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KPMB architect Joy Charbonneau’s artistic spirit brings beauty into the world

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Toronto-based architect, artist and community builder Joy Charbonneau has a generosity of spirit that defies the stereotypes of creative types.

She believes in collaboration, not total control. She is interested in helping other designers promote their work, almost more than she is in finding an audience for her own. And she goes about her work with a bright, inviting smile (not a duck-lipped scowl or cerebral pout).

“My name is Joy,” she says, “I have a lot to live up to.”

Which she does by bringing beauty into the world with her works, and helping others do the same. She makes her own art (a black-and-white map of Canada that highlights the vital role of water in shaping our country’s geography), and designs charming furniture with her husband-designer Derek McLeod (their Tufted Bench is made from walnut but looks like a pillow-y, soft cloud).

At the same time, she is an architect at one of Canada’s most decorated studios, KPMB (where she’s currently leading a project in New York City) and has a long history of helping promote contemporary Canadian designers and designs.

In 2017, for example, Charbonneau launched @marianadesigncanada, a daily Instagram feed that promotes one work of contemporary Canadian design, produced by makers and manufacturers from across the country. The collection of images bubbles with pride in our collective creative identity, and is a digital extension of the early design showcases she used to organize as part of the Toronto Design Offsite Festival. “I respect creativity,” she says, “And I think that by calling out to other people’s talents, we all learn and appreciate what’s out there. The whole community gets stronger.”

Charbonneau, in part, developed this spirit of sharing as a master of architecture student at the University of Toronto. She won a fellowship that involved intensively studying Frank Lloyd Wright for a year, including living at Wright’s Taliesin studios, alongside other Wrightian scholars, in Wisconsin and Arizona. “When you live at Taliesin, you have to participate,” she says. “Every week you would be on a different chore schedule, including cooking and setting the tables. If you were on landscape, you had to rake the rock garden.”

Her unique mix of artistry and leadership abilities goes deeper, back to her childhood. Her mother “had an artistic spirit,” introducing her to music and creativity at a young age. When her mother passed away, though, when Charbonneau was 11, she went to live with her aunt and uncle, who were more practical.

“My uncle was a businessman,” she says. “He taught me things, like, if you aren’t 10 minutes early, you’re already late.” Dating McLeod, who shares her passion for design, helped, too: they met in high school, and “he helped reignite my creative side,” she says.

Charbonneau further learned to hone and balance both the left and right sides of her brain through studying architecture, which takes both the aesthetic sensibility to envision a project, and a certain ruthless discipline to bring it to life (including wading through mountains of contract documents and mundane details such as doorknobs and door hinges).

That discipline also helps Charbonneau co-ordinate all the things she’s involved in. “I say yes a lot,” she jokes. “But when you want to do something, you also just find the time. You find a way.”

And when totally overwhelmed, she lives by the words, “When you don’t know where to start, just do something.” A further example of optimism for a joyful presence.