BEST OF THE SHOW
THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE PRODUCTS
There are about 10,000 designers in Canada working on everything from yachts to sleeping bags, from movie sets to computer software. The work of the five leading designers profiled here demonstrates the diversity and range of product design.
In a bleak, industrial comer in northeast Toronto, a small miracle is taking place. Despite the recessionary pall that still hangs over many Canadian businesses, the 50 employees of Umbra Shades Ltd. are frantically busy, trying to fill orders for the company’s unique line of housewares, including whimsical clocks, multicolored kettles and pepper mills that look like rockets. “We are having our best year yet,” says company president Les Mandelbaum, 42. “Sales in 1988 were $5.5 million. For 1993, we’ll have revenues of $19 million.”
Together with childhood friend and designer Paul Rowan, 41, Mandelbaum founded Umbra in 1979. Since then, the pair have built the hardware and house wares manufacturer into the only Canadian company offering a full range of ele gantly styled household items. The firm’s designs appeal to a broad range of tastes by combining simple, classic lines with understated, often playful decorative elements: stencilled animals or images of the sun, moon and stars appear on products ranging from doormats to picture frames. Umbra charges a little more for its items than mass-market competitors—about 10 to 15 per cent more—but by using inexpensive materials, including recycled rubber, cast iron, natural wood and glass, it keeps its products’ prices within reach of consumers.
Most of the company’s early marketing success was in Quebec, and then later in the United States, where Mandelbaum says that retailers and consumers are generally more adventurous than in English Canada. However, he adds that he and Rowan carefully modified their designs and colors to meet the tastes of
American buyers. “Green sells in Quebec, but it won’t sell in the U.S.,” Mandelbaum explains. That sensitivity paid off. During the 1980s, when English-Canadian retailers were not buying, Umbra’s growth was fuelled by its U.S. operations, based in Buffalo, N.Y. Even now, only 15 per cent of the Canadian-owned company’s sales are to Canadian stores, while 77 per cent are to U.S. buyers, and five per cent go to Western Europe and Japan.
Mandelbaum attributes that imbalance to more than the relatively small size of the Canadian market. “Local retailers don’t think Canadian goods are special enough,” he says. That may be changing. After a difficult year for the Canadian arm of the company in 1991, Mandelbaum hired an additional sales representative who helped boost Canadian sales by 55 per cent for the first nine months of this year. Winning international recognition helped. In fact, Mandelbaum sat on the advisory board of the influential New York City biannual trade show, Accent on Design, even though he had to fight for years just to acquire booth space at the annual Canadian Gift and Tableware Show in Toronto. “Our own people don’t treatus seriously,” a resigned Mandelbaum says. In Canada, it seems, being good isn’t good enough. Acceptance at home still seems to depend on first winning praise abroad.
When Heather Cooper was eight years old, her mother and father gave her an inspirational gift. It was a wooden box with brass hinges, a leather handle and her initials glued to the front panel. When she opened the box, she discovered colorful tubes of oil paints, glass bottles with turpentine and a handful of paintbrushes. Ten
years later, after taking an art course at Toronto’s Western Technical school, she set out with a portfolio of her drawings and paintings under her arm to look for work. “My first full-time job,” recalls Cooper, 48, “was with an ad agency I’d found in the Yellow Pages.” And it was then that she confirmed that her creative efforts in graphic design could be exchanged for money. Says Cooper: “I knew I was onto something.” Now, Cooper continues to blend the practical with the romantic in all facets of her life. She runs her successful commercial art studio, founded in 1967, from the second floor of her three-storey redbrick home in a stylish, mid-town Toronto neighborhood, where she works with her daughter Sarah, 24, also a designer. Over the years, she has designed labels and packaging for such well-known corporate customers as Kimberly-Clark, E. D. Smith and Sons and Roots. As well, her bold, colorful oil paintings have been transformed into publicity posters for such institutions as the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company. Notes Cooper: “Design can be so many things. It’s like music. You can have a song played a thousand ways and each one is equally good.”
In broader terms, Cooper says that there is no typically Canadian style of design—but there are distinctive and idiosyncratic styles within regions of the country. “We’re probably more North American than we are Canadian,” says Cooper, “and that would be the division, because we’re obviously very different from Europe and the Orient.” But she adds that ‘Toronto is different from Vancouver, and Quebec is different from Toronto. And I don’t mean something as superficial as ‘pink is out in Vancouver.’ The differences lie deep within the regional cultures.” Cooper’s latest projects include designing pamphlets and brochures for insurance companies and brokerage houses. She also finds time for commissioned work, having recently completed an oil portrait for CITY TV president Moses Znaimer. But Cooper says that painting for money alone is not enough—she likes painting for herself to escape the constraints of commercial work. Says Cooper: “When I finish my career, if I haven’t achieved what I wanted to achieve personally, I would feel as though I’ve wasted my time.”
Tom Deacon is the golden boy of Canadian design. Two years after graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in architecture in 1982, he and a friend founded Area Group, a manufacturing and marketing company in Toronto at which he produced his own furniture designs. As the company became successful over the next five years, Deacon found that he was spending more time on business matters than on design. So, he left the firm three years ago to become a freelance designer. Now, Deacon, a boyish-looking 37, has just returned from picking up his second major award from the Institute of Business Designers in New York City. And his business is thriving. In fact, he is one of the few designers in Canada who enjoys the luxury of being able to specialize in the product of his choice—chairs.
A chair, Deacon says, is an object to be taken seriously. And unlike tables and other less personal pieces of furniture, designing chairs is more demanding. “A table is a table. Once you make sure it doesn’t wobble there isn’t much else,” he says. “But chairs are intimate, they have to hold the body. They have to be comfortable and they have to look comfortable.” Deacon’s chairs are often purchased by corporations for use in their reception areas or boardrooms. Although Deacon has recently designed his first ergonomically correct executive desk S chair, most of his chairs are of simple wood with d graceful, classic lines.
