08/29/2013 09:30 EDT | Updated 10/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Custom furniture that bridges gap between function and art attracting buyers

VICTORIA - It was function, not art, that led Christina Hilborne to a career as a furniture designer and maker. Yet the custom furnishings created by her and others, which bridge the gap between function and art, have also piqued a growing interest among those willing to invest.

"I was living with a roommate at the time and we were poor," said Hilborne. "We needed a recycling bin, and I decided to make one."

It was the first thing the Victoria-based designer and maker had created, and the experience was so gratifying she immediately enrolled in a pre-apprenticeship program in bench work and joinery followed by apprenticing as a cabinetmaker.

Even though it was the act of making that led Hilborne to her career, she doesn't just consider the purpose of a piece before she creates one.

"I consider function, aesthetics and ethics," she said. "I first think about what materials I can use that are considerate to the planet, and how I can best use them so I don't waste much."

The materials Hilborne chooses for their environmental impact also affect the look of the piece, but she is careful not to call herself an artist.

"I have a lot of friends who are artists and I wouldn't be so arrogant as to count myself among them," she said.

"They are painters and sculptors and I really don't feel that I am of that calibre. I am a maker or creator because I do design, but I also make."

Vancouver furniture designer and maker Christian Woo agrees with Hilborne's feelings about identifying himself as an artist.

Woo — who had been woodworking since before high school — has gained a reputation for his minimalist, modern pieces.

"I collect art from friends and they are mainly paintings, and photographs, but there is definitely an artistry in the things I am producing," said Woo.

"There is much time spent in the overall composition of my pieces and so if I think in those terms there is definitely an artistry in the work."

Customers are noticing the artistry in furniture by designers like Woo, and are beginning to collect it like they would art.

"I know from working with clients and having my pieces purchased, good furniture and a good piece of design really is functional art," he said.

"I think it's a good place to park your money if you want something beautiful, that works and enhances your home."

But small manufacturers are still facing the challenges of customers wanting identifiable pieces like the iconic Eames chair, created in the 1950s out of plywood and leather.

Even though purchasing high-quality pieces requires a financial investment, Woo said people are starting to see the value in limited-edition or custom furnishings.

"By and large I think people are happy and interested in owning and collecting because these pieces are really designed to be collected and to last," he said.

"That's a huge part of what I do. When I'm designing and making something I ask how will this fare and how will this look in 20 or 30 years."