For several decades, the Mile End community in Montreal has enjoyed a reputation for creativity and culture. Situated on the plateau right next to Mount Royal, from which the city gets its name, it's in-between the francophone and anglophone districts, and has long been a melting pot of ethnicities. The Hasidic Jews, Poles and Irish Catholics that originally settled in the quarter today mix with artists, actors, designers and musicians. It's from Mile End that the band Arcade Fire blasted off on their meteoric rise seven or eight years ago.
Venture down Avenue de Gaspé and shuffle up to the second floor at number 5445, and you'll find the launch pad for a new but no less creative endeavour. Studio 218 is the home of the recently founded design outfit Vallée Duhamel, set up by Julien Vallée and Eve Duhamel. It has already built a reputation for eclectic video trickery, tactile sets filled with handmade objects and inventive photography to boot.
The designers have been collaborating for several years, but only decided to formalise arrangements and set up the studio in January 2013. It wasn't until October that it was officially announced.
"We met soon after school, when we'd just both graduated," explains Vallée. "We both liked each other's work and started communicating about the possibility of collaborating. The first project we worked on together was an exploded television for MTV, and we have been working closely ever since. We share very similar tastes in design and art, and each bring different backgrounds to each brief to hopefully make something unique." Duhamel continues: "The idea for the studio came naturally. We were getting more and more requests for work in the line of what we had been collaborating on, and loved working together, so we just did it and it's been working great since."
Both partners are from the Canadian province of Quebec and studied at the Université du Québec à Montréal, which is also located in the Mile End area. Duhamel has a degree in visual media arts, while Vallée studied graphic design. He's from Gatineau, west of Montreal near the border with Ontario, while Duhamel hails from a corn and dairy-farming region about an hour-and-a-half out of the city. While Vallée brings his graphic designer's eye to projects, she has the art and craft skills to put projects into motion.
"We always work on concept very closely together, and then Julien mainly takes care of the creative direction, like final modifications on the concepts and treatment. I work more on the final construction and look of the work. I also work more closely with the project management side, and Julien is way better at PR. So we try to focus on our strengths but remain flexible," Duhamel says.
Breaking the rules
Vallée and Duhamel have already tackled an abundance of projects, each with plenty of visual impact and, usually, a clever twist or three. For instance, there's the video work for American cloud accountancy business Intacct, and the music packaging and trailers for Quebec band Misteur Valaire. This year's Reasons to be Creative conference in Brighton opened to a video that Vallée Duhamel created to introduce the speakers.
The first project that they put together as a studio was the pair's Smash Pong interactive installation, which was on display at the Cincinnati Art Center from March to September this year as part of the On! Handcrafted Digital Playground. "The concept of the exhibition was to allow the spectators to play, touch and interact with each piece. We decided to create a ping-pong table where the goal was to smash shapes down to get bonus points," explains Duhamel.
Vallée continues: "The opening night was great. All rules were lifted and people were allowed to drink and eat and take flash photography. It was a big playground, which was amazing to witness."
With the amount of projects coming in right now, we're lucky to have been able to interview the duo. "At the moment we're finishing a video for an Italian fashion company," explains Duhamel. "It's really different from what we usually do visually, and we're super looking forward to sharing it online."
The studio is also doing all the visuals for the fifth Chromatic art festival in Montreal - catalogues, visual identity, signage and more. Further afield, it's helping design the interiors for a mall in South Korea. The designers' passports already have numerous stamps in them, too. For six months in 2008, they pulled up their Québécois roots and relocated to Berlin.
"We're not too sure why we went to Berlin," says Duhamel. "We just kept hearing that it was a great time to be a creative in Berlin, and were curious. We were just out of school with no obligations. We just went for it. We shared our first studio in Berlin. Since then we have been collaborating a lot on our work and sharing studios back in Montreal."
The pair have worked together long enough to trust one another's decision-making and have learnt to listen to each other's ideas. The best ones are taken to the next stage for the benefit of the client, and of the studio itself.
"One of the things that makes it work well at the studio is that we have very, very similar tastes and agree on style," says Vallée. "What is different is how we see things. I really have a strong connection with concept, and add a lot on an aesthetic level to the concepts."
The notion of drawing, crafting, making and building elements is strong in Vallée Duhamel's work. There is a lot of texture and depth in many of the studio's projects as well. "We were driven away from the computer because we liked what was happening when we were working by hand," explains Vallée. "We like the mistakes or small imperfections that are always present, and how, when you learn to control them and use them, they become what makes the work special." Duhamel continues: "Maybe that's what people like about it – that it's more accessible. More humble, too, maybe."
It's not hard for them to find inspiration, both in the studio and the surrounding neighbourhoods in Montreal. The space they work in is shared with an industrial design studio called Robocut.
"Their studio is a small factory with a lot of materials and machinery, like laser cutters and 3D printers," says Vallée. "We literally built our studio inside of their studio. So we work in a clean little white box full of windows, surrounded by all these machines. It's a very dynamic atmosphere and everybody is free to just do their thing and have fun together."
Out and about
At a time when the city's great rival, Toronto, has seen a lot of growth and a flourishing design scene, it's studios like these that highlight Montreal's own ongoing creative scene. It has long been called North America's European city.
"Montreal was the first North American city to be called a UNESCO City of Design and it shows," adds Vallée. "There are a lot of big and small studios, a lot of great freelancers specialising in a lot of fields and working together. We love to work here and be part of what's going on in the city."
You'll hear a whole load of Montreal music being played in the space - Misteur Valaire, Fanny Bloom, Arcade Fire, We Are Wolves, Duchess Says, Handsome Furs, Half Moon Run, The Unicorns, Miracle Fortress, Plants and Animals, Think about Life and Wolf Parade. Plus others from further afield such as Poolside, Kindness, Bombay Bicycle Club, Michael Trent, Alt J, Two Door Cinema Club and A Tribe Called Quest.
And out and about, the pair enjoy visits to Clark and Espace 40, to the Belgo Building - which houses many small galleries - as well as Montreal's big galleries: Musée d'Art Contemporain and the Musée des Beaux Arts. There are some great restaurants nearby as well. "Magpie has the best pizza ever, and the wine is also great. Sparrow is a super-cool little restaurant-bar to go to and drink cheap wine, or nice drinks after dinner. La Buvette chez Simone also has the best food. All three of these places are our favourites," reveals Duhamel.
There are four designers in total at Vallée Duhamel and they collaborate with a wider circle of about 15 creatives. "We love to work with Olivier Charland who is a very good designer just freshly out of college. Julien also likes to co-direct with fellow director Karim Zariffa. We love to collaborate with Philippe Savard at Robocut. He always comes up with the best and craziest ideas. We recently started to work with Carolyne De Bellefeuille, who is a great art director."
The future, says Vallée, looks pretty simple. More of the same: "Ideally we'll continue what we're doing now, and be lucky enough to work with clients that give us their trust and allow us to have a lot of creative freedom to keep on working on projects we love."
Words: Garrick Webster Photography: Simon Duhamel