A good chair, like a good cigar, is , hard to find. Designer Thomas Lamb believes he has found the former. “I’m a romantic,” says Lamb, gazing at a windswept and snowy stretch of Lake Ontario beyond the warehouse windows of his Toronto studio. “I also like honest structures. So I made a chair that is airy and a little arrogant, which folds, curves, works everywhere, plays with light and shadow, and is modern yet reminiscent of a bygone era. I hope, if the Steamer chair is dug up in 2,000 years, that people will recognize a Canadian classic.”
Some people already have. An elegant example of New Nostalgia, the Steamer has been featured in such trend-setting design magazines as Italy’s Abitare, has been selected by the toney Lord & Taylor department store for a mid-March display in 11 outlets across the United States, and is being considered by New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art. The Steamer may end up as the first Canadian piece in the museum’s permanent collection, joining such classics as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, Alvar Aalto’s bent plywood, the Eames chair and the Breuer. “Lamb is always ahead of his time,” says Peter Lee, a senior adviser with Design Canada. “I think he’s comparable to Alvar Aalto, the father of design.”
Perhaps more significantly, though, the Steamer and its new series (including a dining and coffee table, with a sofa due soon off the production line), represent the first major inroad into the tough European home furniture market by a Canadian design-manufacture team. Contracts are being negotiated with British, French, Swedish, Italian and German distributors, and says Lamb, “we’re aiming for $1.5 million in sales over the next year or so.” Adds Lee: “Lamb’s work is good enough for the big leagues. He’ll make some money for himself in Europe and bring some back to Canada.”
Work of art or not, the Steamer fulfils the essential functions of a fine chair: it keeps you off the floor and it’s comfortable. Lamb, 39, and his manufacturer, Max Magder of Toronto’s DuBarry Furniture Limited, have begun marketing the series in Canada and the U.S., stressing cost and design: the dining chair retails for about $160, the
chaise lounge for about $300. “Furniture deals with culture, but it also deals with dollars and cents,” says Lamb. “I’m basically a developer. I see where the market is and I design for it.” Modernism died in the early ’70s; the avant-garde is no more. In the world of architecture and design, anything goes now, from High Technology to New Nostalgia. The Steamer evokes the sun
decks of luxury liners and a way of life that died with the birth of jet lag. Noel Coward would have loved it. Made of moulded, Canadian maple plywood, the Steamer lounge and dining chairs are “much more complex and sophisticated than their nostalgic name implies,” remarks Olga Gueft, senior editor of Interiors. They are strong and light, they stack and fold for easy storage and mobility. Cushions can be added or subtracted and the lounge chair converts to a chaise with a clip-on footstool. Although to some eyes, they look a little like lawn furniture, they aren’t. And then again, they are. The point being, they work in both places.
Since the chairs fold up and knock down completely into components,
Lamb and his business associates have an added edge in the marketplace. “Why should the Scandinavians come here with their knock-down stuff and be a resounding success with something I can do just as well?” asks Lamb. “And now we’re ready to take on the world market as well, including South America and countries like Japan.”
Magder, DuBarry’s president and a 15-year furniture-manufacturing veteran, admits that he’s taking a gamble. “Why is it so difficult for Canadian designers to be successful?” he asks. “In Europe, they make superstars out of designers. People know their names. Here,
no one knows any names, with the possible exception of Chippendale.”
Though Lamb himself just might qualify as one of this country’s first design superstars, the slim, blue-eyed, ninth-generation Canadian lives the life of a confirmed conservationist on an old-fashioned farm near Woodbridge, Ontario.
“I’ve been a designer long enough,” he says in a statement at odds with his image. “Now it’s time to become more aggressive. It’s time to become a salesman, a businessman.” But he points out that money is important only as a tool. What he really wants is enough capital to concentrate on environmental designs for the future. The organic house, for example.
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