Daej Hamilton

Furniture maker and designer

1 year as a business owner

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Based in Toronto, founder and principle designer, Daej Hamilton started Daej Designs company at 22 years old. Luxuriating in her 11th year of woodworking, her pieces reflect the timeless, mid-century, modern aesthetic. Using some of the finest woods, her work is designed and hand crafted to compliment form and function.

At what point in your life did you learn about design, and what drew you to it?

I was eight years old when I learned about design. At that age, I wanted to be an inventor (and later an architect). When I reached sixth grade, I was introduced to woodworking. What drew me to it was the fact that I would be able to create, make, and become the inventor I wanted to be. At the time, my mom was studying interior design, and watching her create her room boards definitely influenced me to pursue the niche that is furniture-making.

What was your educational experience like?

My school was located in a mostly south Asian area. Although it was almost only PoC, excluding the teachers,  I was like 1 of maybe 50 black students in a school that had over 1000. It was tough being there at times. Being the only black student or one of very few in a classroom is a lot of pressure because not only do you have to work twice as hard to get some sort of recognition, you also have to do everything in your power to not be associated with common biases and prejudices.

Being one of few was a common theme during my education. I did a lot of extracurricular activities in middle school and high school where I was the only black student,  the only girl or a combination of both. Some of the clubs I was a part of  like the chess club, stained glass club, skateboard club, improv club etc. had students questioning my blackness because those types of things were not really common activities you'd see black students joining.

After taking woodshop/tech & design throughout middle school and highschool, I applied to Sheridan college for their Craft & Design:Furniture program... which was a very interesting experience because this was the first of the program advancing to a degree program. So my year was what i would call the “ guinea pig year”.

On the first day I was greeted by a teacher (who I met on a private tour) who said “ got in?”. And the tone she said it in was sooo condescending. It was as if she was telling me I didn’t belong and I certainly felt that throughout the year I was there. And with that comment in mind,I tried to fit in and blend in with all the non-black students in my class. Which worked in my favour. I ended up making a lot of cool connections with people from all walks of life. But, I saw how they treated me a little differently than the other black student in my class.

Within the furniture program, there were only 3 black students (including myself) who were women. And in my mind, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to stick together and learn from each other because they were both extremely talented and skilled at things that i wasn’t. But, it didn’t end up happening the way I would have wanted it to. But unfortunately, both women ended up getting injured and that put an enormous amount of pressure on me to not be like them. When that happened, a few days after the second person was injured, a teacher came up to me and said “two down, one to go”. I didn’t even know how to react to that. And thinking about that situation now, I feel like maybe it had to do with my choice to blend in with everyone else. And somehow that lead to people feeling like they can “joke” about things that aren’t funny to me.

So all this to say, my time there was not at all what I thought it was going to be. On top of the racism, I didn’t feel like the structure of the program was practical for real world situations. It felt like the school was trying to preparing students for the art world. During my time there, I didn’t get the sense that there was any real discipline with building time management skills in the program. On top of that, it felt like they wanted to make mini me’s and I was not about to conform, so I left and went to Humber college.

I loved Humber, although again I was one of 3 black students within the whole program. I didn’t feel as uneasy as I did at Sheridan. I learned everything I wanted to and was able to hone the skills that I already had in order to find work in the field.

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What’s the boldest thing you’ve ever done in your professional life?

The boldest thing I’ve done was resign from my full-time job to start my own company. And man, was it tough to let go of of financial security. But when you feel like you’ve reached the ceiling within anything, you gotta get out of that room so you can continue to grow.

After being rejected from what I thought was going to be my dream job, and then rejecting another job, I applied to a design studio. It was my last choice, because I knew it was going to be a challenge getting in. I knew about the boss through a high school teacher, and I heard he went to Sheridan for a year (where they now call him alumnus); also, a few other people I knew from Sheridan worked there. So a few days after the interview I was hired. That was back in March of 2017.

At first it was fun because it was super laid back, but also maybe too laid back to the point where I began to see how the lack of time management and production management was seriously affecting the company. From the way they stored their lumber to almost everything getting completed after the due date, it was all quite amateurish for a company who had seen a lot of success and press coverage.

I experienced ageism and a lot of microaggressions there, which was interesting because most people were in their 20s, but I was still  the youngest one. Since the company was so small (circa seven to nine people), we were encouraged to make suggestions. So I would make suggestions, for example, to store lumber in a different way that  would cut down on production time, or to make an instruction book so that new employees wouldn't have to spend hours trying to read drawings that had multiple penciled corrections, or even to start work ahead of schedule so that things wouldn’t be late. But my suggestions were always turned down, laughed at, or scoffed at until someone older and white made the same suggestion… then it was a good idea.

