We hear all the time that growth is imminent once you step outside of your comfort zone. This is very much the case for Montreal based product designer Louis-Martin Tremblay. By never spending too long in a comfortable place and always exploring and experimenting, Louis has created an incredibly diverse journey for himself. His past involves television, the skateboard industry, global footwear brands, his own blog and flourishing design studio and now one of the best new trail running brands in North America, all solidifying himself as a force to be reckoned with in the footwear design space.
We got the opportunity to sit down with Louis to discuss his beginnings, how he approaches the design process, his new role as Head of Design norda™, tips for aspiring designers and so much more. Read the full interview below to learn more about Louis’ incredible story and make sure to check out our Introduction to norda™ story afterwards for more on this groundbreaking brand.
Hey Louis! So great to be chatting. To kick things off, for those who may not be as familiar, can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Louis-Martin Tremblay Lawrence and I am a product designer working out of Montréal, Canada. I specialize in footwear design, but have also done menswear clothing, accessories and graphic design to a certain extent along my career. I am passionate about nature and like to spend as much time surrounded by it as I can. This curiosity toward mother nature has been a constant source of inspiration and elevation as it is inexhaustible.
You’ve built quite a strong portfolio of work over the years. How did you get your start in product design?
When I finished high school, I wanted to be an illustrator and loved travelling. I was really into rave culture in the UK and punk and skateboarding and was travelling to experience all of this. After a short time in the cartoon space doing kids shows, I got to work with Underworld Skateboard shop back in Montreal designing for their boards and then started doing accessories/clothing design for brands. I was always very driven by the creativity of it all and being able to experiment with new styles.
After some time with Underworld, someone called me up to see if I wanted to try designing skate shoes. I did it as a private label job but wasn’t learning much and felt stagnant in my illustrating. While I was doing that I started a blog called KOMFORTZONE, posting about important trends I was seeing in the footwear space. About a year in, people were referencing the blog a lot and I started getting calls from some big companies to consult. This led to a job at Aldo on the women’s shoe side which I loved. This was like a “footwear university” for me. I was learning so much. I moved to the men's side about two years later which focused on mostly dress shoes and felt less creative so I began to think about my next move. Shortly after that I left Aldo and started my own design studio Atelier LMTL. After a couple big jobs with shops like Off the Hook in Montreal and brands like Aimé Leon Dore in New York, things started to really pick up for me and new clients started coming in quickly which was amazing.
I loved working with brands on different footwear designs. It gave me everything I was looking for; products, fashion, related to culture, mixed material, etc. I also love working on shoes because you can get a good sense of what they’ll look like before trying them on which you can’t see with clothing. Footwear is more architectural in that sense.
Photo: Atelier LMTL
Such an interesting journey! Over the last year and a bit now you’ve taken on a role as Head of Design at norda™. How did that opportunity come about?
Just before the pandemic, Nick (Co-Founder, norda™) reached out to me about a project. It wasn’t norda™ but more of a client sourcing job. We started working together more and on a trip to Italy for that work, Nick told me about his idea for norda™ and I was very excited about it. About a month after that conversation, right as the pandemic was picking up, Nick reached out and said he wanted to do it for real and I was in between client work with Atelier LMTL so the timing was good and so I said yes.
It’s crazy to see how that early conversation has developed now. norda™ isn’t like any other sneaker brand. What was it like working on a hyper-technical trail running shoe and what was the hardest part of designing the norda™ 001?
Fortunately, I came into this project with some understanding from a consumer end and was thinking a lot about what was missing from stores. I have been running for years and as mentioned earlier, I am an outdoors person, therefore, familiar with a lot of the technologies used in the industry. This being said, nobody had achieved a seamless upper using Dyneema. Nick gathered a round table of specialists in order to figure out what was needed. With the experience of everyone it was just a matter of time and trial before something concrete would come out and the factory team played a crucial role in achieving this. My personal challenge was to balance the possibilities and the limitations while keeping the design DNA of the norda™ 001.
Always good to have a strong team to work with, especially when working with new designs and materials. From a start to finish approach, what are the steps of your design process like?
