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Back to the Future

Sean Starke Elemente Magazine
Back to the Future

Vancouver furniture designer, William Switzer reinvents the Classics

Do you dream of lounging in the ornate decadence of Louis XVI’s French court, but you also have a taste for faux alligator skin and pink lacquer?  Then William Switzer is the house for you.

Over the past 55 years, William Switzer & Associates has developed a reputation as a respected leader in handmade antique furniture reproduction and the manufacture of design products for the interior design trade. The William Switzer Collection, which consists of nearly a thousand pieces, is represented in showrooms the world over.

Allan Switzer is now the design director of the eponymous company his father William founded in 1952. An affable and very serious designer, Allan has an encyclopedic knowledge of design history and is completely enthralled with his work.

“In the beginning,” Allan explains. “William Switzer was a contemporary furniture store in Calgary showing mostly European mid-century modern pieces. One of the early milestones was in 1953 when oil tycoon Frank McMahon and his wife walked into our store.” Because of what they saw in the shop, Mrs. McMahon hired William to do all of the interior design for their house. At that time, she was more knowledgeable about New York and European sources than William was so, Mrs. McMahon led to the young company’s access to some of the great design resources of the time.

“After that we expanded to a storefront on Broadway in Vancouver, where we would show 18th and 19th Century pieces we bought in France, England, and Italy – mostly Louis XV & XVI, Rococo, and Italian Directoire. We got into being a manufacturer to the design trade because we’d find one antique designer chair, and we’d need 11 more for a set of dining chairs. So we sourced craftspeople that we found in Italy to make the other 11, reproducing from that original chair. And that was the basis for how this business has evolved.”
William Switzer has made an industry of producing antique reproductions that are often higher quality and more representative of a period or style than any original ever could have been. “We are looking for pieces that speak to the essence of a certain period and that contain design elements that are perfection. We will modify a piece to achieve that essential quality,” explains Allan. “We often change the scale of a piece because the original chairs were too narrow, too shallow or the pitch was too upright. So we make those adaptations in terms of comfort and quality but maintain the integrity of the design.”

In the last 10 years, William Switzer has extended its scope to include collections of two masters of French Modernism: Lucien Rollin and Andre Arbus. A major coup for a Canadian company, William Switzer now owns the worldwide rights to their designs. Andre Arbus in particular is considered the supreme Art Moderne designer of the 1940s, and putting his work back into production has been somewhat tricky. “It has been a challenge because you are dealing with an iconic designer whose work is very well-known and loved, and you have to satisfy two camps: the connoisseurs of Arbus’ designs and a new, younger audience that may be encountering Arbus for the first time.”