design history

Canadian design history

The history of Canadian industrial design, including contemporary furniture, has been marked by a double emphasis. While the adoption and development of modernist principles (e.g., the honest use of materials and processes to satisfy functional needs in an industrial context) has constituted the ostensible core of design education and promotion in Canada, concern with issues of national identity has also played a significant role.

"To strengthen cultural identity, enhance our standard of living, and create wealth in the economy by fostering a demand for sustainable Canadian design" is the vision statement of the Design Exchange ("Canada's design museum and centre for design research and education"). This is a telling hierarchy of concerns and goes some distance to explain the state of design in Canada today. (1)

The Design Exchange is the latest incarnation of the impulse (born in the early years after the Second World War) to help develop a design industry in Canada that would be equal to German, American, or Scandinavian models. Following the lead of design centres in the United States and Britain (the British Council of Industrial Design/CoID was founded in 1944), the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) established its Design Division and Industrial Design Index—a "qualitative photographic index of industrial design for articles of everyday use"— in 1947 (2). In 1953, Canada's first design gallery, the NGC's Design Centre, was opened.

Design Centre, Ottawa, 1954

Design Centre, Ottawa, 1954 (8)

Like the Design Exchange of today, post-World War II design institutions conceived of design in terms much broader than function, aesthetic competence or economic advantage. While overtly promoting the idea that good design can make products and services more competitive, the Design Centre also inspired an expectation that industry, in tandem with an emerging design profession, might generate an expression of Canadian culture paralleling efforts in other creative disiplines.

Scott Watson has described the aim of the Design Centre as an attempt to "aestheticize and nationalize the object." Employing a pictorial rhetoric borrowed from other creative disciplines, the Design Index presented design "like sculpture . . . not in any "use" context but in a dramatically lit white field . . . persuad[ing] people to look at furniture, toasters and radios as if they were objects for aesthetic contemplation" (3). Implicit in such rhetoric was the assumption that design, like sculpture, painting or literature, would necessarily come to play its part in defining and expressing a specifically Canadian experience.

Buttressed by government, manufacturers and retailers, as well as a curious public, contemporary designers fared well in the first decade following World War II. For a time it looked like design might emerge as an identifiably Canadian concern. (Various commentators have covered this period. In addition to Watson, Virginia Wright's ground-breaking Modern Furniture in Canada, 1920 to 1970 is notable, as is the more recent Design in Canada by Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden (4). Allan Collier's many contributions to exhibition catalogues of West Coast designers and manufacturers of the 1950s are also of interest.)

Though some might characterize the contemporary products dating from this period as "intransigently derivative" of international trends, they do collectively express the desire to fully comprehend and naturalize the lessons of modernity. That an identifiably "Canadian" way of life—expressed by a continuum of objects—has not come into being is a concern latent in most accounts of the period.

As early as 1951, Donald Buchanan (5) expressed the designer's challenge in terms of American influence. Urging designers to resist American "faddishness" in favour of principles that would "unite clarity of structure with fitness for purpose," Buchanan interprets American tendencies ("styling") as a threat to the emergence of Canadian design (5). The intensity of Buchanan's rhetoric is noteworthy. More than merely an injunction to avoid the dangers inherent in ornament, Buchanan's anxiety, expressed as it is in national terms, is clearly as much about identity as design rigour. The very possibility of a distinctive Canadian identity—one fully expressed in objects for use—seems to hang in the balance. The Design Exchange's more recent expression of a desire to "strengthen cultural identity" is but the present moment's manifestation of Buchanan's nationalistic anxiety.

Subsequent commentators have explained the state of contemporary design in Canada in similar terms. References to the "takeover of facilities by multinational organizations," or to our branch-plant economy dominated by foreign (read "American") ownership, merely restate, with different emphasis, the belief that the predicament of design in Canada has something to do with proximity to the United States. And of course this is true. The integration of the economies of our two countries—combined with the fact of Canada's home market is insufficient to support a manufacturing industry—constitutes a distinctive ground for design practice. One might argue that geography, more than cultural policy, has determined the evolution of design in Canada.

The foregoing notwithstanding, the history of innovation in Canada is considerable, and there is a growing public awareness of the contributions Canada has made in many areas of manufacturing. Canada produced the first one-piece moulded-plastic chair in 1946 (6), the first jet liner and the paint roller (7)! Gotlieb and Golden's survey of design from 1945 to 2001 constitutes further evidence that designers and manufacturers have been successfully collaborating in a surprisingly broad range of materials and consumer typologies to produce an object repertoire of considerable proportions. And, as others have noted, Canada has also made many advances in the design of objects or implements that are direct responses to the natural environment (snowmobiles, snow ploughs, all terrain vehicles, industrial technologies relating to resource extraction, etc.). It is important, though, to distinguish between what Jan Kuypers calls "austerely engineered products" and objects for everyday use. The latter have a way of getting tangled in cultural policy debates, which have little or no resonance in discussions regarding the manufacture of (for instance) logging equipment. That the objects of everyday use are expected "to strengthen cultural identity" seems to be an accepted fact—though in this era of global capitalism, offers little to either design practitioners or educators.

If there is hope for design in Canada, it is to be found in the emergence of discussions bereft of identity concerns. New dialogues framed on the basis of multidisciplinary collaborations are a case in point. In place of an "anxious eagerness" (2) to create a Canadian design, more recent debates among "user-experience" professionals seem to auger the beginning of new era—one where "the deliberate design of products and services to create positive experiences for people" is deemed a sufficient and possible goal.

(Essay contributed by Russell Baker, proprietor of Bombast Furniture, Vancouver, BC. Note: Bombast Furniture has closed.)

Bombast's Max sofa

Bombast's Max sofa

(1) Update: The Design Exchange closed in 2019.

(2) Buchanan, Donald, 1948. Design Index in Canadian Art, Dec. 1947-Jan. 1948, p. 88.

(3) Watson, Scott, 1983. Art in the Fifties: Design, Leisure, and Painting in the Age of Anxiety in Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931-1983. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, p. 79.

(4) Gotlieb, Rachel and Cora Golden, 2001. Design in Canada: Fifty Years from Teakettles to Task Chairs. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

(5) Buchanan, Donald, 1951. Good Design or 'Styling' --The Choice Before Us. Canadian Art, vol. 9, no. 1 (Autumn 1951).

(6) Wright, Virginia, 1997. Modern Furniture in Canada, 1920 to 1970. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, p. xvi.

(7) Kuypers, Jan and Glenda Milrod. The Shape of Things Now: A Review of Canadian Designed Products. Exhibition pamphlet. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario.

(8) Industrial Canada, March 1954.

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