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I Want Your Job: Tim Oakley, Sonic Boom Window Designer

I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
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Name: Tim Oakley
Job: Window display designer and in-store decorator at Sonic Boom.
“Come on, I have my own beer fridge!” boasts Tim Oakley when asked about the perks of his job. It’s true; located in the midst of his subterranean workshop is a mini-fridge stocked with Steam Whistle. “Want a beer?” he offers politely, even though it’s barely noon.
For the past six years, Oakley has been creating window displays for Sonic Boom, which showcase a new record release roughly every six to eight weeks. Working out of the back basement of the store, Oakley spends his days surrounded by mannequins, chop saws, and fake fur, all of which have been featured in his large-concept designs.
Oakley’s equipment, however, is going to be packed up over the next few months and moved to Sonic Boom’s new home, next to Hero Burger on the Bathurst-facing side of Honest Ed’s. Earlier this week, the store announced it would be forced to abandon its decade-long home in September, as the building’s landlords have offered up the space to make way for a Dollarama (and collect higher rents in the process).


“It’s tragic; there were tears,” says Oakley about his reaction to the news. “Like, a lot of them. To have to move for something like that—it’s horrible.” Still, he’s optimistic about the move, especially since the new store is only a stone’s throw across a busy intersection away. “It’s really going to feel a lot like the normal Sonic Boom. We just have to figure out a few things, including the windows,” he says. “Hopefully I’ll do three windows and rotate them a bit more frequently, and then also do one window at the new store in Kensington.” The old loading dock of Honest Ed’s will serve as Oakley’s workshop, providing him with a new—albeit somewhat smaller—place to dream up his creations.
Reluctant to describe himself as an artist, Oakley, who has no artistic training, and was planning to be a sci-fi writer when he moved to Toronto in 2000, is first and foremost a Sonic Boom man. He “fell in love” with the place when he started working at the store as a cashier, and when the staff suggested creating art displays to supplement album-promo material, Oakley jumped at the chance. Even though he had no experience with design, the store let him conceptualize their first display, a Chemical Brothers release. The rest is history; Oakley’s windows are the stuff of Toronto legend. “If the store hadn’t been behind it, [the displays] wouldn’t exist,” he says. “I owe this place so much for having nurtured this.”
We chatted with Oakley recently about those windows, and the work that goes into making them.

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Oakley’s workshop, complete with furry monster head (centre).


When you started doing the displays, what kind of skills or techniques did you have to learn?
I had to get over my fear of power tools; every one I had to learn myself. I’m actually lucky that most things I’ve built have worked; thankfully it only has to stand in a window, and not be touched or fall down. [Oakley takes this moment to demonstrate the fragile construction of the papier-mâché/fake fur monster head that was featured in the Christmas display.] If you traced the evolution of the windows, you would probably notice my learning curve. I think going forward I’m going to try to use more props, which people seem to like.
How do you pick which albums to feature?
Basically [the staff] all kind of sit down and look at what’s coming out in the next month or so; it’s very collaborative. But we’re very in control and have a lot of freedom over what we choose. We get hit up a lot by labels, but we don’t feel indebted or anything: it doesn’t have to be a local band, or even a Canadian band. One time we left a Dinosaur Jr. display up for like six months! It’s great to have that freedom.
Where do you draw inspiration for each display? Do you focus on the band’s music?
I’m very respectful of the album art; I’ll look at an album cover and try to duplicate some element of it, or enhance it in 3-D. The form then takes on its own ideas. Sometimes if I can track down the liner notes I’ll use those as a stepping point. I’ve actually done displays for albums I’ve never listened to! But then there are also ones for bands I love; it was without question, for example, that I’d do a Superchunk album.
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How does it feel to be part of an Annex cultural landmark?
It’s more for Sonic Boom than for myself, but it’s pretty amazing. It’s sort of a weird form of celebrity, although it’s good to feel like we’ve done something right [with the windows]. I’m pretty hard on the windows myself, and sometimes I don’t like them. If I was trying to look at them as art, I would be very critical. But this serves a different purpose; it’s merchandising in a fun and creative way. I’m lucky that people respond to the sloppiness of my craft. It’s very humbling to know that it’s a part of Toronto. I’m excited that we’re still going to be in the same neighbourhood [after the move]; where we ended up landing couldn’t have been any better. Nothing about Sonic Boom is going to be compromised at the new location.
Your wife is also a window designer, and you guys share a design blog. In what ways do you work together or inspire one another?
She does the windows at Anthropologie, and she’s really creative, so I pick her brain all the time. The success of the windows has led to fairly routine offers for her and I for freelance gigs designing props and other pieces for bands, weddings, and films. But I don’t think I’d do [a full-time job] somewhere else, though; that would weaken the Sonic Boom brand. I love my job here, even if sometimes I spend the night awake worrying that I’m going to burn the store down because I didn’t plug something in on the display. I am looking forward to setting up the new store—two new stores, for that matter. I’m excited to get to work every day, and I come home bloody and sweaty and feeling completely satisfied. I really don’t know anyone else who feels that way about their job.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

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