A community lives and dies on its ability to be part of wider society. Its authenticity is nothing without sustainability; the challenge is how to preserve and enhance a way of life without destroying the qualities that defined it in the first place. Zita Cobb is a Canadian entrepreneur. Growing up on Fogo Island in Newfoundland in the 1950s and 1960s, she had a very direct experience of the perilous life of a small, remote community. Today, Cobb is a philanthropist and a leading advocate for community-centred development. Once again, Fogo Island is the focus of her life.
After leaving Fogo, Cobb’s career took her into the hi-tech fibre optics industry. In her role as a senior financial professional, she rose up the ranks, eventually becoming senior vice president at the American manufacturer JDS Uniphase. She left the industry in 2001 with the intention of pursuing a path in philanthropy, creating the Shorefast Foundation in 2003. Based between Ottawa and Fogo itself, Cobb assembled a board of directors that includes leading community members, politicians and fishermen. From her childhood onwards, Cobb has seen at first hand the importance of the fishing industry to the island’s economic and social structure, and the myriad industries, activities and systems that grew up around it.
Fogo sits on the Atlantic coast, a spectacularly beautiful but harsh landscape that covers just over 90 square miles. Its earliest permanent settlements date back to the 18th century and there’s still a strong physical connection to the land and its history through the surviving houses and shelters in the scattered communities that make up the island’s population of around 2,700. The physical connection between boat building and house building has also given Fogo a distinct style that’s more akin to Scandinavia’s coastal architecture than North America and Canada’s.
The Shorefast Foundation chose its name for its symbolic association with connections (it’s named after the line and mooring system that physically attaches cod traps to the shore). Its prime directive has always been to use the spirit of the place to transform the island’s fortunes, following the near-catastrophic collapse of the cod fishing industry. Overfishing and competition from offshore operations led to a steady decline from the 1960s onwards, effectively removing the community’s primary source of income and connection with the outside world. Fogo was poor and life was hard. “I was 10 and I remember it very well,” Cobb recalls. “We had no running water, no healthcare, no education and no fish. We came very close to being resettled.”
The plight of the islanders was laid out through a much-vaunted series of films on the community. Dubbed “The Fogo Process”, a total of 27 short films were made by the National Film Board of Canada from 1967 onwards, chronicling the precipitous economic decline, the threat of wholesale resettlement and the impact on the community. A crucial inshore cod fishery eventually closed and for a time Fogo’s future hung in the balance. “Those films helped us engage [with the problem] and brought the islanders together,” Cobb explains. “They created a co-op that still owns the fish-processing plant to this day. That’s our model for local ownership. All our businesses are locally owned. All of them.”
The Shorefast Foundation’s commitment to social enterprise is apparent in new infrastructure, new businesses and new attractions to bring people to the island, all the while ensuring that local skills and talent are nurtured, supported and used to the greatest effect. Its flagship is the Fogo Island Inn, a 29-room hotel that is one of the island’s largest buildings. Rising up from the shoreline on stilts, it touches the ground lightly yet still conveys a sense of great permanence and belonging, just like many generations of tough, whitewashed fishermen’s houses. The Inn is the work of Todd Saunders, a Newfoundland-born architect who subsequently made his name in Norway, where he currently lives and works. He had great sympathy with Cobb’s approach, in particular the use of vernacular materials and local craft and construction skills.
Running parallel with the hospitality business is a number of other initiatives, led by Fogo Island Arts. Most prominent is the artist-in-residence programme, a scheme that captured the attention of the world’s design press thanks to four other designs by Saunders. The Bridge, Squish, Tower and Long Studios, a collection of striking geometric objects dotted around Fogo’s coastline, provide a stark contrast with the rocks, coast and sky. Designed to be wholly off the grid, the four studios (two more are in the works) are occupied by artists throughout the year. Residencies run between one and three months, culminating in a talk and exhibition at the Fogo Island Gallery, contained within the Inn.
Although Saunders’ designs gave Fogo its first taste of modernism, the methods and approaches were rooted strictly in tradition. “We operate social businesses, of which the Inn is one,” Cobb says. “All the money generated goes back to the island.” An unexpected sideline was a design company, born out of the process of creating and making the fixtures and fittings for the Inn. Products such as the Punt Chair, designed by Élaine Fortin, use the techniques of boat building (the small local fishing boats are called “punts”), but apply them to a contemporary form. Other local art and craft forms, notably quilting and textiles, are also represented.
“We didn’t originally intend to have a furniture business and I still consider it a start-up,” says Cobb, explaining that a newly restored traditional building will soon serve as a shop front. There’s also a new centre for boat building, a place where techniques and skills will be saved and passed down. “That knowledge is so ingrained in this community. We have to hold on to it,” she says. “I believe that the present is the place we mediate between the past and the future,” she says. “We can do that through objects. We’ve worked with local artisans and young designers.”
As well as the various businesses featuring design, Shorefast has an important educational role. “We’ve launched programmes with fisheries colleges in Newfoundland to get new techniques for catching cod,” she says, “because they’re coming back and we need to do it better next time.” She cites Fogo Island Fish, a specialist supplier for Toronto’s high-end restaurants (“in Newfoundland, when we talk about ‘fish’ we mean cod”), while other natural resources include berries (“there are 26 kinds on this island — a berry will do anything you ask of it”).
The island's social enterprise ensures that local skills and talent are nurtured and supported
The Shorefast Foundation is about maintaining a sense of place through the creation of new opportunities. It isn’t about static preservation. The Foundation’s combination of culture and business has given the island a new lease of life and placed it on the global design map. “We have a list of questions,” say Cobb. “What do we have? What do we know? What do we love? What do we miss? What can we do about it? Whatever we’ve tried to do, what’s been successful has been made out of the fabric of the place. It has that integrity.”
Despite its remoteness and the spectacular sense of isolation, Fogo isn’t really so far. If you leave Toronto at breakfast, you can have supper on the island. Even the journey from London isn’t too arduous: it involves a change of planes at St John’s in Newfoundland, then a local service to Gander and, if you’re lucky, catching the last ferry of the day out to Fogo. Even so, the island still has its limits. The Inn can support around 3,000 visitors in the course of a year. “We can only love so many people at a time,” Cobb admits.
There are still plenty of projects to keep Cobb and the Foundation busy. “My particular energy and lifetime will be focused on this island,” she says, “but we’re thinking of starting an institute and transferring the ideas elsewhere.” Innovation and passion will always travel, but Cobb believes that change can only come about if it’s organic and authentic. “The two words we use most are ‘integrity’, which means something is consistent and complete, and “original”, which means it’s true to its origins,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a car or an island. You work with the fabric you have and its integrity.”
The Shorefast Foundation uses design as a means of capturing skill, memory, culture and emotion, creating viable businesses that resonate with a much wider audience. “The ability to hold on to yourself and yet participate in the global economy in a meaningful way is very important,” Cobb says. “We are trying to make a new relationship between financial capital and ‘sacred’ capital. The place itself, its nature and culture, those are sacred things. They suffered in the past because of a bad relationship. And we’re trying to find a better relationship, here and elsewhere.”