One of a kind

Designer Mary Ratcliffe is handmaking beautiful, immortal things

Hi, I’m Wing Sze Tang and you’re reading The Knowhow, a weekly newsletter about ambitious women doing noteworthy things, and other stuff I find fascinating. If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email below to join the list.


It feels like -20 in Toronto, but it’s also still light outside past 5 p.m. and spring starts in 36 days. Trusting we’ll get through this winter counts as optimism right now. To the new readers who’ve recently found me via Dense Discovery or Deez Links, welcome! I’m happy to have you here.

DESIGNER MARY RATCLIFFE IS HANDMAKING BEAUTIFUL THINGS TO LAST FOREVER

Coolness is a nebulous concept, but Mary Ratcliffe exudes the sort of innate quality that makes you assume she’d know the best spots in town (Vogue thinks so). As a tomboyish kid, the Toronto-based furniture designer was constructing knickknacks in her dad’s woodshop at an age when her peers were probably building Lego.

She founded her own practice in 2013, specializing in custom work for clients, then evolved it into Mary Ratcliffe Studio (M.R.S), focusing on pieces from her own point of view, in 2018. Her handcrafted methods are meticulous (a raw material’s surface, for instance, is massaged “until it becomes its true self”), and her aesthetic is an “elegant toughness,” embracing the feminine and the masculine.

“Whether it’s obvious or not, I think those contrasts give pieces a bit of intrigue and a timeless quality that add to their ability to last forever,” Ratcliffe explains. More recently, she’s branched out from furniture into an instantly popular line of small home accessories, from one-of-a-kind catchalls for your baubles to sculptural candlesticks. Read on for my recent chat with Ratcliffe on her precocious talent, her focus on longevity-minded design and her advice for other entrepreneurial creatives.

Interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.

I’m curious, are there a lot of young women makers, handcrafting furniture? And how did you get into this?

I know of a few, but it’s definitely a very male-dominated industry. When I was a kid, we had a woodshop at the house, because it was a hobby of my dad’s. I just loved hanging out there—it was a playroom for me. Every year at Christmas, I would lock myself in there and make tons of little things to give my parents as gifts. I made a side table for my brother out of wood and roofing nails when I was seven, and my dad and a friend also taught me how to weld when I was about seven. My parents live in an old farmhouse now, and my husband always jokes that the second floor is the Mary Museum—there’s so much stuff I made when I was a kid.

I went to OCAD for environmental design, thinking I would do a master’s of architecture. Then I worked for a firm the summer after third year, and really didn’t like it. But I realized some of the things I liked about the design of buildings could be captured in a piece of furniture, with fewer limitations.

From there, I worked at Bruce Mau Design, then had a great job at a custom art studio that did projects for hotels. It was a really cool experience, but my boss passed away and I was laid off. Around then, my now-husband and I moved into a loft, and I built a bunch of furniture for it. Friends saw what I’d made and said, “Oh, would you make a shelving unit for my closet?” One guy asked if I could make this crazy chandelier. I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I had no idea how hard it would be! But I pulled it off.

I wanted to talk about sustainability because you describe your furniture design studio as longevity-minded. What does that mean to you?

I actually love this question. And I’m gonna get a little bit nerdy on it. Wood is not the only thing we use, but it’s a primary material, and wood has the ability to kind of exist forever in this really cool way. A tree can grow for hundreds of years before it gets cut down, and milled into wood we would then use to make furniture. And if that piece of furniture is designed and worked properly, it can also last for hundreds of years. And if you were to burn that wood, that would create energy and it would become carbon and go back to the Earth. So it’s this kind of infinite material.

The sustainability piece is the idea of creating things with intent. So you buy something once, you buy it well and it lasts forever. You have it for the rest of your life and pass it on to your kids, and you’re not going to IKEA every couple of years because you need a new side table. People are like, “How can you say you’re an environmentalist? You cut down trees.” But we try to use that material with purpose and respect for its potential, which is energetically more than my individual human lifespan. A piece of furniture we make might have existed on this planet longer than I have, from the time it was a tree, and it has the ability to exist way past me.

Can you speak to your spark for pivoting into smaller objects?

I have a friend who helped me do the numbers and planning side of my business that I’m so not good at, because I’m definitely a creative who accidentally started a business. I always thought it would be fun to have a small accessories collection, but my friend was like, “Furniture is your focus. Work to establish the furniture thing before you distract yourself or dilute your focus with this.” I was like, Okay, that makes sense—but then the pandemic happened.

In 2019, we had been playing around with this kind of manmade composite stone and wanted to incorporate it into furniture, but we were having a hard time taking it to a larger-scale piece. So I just shelved it. Flash-forward to May 2020, and we were supposed to go to the Architectural Digest Design Show, which was cancelled. So we had this empty time at the studio. It was my husband who said, “What about those little Catch All things you made? You should make some more. Maybe people will like them.” The date we put them on our Instagram Stories, they sold out in seven minutes. And the demand for them just grew and grew.

What wisdom would you want to share with other women creatives who want to venture out on their own?

Asking for help is really important. I started my business when I was about 23, and at the time, my then-boyfriend, now-husband would be like, “Find someone to help you with that,” and I would be like, “No one will get it.” I was convinced for years that I would never be able to make enough money or grow the business to a point where I could hire people to help. I thought no one would understand my vision, or what I was talking about, or what I was trying to do. Now, there are six of us, and all that growth has happened in the past two years. It’s amazing how much more we get done. So you gotta be bold with asking for things and with your goals.

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SIGNAL BOOST

My friend Nora, founder of the PR strategy firm Wolf Craft, is teaming up with the Female Design Council to do a virtual workshop for artists/design pros wanting to polish their web presence. It’s $40 USD, which is (in my entirely unbiased opinion) a steal for her expertise.


WHAT I’M READING

A Wave of Violent Attacks Renews Focus on Anti-Asian Racism” (Vox): Reading about anti-Asian violence and rising xenophobia makes me feel unnervingly vulnerable in a way I’d rather not admit (my “foreignness” will weigh on my mind the next time I travel), but we all need to acknowledge what’s happening.

Reminder: Journalists Helped Justin Timberlake Hurt Britney Spears” (Friday Things): How the media covered Britney back in the day—not just the tabloids, but mainstream journos—is even crueler than I remember.

The Extraordinary, Ingenious, Completely Unsustainable Rise of Ultra-fast Fashion” (The Atlantic): Asos, Boohoo and their cheap, trendy ilk are thriving in the pandemic.

Peloton Makes Toning Your Glutes Feel Spiritual. But Should Jesus Be Part of the Experience?” (WaPo): I haven’t joined the cult of Peloton (the sticker shock!), but I’m fascinated by its popularity.

WHAT I’M DOING

Downloading this satisfyingly minimalist, no-tech habit tracker.

Bracing myself for the windchill in this chic coat, made with recycled plastic (for the cruelty-free fill).

Listening to Chapter 1 of Reply All’s four-part exposé on Bon Appétit, deeply reported by Sruthi Pinnamaneni. Having spent most of my career in the hierarchical world of fashion magazines, I relate to so much of it.

Watching Cantonese foodtok. Happy Lunar New Year, everyone.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

If you’re wondering who’s writing this:

My name is Wing Sze Tang, and I’m a freelance journalist. I’ve spent my career telling stories for some of Canada’s biggest magazines. (Find some of my articles here.)

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Thanks for reading, and see you next week!