I meet Mahmood Popal in a bar on College, and immediately after we take a seat by an open window, the conversation just flows out of us. It’s one of the hottest days of the summer and we are both dripping sweat. I semi don’t care the bar has no air conditioning and there’s no breeze because Mahmood Popal is one of the most interesting people I have ever met.
I learned of Popal a few months before we sat down to chat, and I seemed to hear about him more and more since then. The first public dose of Mahmood’s work I remember was his Dolla Dolla Grillz piece at the Massive Party—a gold-themed semi-formal affair that took place inside the AGO. This party, curated by Popal’s friend, artist and Juno Award-winning music video director Justin Broadbent, featured Popal’s specially designed vending machine that pumped out fake diamond and gold grills when fed a dollar.
The piece was extremely popular on social media that night, Mahmood’s name being splashed across Instagram in hashtags and captions. The artist laughs when I tell him this was my first brush with his work. “That’s funny because I personally have almost no online presence at all,” he says.
But he does have magical powers when it comes to designing spaces.
The 33-year-old Afghanistan-born, Toronto-raised artist is the extremely kind, approachable creative behind CRAFT Studio, designing beautiful food, retail and event establishments across the city. One of his first spaces was Huntclub, a studio gallery owned by friend Darlene Huynh. It was a barter project that had him working with her father on the wood pieces that would ultimately live in the space. After completing Huntclub, Popal says, opportunities found him. This allowed him to be selective in what spaces—and who—he wanted to work with.
Building his clientele through word of mouth—and refusing to take any job just for the paycheque—Mahmood has been selective about the spaces he designs and the galleries, event venues and homes where his pieces will end up. “I prefer to create things that will be seen. Things that are for a community to enjoy,” he says, sipping on his rye and ginger, wiping sweat from his brow. “I don’t want my work sitting in someone’s home where only a few people get to enjoy it.”
With most of his work being complete overhauls of restaurants, bars, and entertainment spaces, Mahmood’s work is being enjoyed beyond small communities. One of his favourite spaces, the now-defunct BBQ Smoke House: a medium-sized restaurant in which he designed the wood paneled walls, tables and bar stools. When he was working on the elements of the space, he holed himself up in his garage, took a blowtorch to the wood and went to town.
“The blow torch created burns that worked with the grooves of the wood,” he explained. An experiment that worked out in his favour—the blackened wood fit perfectly in the smoke house.
I ask him if it breaks his heart to see spaces he designed get torn up when another owner takes over. “Not really,” Popal says diplomatically. “Once I finish a space, I kind of let it go.” He does admit, however, that when he found out BBQ Smoke House closed, he went by to see if he could salvage some of the work. “The owner kept a lot of the pieces so it didn’t go to waste.”
While Mahmood is skilled in carpentry, he doesn’t restrict his ideas to just one type of art. He was educated at OCAD, and is a multidisciplinary artist. “I stayed for five years because I wanted to try every subject,” he explains.
Like many young boys, Mahmood would take apart and rebuild almost everything he could. As a result, he has a strong understanding of how lighting works. If you pay particular attention to any of the spaces Mahmood has been commissioned to complete, his light fixtures are the centerpieces.
Take, for example, the Danforth Music Hall, which features a chandelier of Edison bulbs on wires, painted white sconces with long, thin bulbs and the bar ceiling fixtures that look like black moulded desk lamps. Then there’s F Stop Bar and Lounge, which has Jenga block chandeliers with round bulbs jutting out the sides. Or The Ballroom Bowling Alley, with it’s the pinball chandelier. These were all designed by this creative genius.
His rustic style is minimalist—clean lines, clean lines, clean lines. But Mahmood always incorporates an industrial element— and he isn’t afraid to experiment with new textures either. Whether it’s the convex divots on the F Stop bar counter, or pipes and drawers placed on a wall at the Danforth Music Hall to create a different surface, everything is functional and serves a purpose.
This is the theme of Mahmood’s work—a mix of function and comfort. Coziness. A place you want to relax. Home.
First selling pieces as a working artist at the Toronto Outdoor Art Show in Nathan Phillips Square, Mahmood’s prints are where you get to know him best. Ask him about elements of said prints, like the hot pink and white hexagons floating above the people in Untitled White 7, and he’ll tell you about chasing kites and the kite repair shops of his childhood in India. Ask him about the isolated house in Home Sweet Home and he’ll tell you about fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan and the culture shock he experienced when he arrived in Winnipeg in the dead of winter with his parents and older brother.
It is in his fine art that you learn why Mahmood chooses the elements he incorporates into his interiors—home is a constantly changing concept but simple, natural surroundings beget comfort.
Photography by Jalani Morgan