Justin Hawley, courtesy of the designer

DesignTO Festival alumnus Justin Hawley talks breaking the design mold, anarchy, and finding passion in the untraditional. 

How would you describe your profession and your practice?

I am a self-taught light designer and 3-D artist specializing in futuristic, 3-D printed designs that attempt to blur the lines between product and art installation. 

Has your work changed over the course of your career?

I started out wanting to design and build radical furniture. I needed to be able to demonstrate my concepts, so I taught myself 3-D modeling with Blender (open source software) and CAD with Fusion 360. I was trying to create futuristic designs that involved a lot of angular, chrome and almost sci-fi type aesthetics, but the renders and furniture designs were far too expensive to produce locally. Because of these barriers, I found myself moving towards immersive/hypnotic light designs. A great friend, Matt Reid, taught me how to solder, program, and work with addressable LEDs (LED strips capable of patterns beyond solid colours). Through the purchase of a 3-D printer, I was able to realize designs that would have been prohibitively expensive or impossible to design.

Floor Lamp, courtesy of the designer
What was your”eureka!” moment that made you realize that art/design was the route you wanted to take?

I was always creative growing up, doing art and music, and I had ideas for building crazy things. Gradually, I became ever more determined to eventually make a living from my abilities. I don’t think I could pinpoint a eureka moment, but I guess you could say I found a moment of “unlearning” the rigid style of structured education. Due to cost and time, I never had the chance to go to school for design, so I had to make do with online forums and tutorials, as well as tons of trial and error. This exploratory approach to education gave me a unique perspective into the type of learning I was used to growing up in more traditional school settings. That I could learn so much from the wealth of knowledge democratically shared online and without command, was (and is) a truly liberating feeling. I learned how to take what you need, learn what you want, and get results. 

From an early age, we tend to be trained more for obedience to authority and rote learning through curriculums. Gradually, many of us stop asking questions and we acquiesce to the status quo set by the ruling class. That said, there are so many valuable experiences we can get from a good teacher, networking with students, and through college/university programs that you can’t get on your own. So there definitely has to be balance, including free tuition as a human right.

Is your work inspired by anything in particular? What turns you on creatively?

Design-wise, I’m generally inspired by a strong drive to break the mold of conventional design…to never purposely emulate anything “normal” or hyped up for commercial purposes. That said, there’s obviously nothing wrong with anyone who does like traditional or 1950s modern design, I just prefer other concepts. To be honest, I’m a pretty naive designer. From an early age, I fell in love with the Lamborghini Countach; its retro futuristic style and extreme angles was instantly captivating. To this day, I find the aesthetics of Ridley Scott and John Carpenter to be an inspiration, particularly the dystopian retro technology. Yayoi Kusama and Tokyo’s teamLab Borderless have made some incredible light art. I also like some Banksy and 19th century anti-capitalist art.

Politically, I find the general principles of anarchism deeply inspiring, because it insists on describing structures of power, hierarchy and authority, and asks why we tend to unquestioningly give them legitimacy. Contrary to popular misconception, these ideas promote order, organization and strive to create a society where we can all realize our full creative potential, without coercion and exploitation. Always question the status quo, frameworks of discourse, and propaganda.

‘Sunset Pendant’ rendering, courtesy of the designer.
Which designers or artists inspire you and why?

To be honest, I can’t really pinpoint a single artist but the multitude of DIY tinkerers on YouTube who make 3-D printed lamps, LED matrix boards, infinity mirror art, and the synthwave/cyberpunk aesthetic in general are truly inspiring to me. My work with LED lighting was pretty much started by the 3-D Maker Noob’s DIY Satisfying LED Mood Lamp video. Other YouTubers that inspire me include bitluni, WAGfilms, and Malt Whisky. As well, the FastLED code library and Arduino communities make tons of great code and tips. I’ve been told Burning Man would be the perfect venue for me, and I agree 🙂

What was the name of your DesignTO Festival exhibition and what did attendees experience?

My exhibition was called “The Precipice,” named after the phrase Noam Chomsky used to describe the truly existential choice we have to make about confronting the climate crisis. It was a seven-foot-tall dodecahedron infinity mirror. It was satisfying to see people staring, asking questions, and being really supportive. I think as artists, we should always strive to learn from our audiences, stay humble and support other artists.

‘The Precipice’, part of the 2023 DesignTO Festival, courtesy of the designer.
How long have you been involved with DesignTO? Why is DesignTO important to the creative community, here as well as abroad?

My first time participating was for the 2021 DesignTO Festival. I worked for ARCTRN to create the window installation ‘I AM HERE’, an abstract display of LED lighting panels constantly running low-fidelity video graphics in the north- and west-facing corner windows of the former Pivot Design studio located on the corner of King East and George streets. DesignTO is a very unique, diverse and open-minded festival. I’m truly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to work with them in the past, and look forward to future exhibitions. 

Do you have any memories from past DesignTO Festivals you want to share?

In general, the sheer effort and support/help from friends to make it happen. With the dodecahedron infinity mirror I created for my exhibition ‘The Precipice’, I had to take a week off work and spent many nights up until 3am or later planning, disassembling, fixing, and transporting pieces, and it simply would have been impossible without help. It felt like a mission. My favourite memory from that exhibition had to be the common phrase uttered by the public, “I don’t know why I can’t stop staring at this!”

Justin Hawley and Colleagues working on ‘The Precipice’, courtesy of the designer.
Lastly, what random fact about yourself would you like to share with the DesignTO community?

I love home brewing IPA beer and making pasta from scratch. It’s a lot of time and work, but it’s so fun too.

Want to show your work at the 2024 DesignTO Festival? Visit our How to Participate in the 2024 DesignTO Festival page for more information.