Two friends in Toronto are bringing designs from upstart Canadian talent to the masses
Co-founders Desmond Chan and Randy Simmen started COFO to help produce the best home furnishing designs from Canada’s young, up-and-coming designers.
COFO, short for co-founders, sources homegrown design talent and helps Toronto creatives bring their designs to life on Canadian soil — from initial concepts to quality finished products.
Although the co-founders have been throwing ideas around throughout their decade-long friendship, it wasn’t until 2018 when an opportunity arose for them to work together.
Chan was the former creative director of luxury outerwear label Nobis, and brought his hybrid of skills to the table, from luxury apparel, streetwear and product design, to brand building across multiple industries.
Simmen comes from an extensive manufacturing and industrial design background, and started working at the fabrication company Visual Elements in Vaughan, co-owned by his father, (now COFO’s parent company) at the age of 16.
“When we started COFO, it was a way to utilize that ecosystem that we already have in place — engineers, production, project management, and a high-quality output of work — but use it in a different creative way, and highlight local creatives at the same time,” Simmen said.
Sprinting out of the gates in 2018, COFO’s first collection launched with a design challenge aimed at highlighting interior design students or recent graduates.
"Normally these designs would just sit in a portfolio as it can be difficult for young emerging designers to get ahead," Chan said.
COFO covered all manufacturing and production costs for the designers and offered a $500 prize for the winners, as well as royalties for each piece sold. With categories in seating, tables, shelving and accessories, Chan and Simmen curated the best designs submitted.
“That was a great experience with a tight group of people, and inside of six months, we built our first collection and launched it,” Chan said.
The result was the first collaborative piece in the COFO collection, The Roque Chair designed by winner Trish Roque.
Inspired by Japanese and Scandinavian design, the piece prioritizes simplicity and quality materials and features Canadian flat white oak, a laser-cut steel frame and Italian Melton wool. The short but spacious chair went on to win the German Design Award in 2019.
In an industry rife with disposable furniture made by nameless designers, the 2018 collaborative design challenge actively helped new designers produce six elegant pieces for the COFO collection:
The wealth of experience the co-founders of COFO bring to ‘the table’ is also a huge asset to the clients they work with, according to Chan.
The shared bond between Chan and Simmen, and their total trust in the process, allowed COFO to really believe in the end result the emerging creatives envisioned during the design challenge. It’s also what drives their goals for 'transforming ideas' and 'changing an industry'.
“Everyone has a different way of getting their idea across, and a big part of our curation process was being able to see through the sketches and not know exactly what it will look like, but know that the steps we are going to take, are going to get us to beautiful pieces,” Simmen said.
These shared values for Canadian-made products and sustainability are what inspired the idea to open a retail shop at Stackt Market with Toronto-based fashion designer Ellie Mae Waters, whose retro pieces have been worn by the Hadid sisters and resonate with other big names.
During a conversation sparked over a shared joint, COFO + EM joined forces to create a ‘good vibes only’ cannabis accessories collection together.
It’s an industrial, minimalist line featuring a full moon ashtray made of concrete, a doob tube for carrying pre-rolls made of solid brass and a grinder made of brass and walnut wood and with a rounded base (making it wobble amusingly).
Since November, COFO has been sharing the open-concept spacious shop with Makeway, who are changing sneaker and streetwear culture for women.
As fellow sneakerheads, COFO and Makeway instantly connected, and the shop was designed collaboratively with shelving height in mind, and as a safe space for women to connect, and celebrate sport and culture.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, retail suffered and COFO found themselves forced to lay off staff (something that clearly saddened Chan and Simmen). They pivoted, building hand sanitizer stations for companies and manufacturing hospital beds for William Osler Health System.
“I remember, last April, when everything was all kicking in, we started thinking differently. And obviously, your automatic reaction is to try to help fight the good fight and help give support during the pandemic,” Chan said.
Opportunities came from the cannabis industry and COFO started designing dispensaries across Canada and the US with their sister company Seven Point Interiors. They helped retailers find creative solutions to rules and regulations, while allowing stores to stand out from their competitors.
What COFO excels at, according to the co-founders, is coming up with custom designs for clients and retailers like Scarlet Fire Cannabis Co. in North York, where they created a whole brand identity from visual strategy, to store design and manufacturing.
“So this one's a fun one because Scarlett Fire is inspired by the Grateful Dead and the owner is a huge Deadhead who went to all the tours. He had a vision of what he wanted, but he just didn’t know how to get it there, and it gave us the opportunity to build the brand from the ground up,” Chan said.
In a sea of local cannabis retailers, what stands out at Scarlett Fire is the trippy tunnel that goes all the way through the store to the back. COFO’s design hides the product and any transactions taking place but gives customers a thrilling peek inside.
“It's funny because people think it’s some sort of weird optical illusion or a mirror of some sort. So it was sort of a creative way to get around those guidelines while creating a truly unique experience,” Chan said.
It’s clear the cannabis industry is saturated with stores, as you can’t really go anywhere in Toronto without bumping into one every few blocks, but COFO thinks the landscape will change in the next few years.
“The story is, who is going to survive and by what merit? But at the end of the day it's up to us to decide who is going to last. We have to support retailers who we align with,” Simmen said.
It’s obvious COFO has been busy crushing it these past few years, and has no shortage of unique ideas, so when asked what their most popular product of all time is, surprisingly Simmen pointed to their Broken Records Crate — which pays tribute to the traditional milk crate but with a sleeker, cooler look.
The Module At Home shelving system is also a big seller — with 7 different stock colours and wood finishes with various sizes and materials for easy custom creation.
“We'd like to let people know that the easiest way is to reach out to us directly, so we can work through what they need,” Chan said.
“We get a lot of customers who come to us with these crazy design ideas and we're really good at breaking them down and engineering them so that they're manufacturable,” Simmen said.
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