Deacon credits some of his success to his early ex2 perience in business when he came to understand and I appreciate the limitations imposed by the manufacturai ing and marketing processes. Michael Keilhauer, pres-
ident of Keilhauer Industries, a furniture manufacturer based in Scarborough, Ont., says that almost one third of his company’s product lines have been designed by Deacon. “We like his work and he understands what we do,” said Keilhauer. “He knows where the market is headed and he designs some beautiful, classic chairs.” And, he says, Deacon’s chairs are consistently popular with customers even though they cost as much as $1,200 each.
Keilhauer says it was the anticipation of increased global competition that prompted his company to decide to focus on design and hire Deacon and a handful of other Canadian designers. “A lot of the old furniture companies that just copied other people’s designs either aren’t around any more or they won’t be here much longer,” he said. Keilhauer, on the other hand, has managed to increase its sales by 50 per cent since 1990, mainly by increasing export sales.
For his part, Deacon says that he likes designing for mass production. “It means that I can spend more time getting every detail of the design right,” he explained.
“If I was a craftsman building individual chairs, I couldn’t afford to take that much time.” Now, Deacon is running into a different problem with time. His designs have become so popular that he is running short of time to meet the demand for them.
Don Seri has a dictum that he wishes all industrial designers would follow. “It is critical,” declares the 46year-old Vancouver-based creator of waterproof outdoor clothing and sleeping bags, “that a designer use what he has designed in the situation in which it is intended to be used.” The importance of that insight became clear to Seri when he bought an attractive teapot at the Vancouver outlet of IKEA the Swedish housewares and furnishings company. When the pot was full, he discovered, it was impossible to hold it upright by its slippery curved handle, with the result that its contents tended to spill. Says Seri: “It was a nonfunctional design.”
It is a trap that Seri does not intend to fall into himself. He is a buyer—and a sleeping bag designer—at Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op, a 550,000-member self-styled “retail consumer co-operative” selling its lines of tents, outdoor apparel and mountaineering gear
through outlets in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa. To test one of his own recent creations, a $350 waterproof, downfilled sleeping bag, Seri packed it into the Yukon wilderness for a three-week camping trip last May. “I have to lie there in the cold in the sleeping bag and listen to what the sleeping bag is saying,” says the tall, lanky designer. Among the innovations that have flowed from Seri’s personal approach to sleeping-bag de sign: an expanded bottom section to accommodate the occupant’s feet, and a flap just inside the top that blocks drafts around the neck.
Seri, who holds a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, cheerfully acknowledges that he has no formal qualifications for his job. Instead, he taught himself the necessary skills, from a grasp of the physics of waterproof materials to where to find the best goose and duck down (Eastern Europe, where the waterfowl are allowed to live long enough to devel| op the fluffiest-possible feathers), î But although he is an advocate of welli designed consumer products, Seri recog§ nizes that when it comes to innovation, g more can sometimes be less. “You can get carried away,” he says. One such example is the over-loaded gadgetry on most home electronics. “I don’t think I’ve ever figured out all the features on my CD player,” says Seri with a laugh Instead, he prefers to aim for designs that “might not be the ultimate in techness or material, but that give the best bang for the buck.” With Mountain Equipment Co-op anticipating 1993 sales of $60 million, up more than 25 per cent from 1992, it is plainly an approach that works.
It is easy to imagine Canadian designer Douglas Ball as a child, trying to build cantilevered castles with his blocks or dreaming about a superefficient ice-cream maker. Now 58, the award-winning Montrealarea designer, whose projects range from office furniture to flight simu-
lator helmets, says that his fascination with creating new and useful objects is rooted in such childhood pastimes. “The more I found out about design, the more I realized I could do the things I loved as a kid—I was excited by the three-dimensional aspect of it all,” he recalls.
That ability to translate an idea into products with both grace and utility has made Ball one of the country’s leading industrial designers. It has also helped push Canada into the forefront of the market for office furniture in Europe, the United States and Japan, where Ball’s creations are considered some of the most attractive and practical available. Chief among them is RACE, an innovative, chic, and highly „ flexible method of organizing indij vidual work areas. RACE consists j of components that are designed to be easily adjustable. Space dividers, desktops and filing space are all supported by a horizontal beam with a so-called raceway, a hollow core containing electrical wiring and data communications cables. The beam rests on metal posts at desk-top level, providing easy access to electrical outlets and allowing air to flow freely around and under the work area. Padded acoustic panels can be snapped onto vertical bars that rise above the desktop, providing privacy. Unlike similar systems, each piece can be moved separately and the raceway, for which the design is named, is flexible enough to accommodate rapidly changing communications systems.
First developed in 1978, RACE has been fine-tuned over the years and is continuing to gain in popularity. The system furnishes the New York City newsroom of the ABC television network. Its manufacturer and distributor, Haworth Inc. of Holland, Mich., acquired the manufacturing rights to RACE in 1990, and expects to post record sales this year.
Ball, who heads a small design firm in Senneville, a suburb west of Montreal, is also known for a wide variety of other products. His designs include a highly manoeuvrable wheelchair for children that can also be used as a toy, and the socalled ballet folding table, which has a unique base that incorporates both an X and K shape. And in 1990, he completed work on the shell of a flight simulator helmet designed for the training of fighter and helicopter pilots. Despite his international success, Ball prefers to work in Canada. “I like the seasons, the CBC, and Montreal,” he says simply. “I’m just more comfortable with what I grew up with.” In Ball’s case, at least, having fun doesn’t have to mean leaving home.