Helen Kerr

Helen Kerr, industrial designer, inventor (born 1959 in Montréal, QC). Drawn to industrial design by a desire to “make stuff,” Kerr’s practice has developed and expanded over the past quarter century.
Helen Kerr, industrial designer, inventor (born 1959 in Montréal, QC). Drawn to industrial design by a desire to “make stuff,” Kerr’s practice has developed and expanded over the past quarter century.


Helen Kerr, industrial designer, inventor (born 1959 in Montréal, QC). Drawn to industrial design by a desire to “make stuff,” Kerr’s practice has developed and expanded over the past quarter century to encompass everything from the creation of practical physical objects like houseware to abstract creative practices such as observing predictive patterns in contemporary art to anticipating future challenges and outcomes.

Early Life

Kerr’s father owned a printing company and her mother was a city administrator in the Montréal neighbourhood of Saint-Lambert. Kerr was a creative child, designing her own clothes and home decorations. She completed a degree in environmental studies at the University of Waterloo in 1982 and was hired straight out of school, but soon found herself craving more creative work than her field could offer.

Kerr discovered the field of industrial design through an acquaintance and began working at a graphic design studio involved in the very early days of interactive media, first in Montréal and then in their Toronto offices. An interest in more complex problem solving and an insatiable desire to “make stuff” led Kerr to complete her master’s degree in Industrial Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design (now the Ontario College of Art and Design University) in 1988. That same year, Kerr founded her own product and system development company, Kerr and Co.

Kerr and Co.

In the early days of Kerr and Co., Kerr approached fellow Canadian housewares design company Umbra with several of her own ideas. Her first product for Umbra was a dustpan, and for many years Kerr and Co. was the only out-of-house design team used by Umbra. The constraints of working with a company that demanded products with aesthetic and emotional appeal while remaining within a tight price range influenced much of Kerr’s later work, which continued to be both appealing and accessible. As part of her product development process, Kerr designed an in-depth research phase that often included ethnographic observation of real-life users. When designing kitchenware for brands like Cuisipro or Gourmet Settings, the firm held food-related events to simply watch and record how people ate.

Healthcare

In the early 2000s, healthcare products became a new focus of Kerr and Co. Long and rigorous research into the manner in which people get into and out of chairs led to the development of the Healthcare Chair Series for Sittris, which included an exam stool, a nursing station chair, a therapy chair, and bariatric seating (heavy duty, extra wide seating). The Toronto SARS outbreak in 2003 prompted the design of a silicone-coated chair for Keilhauer that is easily wiped free of potentially infectious bacteria. Kerr holds a patent for this design, one of 40 she has been awarded in the United States and Canada.

Kerr Smith Design

Kerr first met Nigel Smith, a graphic designer and the creative director of Hahn Smith Design, in the elevator on the way to work — Smith’s firm occupied another floor of the same building. The two married in 2000 and their companies began to collaborate on a range of projects, including numerous publications for creative institutions and art galleries. In 2010 they merged to form Kerr Smith Design and with their collective talents began offering fully integrated services including product design and production, packaging, merchandising and marketing.

Forecasting

In recent years, Kerr Smith Design has begun to specialize in a new service they refer to as “forecasting.” They describe the practice as “seeking plausible scenarios for the future,” so that they may best prepare clients for what may happen down the road. Since noting that trends in contemporary art often anticipate real life events (e.g., Banksy’s images of police confrontations presaging the U.K.’s riots; Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God skull sculpture anticipating the 2008 financial meltdown) Kerr Smith Design has used art as a predictive tool in their forecasting practice.

Honours

Best of Show at Accent on Design, New York (1996)

Featured in Spoon: The World’s 100 Best Designers – a global overview (2002)

Best of Canadian Wood Design at Off/Cut (2005)

Healthcare Design Nightingale Award for Sittris Bariatric Seating (2006)

Design Excellence Gold Industrial Designers Society of America/BusinessWeek (2007)

Named one of Canada’s Ten Best Designers, IDS Canada (2008)