Respectful of content, strict with grids and playful with illustration: different backgrounds and similar goals and styles bring success to two young Canadian partners.
They say that opposites attract. As I listen to Fidel Peña and Claire Dawson—partners in a six-person Toronto firm that produces an elegant mix of branding projects, print publications and websites—describe how they started their partnership, I wonder about that. Are they as different as their backgrounds suggest, or are they really very much alike? What act of fate brought them together in this multicultural city and created the synergy that now makes Underline one of the best small design firms in Canada?
“I come from El Salvador,” says Peña. “My dad is a painter, a figurative artist. Mom is an engineer who worked for the government. The socialist revolution in the 1970s developed into a civil war, and my family sought asylum in Canada.” Peña, with short dark hair, goatee and glasses, had planned to study architecture in El Salvador, but when he arrived in Toronto and enrolled at George Brown College, he discovered graphic design through Applied Arts magazine. “I’d always been drawn to poster design and book design, but didn’t know it was something you could do as a career,” he admits. “Neither did my parents. They wanted all their sons—I have two brothers—to be doctors or lawyers or engineers, so it took them a while to come around.” He received his degree in design from George Brown in 1995, and is now on the pro-gram advisory committee, helping other students figure it out.
Fair and strawberry blonde, Dawson describes herself as having a typical small-town Canadian upbringing, the eldest daughter in a family of six. Activities like trips to printed ephemera shows were part of her childhood. She grew up just north of Toronto with parents who were both elementary school teachers. Her dad had a side business as an antique dealer—antiquing is very big in Ontario—and took her to auctions and shows where they could flip through racks of vintage postcards. She studied fine arts at York University, earning her BFA in 1997. The teaching assistant in her foundation design class was Diti Katona, principal of renowned Concrete Design Communications. “Can I volunteer, can I be an intern?” Dawson remembers asking Katona. She got the internship. “I loved it, organizing the library and the samples. I’d listen, watch, absorb. It was an amazing place to learn.”
After graduation, Dawson joined Concrete full-time, developing campaigns and gift boxes for Canadian fashion retailer Holt Renfrew. Peña came on board two years later, concentrating on magazines and catalogs. They both starting hanging out with a group of colleagues from Concrete. “We were both interested in the same things, from every kind of book to Modern architecture to landscape paintings to installation art pieces,” says Peña. “And at the time we were each half of an engaged couple,” adds Dawson, “so the four of us would get together for drinks and dinner.”
After two years at Concrete, Peña took off to work for a year in Pentagram’s London office—residents of British Commonwealth countries can work two years in the UK without a special visa, he explains. At Pentagram he “fell even more in love with editorial,” assisting then-partner Fernando Gutiérrez with the redesign of the Spanish-language fashion magazine Vanidad and with a branding project for a shopping mall in Bilbao. Back in Canada, he joined Dinnick & Howells, another of Toronto’s high-end design firms—and got back with the old group and with Dawson.
“Fidel had come back from England and were both excited about the European quality of his work,” Dawson recalls, “and the potential it had for differentiating a studio here. We were both working for great people, but felt we were ready to take the lead on projects, to make a go of it as a partnership. And if we were going to take a risk, it seemed like the right time to do it,” she asserts. “But first we had to get married,” Peña says, laughing, “to other people. We’d come from very different backgrounds, but we always seem to be doing the same things at the same time.”
In 2005, with one regular client signed on—Dawson’s long-time freelance gig, Prefix Photo, a 116-page biannual magazine that presents the work of top Canadian photographers—they set up shop in the spare bedroom of Peña and his wife Moira’s apartment. “It was the size of a big walk-in closet,” Peña admits.
