For Alexander Manu, the debate over whether Canada is developing its own distinctive style of design is ultimately one about national identity. While doing research in 1992 for an industrial design book called The ToolToy Concept, the Romanian-born designer discovered that there was not a single Canadian product among the top 10 selling toys in Canada. Instead, Canadian children play with things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Barbie and G. I. Joe dolls. “Canada is the only in-
dustrialized country that doesn’t have even one of its own toys on its best-seller list,” said Manu. “Most people can’t even think of a Canadian toy.” That matters, he says, because studies indicate that an adult’s values are formed by childhood play. For Manu, the lack of a truly Canadian toy is a symptom of an underdeveloped design sensibility, which in turn, is the result of a still undefined national identity.
Designers are split over whether there is a uniquely Canadian style of design. Manu is among those who say they detect no common thread running through Canadian work: the country is too big and its people are too diverse to share a common style. However, other designers are equally adamant that Canada is developing a distinctive, if subtle, style. Said Thomas Becher, associate dean of design at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver: “Canadian design is shaped by our land, by our psyche and by the natural resources that we have to work with.” Such products as parkas and Ski-Doos are some of the most obvious examples of that. Furthermore, many of Canada’s most innovative designs are related to such practical needs as transportation and communication. “Canadian design is practical and down to
earth,” said Becher. “It may not be flashy, but it works.”
Manu notes that national styles of design frequently reflect the popular stereotype of national character. “Think of an Italian car,” he says. “The Ferrari is fast and flashy. It’s about machismo. It’s like an Italian man.” He adds: “Think about a German car. It’s big, solid, humorless and well-built. That’s also our perception of a German.” As a result, it follows that Canadian design is influenced by the country’s strongest national characteristics: reserve and a reluctance to show off. “We don’t like heroes in this country,” said Jacques Giard, director of the industrial design school at Carleton University in Ottawa. “We don’t like people standing out. We’re a bit like that old Japanese saying: the nail that stands up gets hammered down.” As a result, he adds, Canadian design tends to avoid flamboyance.
For his part, Tom Deacon, a Toronto furniture designer who cites elements as diverse as the elaborate Japanese tea ceremony and the spare lines of American Shaker furniture as design influences, says that there is one aspect of his work that reflects Canadian attitudes. “My designs have to be practical and functional,” he said. “No one in North America is going to buy a Deacon chair if it’s a pain to sit in. You can’t always say that about a Philippe Stark chair.” That is a swipe at the fashionable French designer whose work has been vigorously promoted as part of his government’s economic strategy.
At the same time, however, a new generation of young designers is beginning to openly revel in its Canadian roots. Amy Lengyel, 26, studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York City before returning to Toronto to start North Studios with a partner in 1990. They design high-quality hats, caps and other accessories that the company promotes as “glamorized utilitarianism.” But the designs are inspired by Canadian sources, such as the RCMP’s Stetsons and the plaid-shirted hoser style. “In the United States they love to see things from Canada,” said Lengyel. “We put a big ‘Made-ln-Canada’ label inside all of them.” She says that they like the northern feel of the products and they associate them with Canada’s outdoorsy image. The nationalistic approach has been good for business, too—-sales in boutiques from New York to Los Angeles account for 60 per cent of the company’s income.
Focusing on Canada’s strengths, including its image abroad as a vast, pristine wilderness, is a way to develop both a design style and new markets. “Let’s use the stereotypes,” said Koen De Winter, a Belgium-born designer based in Montreal. “If I was in Europe and I wanted to buy a chain saw, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would buy a Canadian chain saw if I could.”
Manu, however, insists that the best way to go about creating a national identity—and national style—would be to design the perfect toy. One that was challenging, creative and constructive—and one that would not crack in the cold.
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