Opus Celebrates 40 Years: 1974-2014

Opus Art Supplies has been an integral part of the visual arts community in BC for the past 40 years. From humble roots as a wholesale framing company in Vancouver, Opus has grown to include 6 retail locations, a national mail order service, and an online store. As the times have changed, Opus as a business has followed suit.

We sat down with Opus owner David van Berckel as he walked us through not only the history of Opus, but through the physical store locations that helped start it all. The result was a nostalgic look back at the people who helped made Opus what it is today and look toward the future of this ever evolving creative resource.

Watch Opus: 40 Years above for a look at our journey and read the extended article below for a glimpse at Opus’ future.

Opus: 40 Years

David Van Berckel returned to Canada in 1973 after several years abroad, first as a CUSO volunteer in the Far East, followed by “a couple more years bumming around the world”, as put by David. “I was working as a civil engineer, but I didn’t really want to be an engineer. I wanted to have my own business.”

He contributes his initial passion to start his own business to a book called Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher. “The book was about Buddhist economics as if people mattered. I was struck by the fact that we all depend on each other and that the capitalist system is focused primarily on profit. I find it’s much more important to focus on people then it is to focus on profit because it makes for a much more pleasant work environment,” David recalls.

“The book gave me direction, it gave me focus, it crystallized my thinking. It enabled me to focus on the things that mattered to me because, at the time, I really had very little idea on how to run a business.”

He started with a custom picture framing shop, framing works of art. Next came the manufacturing of frames, which lead to wholesaling to the picture framing industry. After a trip to Europe, he was inspired to use his engineering background to begin creating and selling standard sized picture frames in Canada. This is when the first Opus brand product was developed, the Opus Metal Exhibition Frame. “The OMEX frame is reusable and it seemed to make sense for artists to have a frame they could use over and over again,” he explains.

It was in 1980, just two years after moving his then small business to Granville Island, that Emily Carr University of Art + Design moved in next door. “I suddenly had hundreds of art supply customers. One thing led to another and that’s when ‘Opus Framing’ became ‘Opus Framing & Art Supplies’. The manufacturing of frames was moved to a factory just blocks away and was renamed ‘Framers Cash & Carry’, which today is now called ‘Framers Choice’.” Opus Granville Island is still in that building today standing as Opus’ flagship location.

Over the next quarter century, five more Opus locations across BC were opened, along with a national mail order service and an online store. Each retail location is as unique in itself as is the area it is located, David admits “I’ve always liked places that were sort of on the fringe, just on the edge of respectability. When I first moved to Granville Island, it was just on the edge. Even our Downtown Vancouver store had lain empty for 14 years before we took on that space because nobody wanted to move into the area.”

He continues, “It’s gratifying to see that when we move into these spaces and the city expands, that we are absorbed and become the centre of the fashionable area. We find ourselves at the edge of respectability but really almost the catalyst for respectability. But then that is the lot of artists all over the world.”

“The art supplies business is fascinating because the basic products – paints, brushes, pens, paper – have been with us for centuries, with very gradual change until recently.”

Recognizing technology’s influence on the visual arts world, particularly in photographic practice, David introduced the next chapter to the Opus story – digital printing. “We decided that we would refocus our business on providing resources for the creative individual. The creative individual wasn’t just somebody who painted or sketched or made prints, but included photographers because we’re in the business of supplying materials and services to people who create images, store images, and present images.” he explained.

With the introduction of wide format inkjet printers, the Opus Fine Art Digital Printing and Mounting Service, introduced when the Opus Downtown Vancouver location opened in 2009, offers both artists and photographers the ability to embrace the advances digital technology has introduced to the visual arts world. Opus recently added Facemounting, which is new way to both print and present your photos with vibrant colours that give almost a 3-dimensional effect. David explains, “Owning a business is similar to mining: you’re always looking for a new vein to explore, and the digital world was that vein for us. As our customer’s needs change, so will our ability to adapt to meet them.”

When asked what it is that makes his business unique, he said, “Providing an environment for others to participate in the growth of Opus really has been the main reason that Opus has succeeded over the years. The fantastic staff we have, the skills that they bring, and the initiative that they show, that to me is one of the most satisfying aspects of the last 40 years,”.

“There is a very strong culture within Opus and our customers, and that is not something a competitor can buy because it is something we have earned collectively, all of us.”

“When you focus on people rather then profit, I think you get a different type of business and I think Opus is a different business. I am looking forward to the next ten years and it will be an exciting time. By then it will be 50 years. How about that!” David laughs. “Nobody can tell the future but we’ll be ready.”