The closet-sized studio took on big jobs. First was a cook-book-memoir by Susur Lee, Canada’s “Iron Chef,” who’s known for blending French techniques with Chinese flavors. The designers created an innovative format: two clothbound books joined by endpapers. “We worked on it day and night,” Peña says. “It showed the world that we could handle complex projects.” Then came catalogs for Harry Rosen, the upscale menswear chain that’s been a longtime patron of good design, and a game-changing magazine redesign for the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “We’re always looking for new ways to creatively interpret content,” Dawson says. “From the beginning we wanted this magazine to look different. So did the client. They weren’t looking at other alumni magazines as models; they were looking at Bloomberg Businessweek.
“We made slow, steady progress,” she allows, “focusing on doing very good work, not on taking on projects just to grow the business.” They’d named the company Underline Studio when they had “no clue how to come up with a name,” but knew they wanted to be a studio, not a firm or an agency. “When a client complimented us, saying, ‘You guys underline ideas with your design,’ it all came together,” Dawson says.
The partners still spend five to six hours a week talking about the creative direction of the studio, including what kind of projects to take on and which to turn down. They typically ask each other questions like, is this client going to be a good collaborator? They like to think that together they make a team that’s hard to beat. Not that Toronto is all that competitive; the firms there seem to have one thing in common— in addition to doing quietly strong, smart work—they’re a community that supports each other’s success. Peña is vice president of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada and a faculty member of OCAD University. Dawson is active in the RGD, the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario.
Last year, Underline moved into a 1,200-square-foot, loft-like office in the up-and-coming Toronto district of Bloordale Village, where Portugese, Caribbean, Latin American and Southeast Asian shops and restaurants peacefully co-exist with art galleries and film studios. As I peruse printed samples in their well-organized library, its walls lined with framed design awards, the partners softly give creative direction—“This doesn’t feel quite right to me.” “What if you tried something like this?”—to their three designers. “They’re good bosses,” says designer Emily Tu. “They’re open to us bringing our own ideas, but they also guide us.”
“We’re typographic geeks and we appreciate the small details of typography and layout,” Peña explains. “We’re respectful of content, strict with grids and playful with illustration.” Their twelve-page tabloid for Audi Canada, re:Design, is a demonstration of that. “The client wanted it to feel like a magazine, a magazine that expresses that Audi is committed to design in all its forms: fashion, architecture and product design,” says Peña. “To us, editorial means execution as well as thinking, making stories come to life through typography choices, the contrast of bold and light, large and small; location scouting, prop styling, editing, pacing and putting it all together so every page is all about the client’s message.”
Even a magazine like Retail News, which could be low-end in other hands, is a class act when produced by Underline. Dawson selects props for the store fixtures that are featured on the magazine’s cover and editorial spreads, art directs the photography and does interesting things with color and type. Everyone works on the layouts and illustrations, and on the day of my visit, Clea Forkert, a designer who’s been with Underline for six years, was finessing a layout, creating delicate geometric icons that are one hallmark of Underline’s work.
Emily Tu is another longtime staffer. Following a tried-and-true pattern, she started at Underline as an intern while studying at York University, taking off to travel in Europe and returning to work on projects like the visual identity for Le Potager, a farm-to-table dining experience, and the color-saturated website for Red Carat, a purveyor of gems. At the next desk, part-time production designer Mark Byk is transforming the files of the past issues of Rotman Magazine—Underline has been producing it three times a year for six years—into a coffee-table book. Nearby, studio coordinator Laura Dubcovsky, who has a background in print production and advertising, manages the timelines, estimates, budgets and billing.
For Peña and Dawson, doing the same things at the same time has also included starting families. Each has a four-year-old and a toddler, and thus, in addition to living a life in design, has a new set of priorities and activities: “We do a lot of visits to parks and playgrounds, as well as bookstores, these days,” says Peña. “We have a family cottage outside the city where we spend a lot of time in the summer,” Dawson adds. “And then there is reading, cooking, baking, gardening, traveling and spending time with my big extended family.”
For these two partners, I’ve learned, as for many Canadians, life is a balance between working and relaxing, city and country, business and family. When you spend a day or so at Underline Studio, you can see that being able to do it all—and collecting a wall full of design awards in the process—just seems to come naturally. No matter where you come from. ca