What does contemporary furniture look like in 2022? And what role should it play in the larger cultural sense? That is part of Nathan Martell's exploration as Founder and Design Director at Part & Whole.
A one-time aspiring architect, it was a caring art teacher who guided Nathan toward his calling as an industrial designer. Today his team designs and produces furniture in their Victoria-based factory, combining Canadian craftsmanship with specialty components sourced from top global suppliers. Following a core philosophy that nothing exists in isolation and everything is interconnected, Part & Whole creates furniture that links physical objects to spaces and fosters connections between people, concepts, and ideals. Nathan recently sat down to discuss the processes and ideas that distinguish Part & Whole—and recently earned him a finalist spot for Western Living's Designer of the Year in the industrial category.
Tell us about your background?
I was born and raised in Victoria. Like many people from a small town, I could not wait to leave. I moved to Vancouver after high school to study industrial design at Emily Carr and, more or less, hung around for a decade or so after graduating. I worked for molo and Bensen before setting up my studio in the early 2010s. Over years of travelling back and forth to visit family, I came to appreciate Victoria more and more. In 2015, my partner and I decided to move back and figure out what we wanted to do next.
What drew you to the field of industrial design?
I discovered the field of industrial design in a somewhat roundabout way. I had an interest in architecture from a very young age. My parents hired an architect to do a small renovation on our house when I was around eight, and I was just so fascinated with the whole process. I bought a drafting table at a garage sale shortly after and started pretending I was an architect. Fast forward to my high school years I struggled with math but excelled in the arts. I was still focused on becoming an architect, but my math teacher told me that architects needed to be great mathematicians—it turns out they were wrong, but I was an impressionable teenager at the time.
Can you briefly describe your creative process for designing thoughtful, functional furniture?
My process differs depending on the brief and project. For example, sometimes there are clear objectives and constraints—those projects often demand a straightforward approach. However, my preferred way of working is slower and more organic. Through research, experimentation, and exploration, I try to come up with a detail or a core idea that can carry and drive the project. Often these early concepts are abstract in the sense they are not tied to a specific category of object. It is only once the detail starts emerging that the ways of deploying present themselves. I’m generally most excited about an idea if I am overwhelmed by the variety of applications for it. That has become a kind of internal gauge for the strength of a concept. Then the real work lies in curation, execution, and ensuring that the spirit of the initial concept does not diminish along the way.
What’s a current home trend you love?
I hope it’s not a trend and more indicative of a shift in behaviour, but I am excited by the adoption of a more eclectic approach to designing and furnishing a home. We need to move away from trends and look at our spaces as works in progress that can traverse multiple aesthetics and eras.
How do you feel about linen textiles for the bedroom and home?
As someone who works with a lot of tailored and precise upholstery, I find linen such a nice and welcome contrast. It adds an element of informality. If you have ever tried, it is exceptionally difficult to make something look ‘perfectly imperfect', but linen manages to do this quite reliably and effortlessly.
What advice do you have for people looking to purchase a piece of furniture or sofa for their homes?
Spend a little or spend a lot—but avoid the middle ground. Of course, it is not quite that simple, but if you are at the stage where you want to invest in something to have for the next 20+ years, then you should buy the best quality product you can find. If you can afford it, this is often the most economical option in the long run. However, if you are unwilling or unable to go that route, I suggest buying something second-hand as an alternative. Your money will go much further with a quality vintage piece than a new product in the same price range. Not to mention that quality products, old or new, will still have value to someone else if/when they are no longer needed.
What projects are you working on currently?
For the first time in a long time, I don’t have a clearly defined product, and it is quite wonderful. I have just been sketching and exploring ideas with no defined objectives, and it has reconnected me with the sense of playfulness that is easy to lose amidst the day-to-day of running a company. With Part & Whole, we have two new sofas to launch by Tom Chung, and then I will probably start working on something of my own. I would like to design a bed, but we shall see!
Thank you, Nathan, for sharing your philosophies, beliefs, and unique approach to product design. We are inspired and delighted by the playful, often unexpected pieces created by Part & Whole and wish you the best of luck as a finalist for Designer of the Year.
At Sömn Home, we create eco-friendly bed linens that are so soft and luxurious, you’ll never go back. Visit our sustainability page to learn about the values driving us forward.
Portrait Photo (top left): Guy Ferguson
Interior Photos: Part & Whole