01/05/2015 12:45 EST | Updated 03/07/2015 05:59 EST

Toronto's Design Exchange explores pop culture, offers different experience

TORONTO - Nestled in the very heart of Toronto's bustling financial district lies a space where elements of contemporary popular culture — ranging from edgy pieces of clothing to funky crockery — invite visitors to contemplate the items that surround them and what they say about society.

That place, housed in what was once Toronto's original stock exchange, is the Design Exchange, which bills itself as Canada's only museum dedicated to the pursuit of design excellence and the preservation of design heritage.

An alternative to some of the other museums in a city with no shortage of attractions, the Design Exchange allows visitors to better understand their connection with various facets of design.

"Design is all around us. You can't possibly say that you're not interested in it if you're interested in living in this world," said fashion icon Jeanne Beker, who guest curated the "Politics of Fashion/Fashion of Politics" exhibit currently on display at the museum.

"Maybe years ago design was thought of as something that was a little more esoteric, but now I think we've embraced it."

As a museum dedicated to celebrating design, Beker notes that the Design Exchange has gone to lengths to make its displays "very user friendly."

Visitors can meander through collections laid out with informative panels, pause at junctions where they can watch videos and, if timed right, can also take advantage of scheduled talks which delve deeper into the themes of exhibits.

The exhibit, which Beker curated and runs until Jan. 25, features a number of pieces of clothing that make a statement.

Visitors can contemplate mannequins sporting items that include a pant suit printed with the faces of Woodstock, a gold sequined leopard print burka and a dress once worn by Margaret Trudeau, wife of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. There's also one of the world's first controversial monokinis, a wedding dress made out of a parachute and clothing that belonged to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife.

"The whole idea of fashion and politics has always intrigued me because ... both are totally consumed with image and both are about communication," said Beker, who hoped viewers would leave with a sense of the potential power fashion has.

"I think the choices that we make in fashion sometimes can tell us a lot about who we really are and certainly communicate our ideologies to others."

Beker's collection is just one of the rotating exhibits the museum has featured since revamping in 2012 to widen its appeal to the general public.

"Before it was very industry focused and very academic focused ... what the new mandate and new vision called for was something that you and I can come off the street and be like, 'OK, cool,'" explained Nina Boccia, the museum's marketing manager.

"Another layer of that is to show how design really intersects with everything that we see and deal with and experience on a daily basis."

The museum's next big exhibit is set to explore large-scale 3D printing and how it can impact architecture. Later, in July, it will host an exhibit that will be linked to the Pan Am Games, being hosted in the Toronto region this summer.

"It's called 'Smarter, Faster, Tougher,' an exhibition on sport, fashion and tech," Boccia said of the Pan Am exhibit. "Basically we're going to look at the evolution of sportswear."

The common thread linking the various different exhibits is the museum's overarching vision, said Boccia.

"Our mandate is to present an exhibition, a survey of whatever the content might be, and how it relates to you currently. It's really about our connection to contemporary culture and what you're currently living," she said.

With the current exhibit, for instance, the museum explored the intersection of fashion, graphic design, cultural movements and politics, Boccia explained. The upcoming 3D printing exhibit will analyse the overlap between technological innovation, architecture and the way we live in today's world, she added.

"I think at the core of all the shows, while they're so vastly different, it's really about how do all these disciplines intersect and how do they apply to our everyday life."

An added bonus to the exhibits is the fact that many pieces are sourced from the private vaults of collectors, Boccia noted.

"You're going to see things that probably wouldn't have otherwise had an opportunity to see," she said. "That's part of what we do too — we want to bring content that you can't find anywhere else."

The exclusive nature of some of the museum's current artifacts resonated with Jo Jennings, a resident of London, Ont., who visited the museum for the first time last week.

"You're kind of a lot more closer with the artifacts and there are very defined spaces as well. I think that allows you to sort of see them in a different way rather than some of the bigger galleries," she said. "It's more contemplative."

The variety afforded by the museum's changing exhibits can also be a draw, noted Sheyla O'Flynn, whose second trip to the museum was markedly different from her first.

"I like that it rotates here and it's sort of like the one exclusive. You're not distracted by anything else," said the 74-year-old Vancouver resident who had brought her two grandchildren to the exhibit.

"I think it's trying to do something that's cutting edge and bring awareness to people."


If You Go ...

Find more information on the Design Exchange's rotating exhibits at