DESIGN

Practical elegance for everyday life

PAMELA YOUNG July 11 1988
DESIGN

Practical elegance for everyday life

PAMELA YOUNG July 11 1988

Practical elegance for everyday life

DESIGN

At first glance, the brightly colored butterfly shapes look like pieces of an artist’s mobile: they hang from the ceiling on nylon threads, creating a frozen, midair cascade down a stairwell. But in fact they are practical plastic hinges: unlike metal hinges, they will not rust. Designed by British Columbia’s Neville Green, the sturdy objects form one of the displays in a major Canadian design retrospective this summer. Art in Everyday Life: Aspects of Canadian Design 1967-1986 is scheduled to run until Sept. 11 at Harbourfront’s Power Plant gallery in Toronto. Concentrating on mass-produced products, the exhibition spans an extraordinary range: there are chairs and snowmobiles, juice jugs and jewelry, a rolling pin and a fire-retardant suit for use by members of bomb-disposal squads. According to Peter Day and Linda Lewis, the show’s curators, design has been unjustly overlooked in Canada. Said Day, an arts commentator for CBC Radio: “You can’t go to the National Gallery or the Museum of Civilization and find these things. But to us, they give a portrait of Canadian society.” Sometimes good design goes unnoticed simply because its sleek efficiency masks the ingenuity behind it. Said Lewis, a former designer and a professor of film theory and design at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute: “When something functions really well, we tend to take it for granted.” For the most part, domestic design— durable, practical and elegant in its simplicity—sometimes ventures into whimsy, but rarely into extreme styles. Still, some Canadian products have attracted significant recognition. A hockey mask that George Lynn created for Cooper Canada Ltd. is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Top U.S. fashion designers, including Geoffrey Beene and Oscar de la Renta, have used costume jewelry by Vancouver’s Martha Sturdy as accessories to their creations. And two young Ontario designers, Scot Laughton and Thomas Deacon, created a floor lamp that won a design citation in 1987 from the respected American publication Progressive Architecture.

The curators of Art in Everyday Life used Canada’s two world’s fairs— Montreal’s Expo 67 and Vancouver’s Expo 86—to define the time frame for their show. For designers, the Montreal fair was a heady time of unprece-

dented creative opportunity. Lewis, whose first job as a designer was working on the Man, His Planet and Space pavilion at Expo 67, recalled: “The feeling then was that there was just no end to this tremendous thing that was happening. We felt that design in Canada had a new place in the

world.” But two years later, Lewis added, it was as if Expo had never happened. Government grants and support from the business community for nationally produced design dried up. Many talented individuals left the country, and design activity lost momentum.

Those problems worsened in 1986 when the federal government disbanded Design Canada, the council that had given scholarships and awards to designers. In comparison with Expo 67, Expo 86 was a muted celebration of Canadian design. The chairs used in the Ontario pavilion were a case in

point: instead of commissioning an original domestic product, the provincial government chose an Italian design made under licence in Canada.

But the objects in the Art in Everyday Life show demonstrate that many of the nation’s best designers produced quality work between the two Expos.

An immense four-wheel tractor designed by Morley Smith and William Stanton for Winnipeg’s Versatile Farm Equipment Canada Ltd. is a decidedly glamorous piece of machinery. And the Body Armour BombDisposal Suit, designed in Ontario by Jack Gregg and Saik Kalaam and used in many parts of the world, looks like something made for outer-space exploration.

Although humbler objects must share the gallery with those high-tech showstoppers, they have their own appeal. One of them is a briefcase called L’Attaché, designed in 1985 by Michel Dallaire for Montreal’s La Compagnie Resentel ltée.

Constructed from a single piece of plastic, the inexpensive, waterproof product sells throughout Canada and was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1986 boutique catalogue. Power Plant installation designer James Lahey has made inventive use of the gallery space to display the briefcases. He opened 30 red cases and suspended them from a high, narrow glassroofed corridor, where they hover like a flock of futuristic birds.

Art in Everyday Life demonstrates that Canada’s climate and geography have exerted a strong influence on designers. Cooper Canada hockey equipment—widely used in North America and the Soviet Union—and Ontario’s Laser I recreational sailing dinghy are two popular successes. As well,

Canada’s sheer size creates a demand for products that pack down easily for transport. Ten years ago, Paris Playground Equipment Ltd. of Paris, Ont., was producing conventional spiral children’s slides in steel. They sold well, but they were awkward to ship. The company hired Toronto designer Gerald Beekenkamp, who created a modular slide made of plastic. The new Duraglide slide—featured in the design show in a glorious canary yellow model-packs into a box 42 inches square. When the

slide went on the market in 1981, it sold five times as well as the metal slide had done in its best year. Said the firm’s marketing director, Edward Attlebery: “There are Duraglide slides in the Arctic Circle and in Saudi Arabia, and sales increase dramatically every year.”

Many of the designers represented at the Toronto show display a special flair for combining elegance with inventiveness in creating furniture. Thomas Lamb of Uxbridge, Ont., produced several classics, including his 1978 Steamer Lounge Chair, a folding piece whose interlocking curves of wooden slats recall the shape of traditional steamboat deck chairs. One of the most celebrated items on exhibit is the product of two of the youngest designers represented at the show. Laughton and Deacon collaborated on their floor lamp in Toronto two years ago, when they were 23 and 29 respectively. The Strala—a Middle English word meaning “javelin” and “beam of light”— consists of two black rods, the taller of which terminates in a black

cone that shrouds a bulb. The shorter rod is topped with a ball of brass, which acts as a dimmer-knob. Said Deacon: “It has a ritualistic, totemic feel, and, at the same time, it is reminiscent of an early astronomical model.”

Although Canada does not yet rival such international design leaders as Italy or the United States, the recent success of the Strala lamp and other domestic products is encouraging. Indeed, designers themselves are sounding notes of optimism. Claude Gidman, a versatile Toronto-based designer who has developed products ranging from Toronto’s newest streetcars to a garbage can for McDonald’s restaurants, says that the present is the best time ever for the country’s designers. Added Gidman, whose Orion II bus for the handicapped is on display at the Harbourfront show: “Pioneers in industrial design in Canada had to spend so much time educating and promoting an interest in design. A lot of that has been done now.”

By September, the outlook may be even better. An ambitious project to turn Toronto’s old stock exchange into a national exhibition space and resource centre for design will likely win formal approval from the Ontario government by the fall. Tentatively called The Design Exchange, the project is being spearheaded by the Harbourfront show’s curator, Lewis. Art in Everyday Life gives a strong sense of Canada’s wide-ranging design talent, which a new centre would shape to meet the future.

-PAMELA YOUNG