The longer I worked there, the more I noticed that my values and their values didn’t align. It was kind of unethical, we worked everyday from 9am-6pm (some days longer) and not getting paid accordingly. But then, the boss would take us out for lunch as a way of showing gratitude which is kinda manipulative, ya know. Like “yeah I’m not paying you what you actually should be getting paid but, here’s some free food, thanks for being on the team”. I definitely started to rebel. Well for me it was rebelling but everyone was already doing this. Coming in late, taking longer lunch breaks, leaving early.

I definitely started to rebel. Well, for me it was rebelling, but everyone was already coming in late, taking longer lunch breaks, and leaving early.

My last straw with them could have been avoided on their part. It makes me think about how what i thought was loyalty was me being submissive to this company. But anyways, someone who was hired as a manager went MIA for a month. The person said they could no longer work there anymore and basically quit. To later be told that this person was going through a lot which caused them to be unstable and not a good fit as a manager anymore. And so it was required of me to step up and basically be a manager. I was already training people but now I had so much more responsibilities to take care of. And I was doing this all on a $16/hr salary. No…. they never offered me a raise. After a month… word goes around that the boss and HR will be rehiring this person and I was shocked.

When it comes to woodworking we need stability and reliability. The fact that they hired someone who wasn’t reliable or stable spoke volumes. They ended up giving this person the manager position again and didn’t think twice about it. They didn’t thank me for stepping up while that person was gone. There wasn’t even a transitional period for that person to catch up with everything that was going on. I was so disappointed and hurt that they actually did that.

After a year and a half of putting up with them, I decided that this company wasn’t the right fit for me. And I thought about which company would be, and honestly, as sad as it is, not a single company would be a right fit for me. So I had to start my own.

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What inspires your work (professional or personal)?

The people I’m surrounded by inspire my work. I have a lot of creatives from all different mediums and fields of design in my circle. I tend to listen to them as to what they feel is missing in the art and craft world. Also, music inspires my work. When I’m listening to music, I kind of imagine myself in a room of different furniture that fits the aesthetic of the music.

History inspires my work. A lot of my work includes mid-century modern design elements. I make a point in doing that, because black people and non-black people of colour were denied access to mid-century architecture and design. A lot of people don’t know this, but black and non-black PoC were denied home loans that would have allowed them to buy homes with mid-century modern design elements. Instead, they were forced to live in inner-city subsections, in housing that was just slapped together. It was made clear that mid-century modern design was not for people like me. So for me to do it now is almost rebellious, but I’m taking something that was taken from us and somehow trying to reshape history by making custom mid-century modern design as accessible as I can to black and non-black PoC.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a female designer? What does success mean to you?

I think the greatest challenge was not knowing if what I was doing was significant enough. I had a constant battle with myself about what I had to do to make it in this field, and I was asking myself whether anyone even cares about what I’m doing. But I had to build confidence in myself and confidence in my work, which was tough because family members weren’t rooting for me to be successful; they really were waiting for me to fail. I turned that negativity into motivation and kept striving to be better.

When you’re able to find it within yourself too keep going, that’s success. When you make mistakes and have to start over, that’s success. I feel like some many people think success is getting it right the first time. But to me that means what you’re doing isn’t challenging enough. You need to fail in order to be successful.

What advice would you give to a young female designer?

Don’t conform to society. There are going to be so many times in your life where you might feel like you have to do something in order to get ahead. But if it doesn’t match your values and who you are as a person, don't do it.

What are the best and worst pieces of advice you’ve ever gotten?

When I was in high school, we had assigned guidance counsellors who were there to help us choose our courses and apply for post-secondary. The counsellor I ended up with was not giving the best guidance. When I was applying for colleges and universities, she looked at my program choices and said “Hmmmm…. Yeah, you’re not great at math, plus these are very manly choices. Apply for something that is more in your skill level, like how about English? You should major in that!” By telling me to stay within my skill level, she was trying to guide me down the wrong path. I guess this is also some more advice for young women: Follow your passion. People are gonna try to steer you wrong, but remember that you are the driver.

“Do what makes you the happiest.” Is what my first grade teacher told me any time I would go back and visit. And that’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

Which of your traits are you most proud of?

People have told me a whole lot of negative things, thinking that I would stop making furniture and do something more “ladylike”. But I’ve taken all this negativity and turned it into motivation. I’m so goal-oriented, I can’t stop going after something until I achieve that goal. So I’m proud of myself for being resilient through it all and for continuing to persevere.

What are your plans for the future?

My plans are to eventually open up a workspace and gallery where women of colour can learn, create, and showcase all in space. It’s been a dream of mine for a while now after seeing how badly this is needed in my community. So hopefully I can make this happen.

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