I tend to keep the practice very flexible due to the reason that every client, brand or project, is unique. The design process starts with a conversation, or I should say with an open ear. Listening to their purpose, why do they exist or why do they want to exist. This leads to the research to understand the market, the scene, the culture we are talking to and what connects them to their product, the object. Afterwards, inspiring images and texts get collected to create a bank or reference. Obviously there is a period of drawing and sketching. If possible, right after I like to let go of it all for a while. This pause gives room for everything to settle down, leaving what’s needed floating atop. From there the products start to take life.
Really interesting! You mentioned before the design DNA of norda™. Can you speak more on this?
We were looking at how we could meet lifestyle footwear DNA with the sportswear side and achieve a good balance that doesn’t exist with a lot of the other big brands. Many big brands are heavily focused on the sportswear side with exaggerated technical details but I wanted to make something with a more vintage feel and be able to hide the tech within the lifestyle elements.
We can definitely see this in the norda™ 001. Super technical but not too eccentric looking. What were some of the design inspirations for the shoe?
I am often inspired by cars and was influenced by Porsche for norda™. The lines on a Porsche emit a sense of speed but it’s subtle. On the outside, everything is simple and clean but once you open the hood you see all of the tech. I wanted the norda™ 001 to be like this; able to perform but doesn’t have to look like it. In hand, the shoe is simple but once you’re wearing it, you can feel all of the technology in your step.
For the outsole, which I think makes the shoe most of the time (Nike Air, Adidas Boost, etc), I wanted to bring in an organic relationship with the ground. I used the formation of the Canadian Shield, the largest and strongest pre-Cambrian rock formation on earth, to design the outsole and wrapped it up the heel which I think is a unique touch.
Do you have a favourite feature on the norda™ 001?
I don’t think there is one feature standing out for me. Like a painting you can appreciate the colours, the gesture or the composition, but it’s the whole that makes the experience complete. But having to choose, the outsole plate element of the Canadian Shield and its repetition on the collar as a 3M hit, I find, gives the 001 something very unique and organic.
Agreed! Besides norda™, you’ve also designed on a number of very cool projects through Atelier LMTL, every one of them being quite different from the others but all, for the most part, being in the sneaker category. Are there any other categories you might like to explore with Atelier LMTL?
Football cleats. I would definitely take on that challenge, especially from an outsole point of view. The cleats give a unique form and many possibilities to play with. This being said, I think menswear is on the top of the list. This category needs some attention and creativity to respond to what men need in a modern and functional way.
We’d love to see what you come up with for all of it. Switching gears here a bit now. The footwear design space is one that many aspire to be a part of but it can definitely look intimidating from the outside. What tips would you give to someone who is looking to get into footwear design as a career?
Get busy, stay curious. Take jobs with purpose, like learning from someone or understanding the basics of the industry. From there, move up, down, sideways, but when you become stagnant, move to keep learning and growing. Design is specific and in order to sharpen it you will need to understand all aspects of the industry like manufacturing, marketing, merchandising and many more. Understanding culture is also a key ingredient. Cultures come with a set of beliefs, unknown rules and a visual language. This last one cannot be underestimated.
That is excellent advice and definitely even applicable to those not looking at the footwear space, especially in regards to the comfort zone advice.
Definitely! Once you’re in different spots, you should always continue to ask questions and speak to people to learn and then the minute you feel you’ve learned something, move on. It’s also important to have checkpoints in the moment to help you understand what you’re trying to achieve, where you’re at and what the future may look like for you.
Absolutely. Getting a bit more personal for the last question. What are your top 5 sneaker designs of all time, excluding norda™ and anything else you’ve worked on?
Mmm, I don’t even own 5 sneakers right now [laughs]. I am with them all the time for work but I have never considered making a list or collecting them. This being said, court sneakers like the Tretorn Nylite have patterns I really like for their unique and curated look. I am also very into menswear classics like the original P204 from Padmore and Barnes. They have been some of my favourites since childhood. I also am wearing the Keen Uneek sandal a lot and will always love Clarks. I could name others, but it would be mostly on the aesthetic as I have been deceived often by either the fit, the comfort or the quality.
A great list nonetheless!
For more on norda™, check out our Introduction to norda™ story and make sure to follow norda™ and Atelier LMTL on Instagram for more exciting work and updates. Also, don’t forget to keep it locked to Pier Five for more interviews and stories with the coolest entrepreneurs, designers, artists, activists and more.