the panels, and by the way the images echo the windows of these boardrooms. Yet for those who use the spaces, she maintains a hold on the imagination. “Sometimes it's a bit spooky being here alone, particularly at night,” said Marc Gignac, who leads client services at the firm. “There's a presence here and you're not going to escape it.”

As well, Gignac says, the images create a sense of respite. “We've all had that blank moment when nothing is going on inside us,” he said, a moment of suspension brought on by exhaustion, stress, or an inner wandering of the spirit. It's only human.

On the south-facing side of the building, Robert Fones takes you somewhere different. Here, words from the opening passages of Cervantes's Don Quixote float above a background of water imagery, echoing the dazzling view of Lake Ontario out the window. Barely legible in their ballooning script (designed by Fones, a typeface aficionado), the words are drawn from passages that revel in ambiguity and the difficulties of language, like the moment when Don Quixote goes mad from his efforts to parse the crazy-making convolutions of chivalric literature.

Trying to penetrate impenetrable text is a subject close to many a lawyer's heart. Fones has found a poetic way to acknowledge this part of what they do, and the often heroic persistence of their efforts. Drowning in a sea of paper is something lawyers can identify with. By day, the panels dance with light, leading the eye out to the water, and a kind of visual escape from toil. At night, though, Fones's screens create an atmosphere of enclosure, focusing energy inward like a pressure cooker. By day or by night, the experience is intense. “I think Torys has tended to have a fairly conservative reputation,” said Deborah Dalfen, who runs professional recruitment at the firm. “We had some students in here a few weeks ago and I could see that this had an effect on them. People don't normally associate creativity with what lawyers do, but of course what lawyers do requires a lot of creative critical thinking. Students are at a very idealistic phase of their careers, and I think this marks us as having a more progressive culture.”

For architect Marianne McKenna, though, the key thing was to engage the architecture of this resonant site intelligently. Torys' offices are located in one of the five black-glass-clad office towers that make up the Toronto Dominion Centre, in the downtown core. Two of these towers, plus the plaza and the low-rise banking pavilion, were originally designed under the direction of the modernist master, Mies van der Rohe. The other three – like the TD Waterhouse tower in which Torys resides, are really, she says, faux-Mies. In the redesign, though, she and Casey sought to bolster kinship with the originals on the north side of the street by instituting a Miesian material palette – marble slab, dark walnut flooring – as well as seeking to enhance the relationship between the client floor's interior space and the external surroundings.

“Up there you stand shoulder to shoulder with the city,” McKenna says of the north-facing boardrooms. “This is arguably the best place from which to view the original Mies towers. Grandmaison engages that view. He puts his figure right up against that curtain wall, heightening our awareness of those walls and windows as membranes that hold us in while also allowing an overview of the city below.

“The mood he creates also suggests the gravity of the kind of decisions that lawyers make every day,” she says. “He shows us the figure in such a way that we experience her softness and her human presence, but she is looking out onto the Cartesian grid of the Mies complex. Could we have asked for more? I don't think so.”

Pascal Grandmaison's touring retrospective is currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, until Feb. 17, and a survey of his more recent work will open at Ottawa's Carleton University Art Gallery on Jan. 14."