The elegant Steamer lounge chair designed by Thomas Lamb in 1978 and Kevan Laycraft’s 1981 skiing helmet appear to have little in common. But both were designed by Canadians, and both are installed in the pantheon of industrial design, the design collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. There are other Canadian-designed products that cut similarly high profiles, including the sleek Contempra telephone by Bell Northern Research Ltd. and the Race office system designed by Montrealer Douglas Ball.
(Those tables, chairs and desks are visible to millions of viewers on most nights on the set of ABC TV’S Washington newsroom.)
But Canadian manufacturers who pay close attention to design are still rare.
Said Jacques Giard, director of Carleton University’s School of Industrial Design in Ottawa: “I have a friend in Sweden who is proud to own a Contempra telephone. But what Swede in his right mind would buy Canadian residential furniture?”
That concern was once confined mostly to a cultured few but it recently emerged in the businesslike report of the Macdonald royal commission on the economy which asked, “As a country with an even better forest endowment than Sweden, why are we importing Swedish furniture?” The report noted that good design has opened world markets for Scandinavian products and added that “Canadians as consumers should demand high quality and creative innovation in goods produced in this country.” It cited a 1983 assessment by the European Management Forum that ranked Canada 16th out of 22 industrialized countries in styling and warned that the failure of Canadian manufacturers to promote good design jeopardized the country’s development.
A good indication of what Canadian manufacturers might find if they began searching for good design became evident early this month at VIRTU ’85,
an exhibition of new furniture at Toronto’s Queen’s Quay Terminal. Intended as an annual event, VIRTU is Canada’s first competition and exhibition devoted exclusively to Canadian furniture design and it has broken new ground in exposing the depth and diversity of local talent. Said Esther Shipman, a Toronto interior design consultant and partner in the consor-
tium which is sponsoring the show: “There has never been a milieu for bringing together the various Canadian design disciplines. Before, people worked alone. Until our submissions arrived, nobody knew what designers were doing across the country.”
The 58 items on display represent a profusion of styles that defies categorization. A tall-backed, wooden slat chair by Vancouverite Francis Lemieux reinterprets the turnof-the-century Art Nouveau look of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The table lamp by Montrealer Jean Rancourt is an assembly of scavenged objects in the eccentric manner of 1920s Dadaists, and Torontonian Banri Nakamura’s vibrantly colored coffee table is a 1960s’ Op Art canvas translated into three dimensions. The designers’ backgrounds are equally diverse. Lemieux is a cabinetmaker little known outside of British Columbia, and Rancourt is a painter. Indeed, Nakamura, a former director of the Association of Canadian Industrial Designers, is one of the few experienced product designers represented.
A five-person jury chose the VIRTU pieces, some of which have already attracted the attention of manufacturers. Koen de Winter, a show juror and partner in Montreal-based Danesco Inc., one of Canada’s largest distributors of housewares, is considering manufacturing one of the show’s lamps, although he will not reveal which one. And Michael Lanys, whose Troister and Concept furniture is sold at Leon’s, Sears and The Bay, plans to commission fabric designs from one exhibitor. But its sponsors say that VIRTU is not intended as a commercial vehicle but rather as a showcase for unknown and overlooked designers.
A similar exhibit soon to open at Toronto’s Art Gallery at Harbourfront, called Seduced and Abandoned, indicates that contemporary design has suffered several false starts in Canada. Although curator Virginia
Wright has assembled several fine examples of early modern furniture manufactured by Canadian firms, she concluded that “Canadians have never openly embraced modern design.” She added, “A small number of original designs have found their way to the mass market only to be abandoned by an indifferent public.”
For his part, veteran architect and designer Court Noxon of Bloomfield, Ont., offered another explanation. He declared: “The Canadian public is not conservative. The problem is the mass merchandisers. Good design adds to the cost of an article, and they refuse to pay for it.” To help correct that situation the Macdonald commission recommended the establishment of a federally funded industrial design council to subsidize industrial design. But the idea is not new. The government established a similar agency in 1961, the National Design Branch, which opened two galleries to showcase industrial design. But according to Anthony Parsons, a design expert with the federal department of regional and industrial expansion, they were closed two years later “because the government felt it was just talking to the converted.” Added Parsons: “The government is spending little to promote design now, when the need is greatest.” Indeed, Shipman said that because the Canada Council does not recognize industrial design, “we are losing our shirts.”
Other experts say that state support will not encourage good design. Philip Weiss, who directed the National Design Branch during the 1960s, said that Canada’s branch-plant economy will always prevent innovation, citing the auto industry as an example. Thomas Callahan, for one, vice-president of Toronto’s Barrymore Furniture Co. Ltd., whose traditional furniture graces Canadian embassies around the world, declared: “We avoid avant-
garde because there is no market for it, almost by definition. And I don’t think there is a Canadian style, other than the traditional Quebec pine furniture.”
But one highly successfully Canadian avant-garde designer, De Winter, is more positive. He declared: “Canadian style will always be diversified because that is our national character. But each time VIRTU is repeated people will say, ‘This doesn’t look Swiss or Italian.’ Eventually, the Canadian products will develop a common denominator and we will be able to tell the world, ‘Look, this is what Canadian design is all about.’ ” But before that happens, it is clear that Canadian manufacturers will have to take a more active interest in talent at home.
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