On the fourth floor of a former grain store in the Winnipeg Exchange District, the hum of a potting wheel and the clacking of sewing machines are a background track to the creative thoughts of a growing coterie of artisans in Winnipeg. A leather craftsman burnishes the end of a fine-grain leather belt and a potter deftly moulds a piece of clay into a cup. A few shoppers wander around the airy converted warehouse in the Winnipeg Exchange District, browsing for handmade cups, bowls, hanging pots, bathroom ware, backpacks and belts.
Exploring Winnipeg’s Exchange District is one of the top things to do in Winnipeg at any time of the year.
Why Is Winnipeg Exchange District Significant?
This 20th-century stone warehouse is one of 20 square blocks of historic buildings in Winnipeg that once held grain and farming equipment.
Winnipeg played a significant role in Canada’s history.
At the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg was the main hub for Canada’s grain industry.
The arrival of the railway provided a means to transport grain and people to the west, creating a boom in Winnipeg.
The city was the third largest and the third richest city in Canada.
In recent times, Winnipeg’s Exchange District has experienced a different kind of boom – a design renaissance where historic stone warehouses are being filled with workshops, pop-up stores, restaurants, nightclubs and art galleries.
An easy way to discover these hidden gems in Winnipeg is through a curated destination experience created by a not-for-profit organisation, Design Quarter Winnipeg.
Design Quarter experience
The Design Quarter experience highlights Winnipeg’s design culture within the walkable Winnipeg downtown.
There’s a downloadable colour-coded map that makes it easy to find studios, galleries, fashion designers and eateries mainly in The Exchange District with some in The Forks and Downtown Winnipeg.
There’s a description of each place and GPS directions.
The objective of the Design Quarter is to feature Winnipeg’s designer side in various forms including galleries, design shops, restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues.
Many of their members run restaurants that rent out space for art events and shows.
It’s a great way to meet local artisans, learn about Winnipeg’s design while shopping for something unique and handmade.
Here are a few highlights:
Winnipeg Architecture Foundation (266 McDermot Ave.) is a tiny space with a rotating display of architectural projects.
It’s a great place to chat with friendly researchers who have a wealth of knowledge about Winnipeg’s architectural styles.
Many of Winnipeg’s buildings were constructed using Tyndall stone, which is 445 million years old.
That is one of the features that make Winnipeg’s uber-contemporary Canadian Museum of Human Rights such a unique and striking building.
In other cities Canada, concrete was used for smooth façade but in Winnipeg, the application of old material on cutting-edge modern design is one of the city’s defining features.
In other cities in Canada, concrete was used for smooth façade but in Winnipeg, the application of old material on cutting-edge modern design is one of the city’s defining features.
In the 1950s, modern construction brought an adaptation to the light of the prairies, with low windows and big overhangs and in some cases brise soleil (shades built into the buildings).
The Foundation conducts research about architecture for public programmes, from the modern contemporary period.
They also run activities to educate the average person about Winnipeg’s architecture, including holding talks, tours and Canada’s only architecture and design film festival.
There’s a connection between Winnipeg and Sydney in Australia through Austrian-born architect Harry Siedler.
Siedler was in a foreign national’s internment camp in Quebec when he was accepted to study architecture at the University of Manitoba.
He graduated with First Class Honours in 1944 and went on to work in New York and Sydney, where he designed many Sydney buildings such as Australia Square, Rose Siedler House and the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre.
Warehouses in Winnipeg
If you’re looking for beautifully crafted leather bags and belts or sturdy designer backpacks, head to the warehouse space shared by Wilder Goods, Commonwealth and Oldhat (290 McDermot Ave.).
Wilder Goods is a small-batch manufacturing company focusing on canvas and other goods. Oldhat makes hats out of repurposed fabrics and sells them at folk festivals across Canada. Commonwealth makes collared shirts.
This shared open-plan workshop also doubles up as a gallery where most of their sales are made.
“We’ve done small runs for retail stores but enjoy the direct connection and have just started selling online. But we’re proud of the technical side of our manufacturing so decided to take the slow road,” says Brendon Frieson from Wilder Goods.
Pottering Around at Mud + Stone
Next time you see a handmade mug, think about the love and effort that goes into making it.
Next door, Lynne Mulvihill from Mud + Stone is hard at work making ceramics and other lovely clay creations.
At Mud + Stone, large tables display an assortment of cups, mugs, bowls, plates and other designer pottery for the home. But what makes it special is the creator of the pottery is there to show us how it’s done.
You might be surprised to learn that centering the clay is the hardest part.
The rest of the process is easier but it’s a long process involving drying the clay, putting it in the kiln for many hours at a time and glazing.
Winnipeg’s Art Scene
Winnipeg has a substantial art scene and you might be surprised to learn that Winnipeg has a high number of artists per capita.
The Exchange District is the place to shop for local works from Manitoba.
Fleet Galleries displays the works of many local artists across different mediums and offers a taste of the artistic creations coming out of Winnipeg.
The gallery is crammed with colourful creations, such as originals done in fine pastel and creative collage works made using old newspapers and beautifully polished furniture, such as an Applewood table with LED lighting integrated into the stump.
Other galleries to visit are Cre8ery Gallery + Studio, which also holds classes and seminars, and Gurevich Fine Art for contemporary works.
On the first Friday of every month, galleries stay open late and offer food, drink, music and events. You can go into the galleries and talk to the artists. Many of the gallery openings are on Fridays as well. Find out more here.
Design Quarter Winnipeg is a non-profit organization with funding generated by membership fees, grants and sponsorships.
Getting to Winnipeg
Read our Air Canada review of the flight from Brisbane to Vancouver. From Vancouver, there are regular connections to Winnipeg. Another way to get to Winnipeg is to take The Canadian train from Toronto.
Winnipeg is the gateway to the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill.
Exchange District Restaurants
First thing’s first. If you love your coffee, you’ll be pleased to know Winnipeg is a thriving coffee hub for coffee connoisseurs.
Yes, you will definitely get a good coffee in Winnipeg (like the kind back home).
Where to go for your caffeine hit in Winnipeg?
- Bronuts Donuts + Coffee makes a great coffee and has a changing menu of mouth-watering donut creations. Try the honey pecan donut or the peanut butter with caramel drizzle and sea salt. Or for a Canadian creation try the maple bourbon peach brulee donut.
- Parlour Coffee is an artsy minimalist café that makes a decent latte.
- Winnipeg Free Press News Café is a social hub, with live newscasting and interviews with musicians, athletes, politicians and book launches and lectures.
- Deer + Almond has great coffee and a rotating menu of small plates inspired by international cuisines.
Hotels in Winnipeg
Here are two Winnipeg hotels:
- Mere Hotel is a cool designer tech-savvy boutique hotel with city and river views. It’s a luxurious place to stay at reasonable prices.
- Mariaggi’s Theme Suite Hotel & Spa has a luxury artists apartment decorated with over $60,000 of signed original artwork.
Also read 10 Economuseum in Quebec.