Today, kettles come in countless shapes, sizes and colours; they are mounted on their own electric bases, kitted out with glowing lights and probably made in China. But until the 1990s, every other Canadian kitchen had the same basic electric kettle, a familiar chrome orb with a curving black plastic handle that was made in Southern Ontario.
That kettle, originally designed by Fred Moffatt in 1940 and made by the Canadian General Electric Company in Barrie, Ont., is one of the highlights of a new exhibition devoted to modern Canadian design at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The show includes two similar examples, from 1960 and 1980 (and an outlier from 1948 with a flatter shape by designer Sidney Bersudsky).
The replacement of a sturdy Canadian design by a panoply of imports is presumably just another short chapter in the long story of offshoring, but it also hints at another tale: Maybe Canadians and their governments undervalued industrial design in the first place.
That was the suspicion in 2019 when the Design Exchange in Toronto closed its museum of Canadian-made objects to concentrate on its conference and event business. Just as other countries were building design museums, Canada was closing one it had largely neglected. Although the Design Exchange had begun collecting in the mid-1990s, it had never managed to establish itself as a powerful cultural institution. Still, the collection of 300 objects was an important one that was subsequently deaccessioned and donated to several other institutions, including the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., and the ROM.
So, three years later, Rachel Gotlieb, the founding curator at the Design Exchange, has assembled Canadian Modern, a survey that introduces ROM visitors to these acquisitions. It’s an impressive exhibition that speaks highly of both the ubiquity and the reach of Canadian design – but also signals its limits.
By concentrating on modernism, the exhibition’s most distinctive objects date to the brief heyday of design in Canada, from the 1950s through the 1970s. Driven by the need to repurpose wartime industrial capacity and seizing on the new materials pioneered for military uses, postwar designers leapt into the breach and began to design and build both everyday objects and luxury goods. They were inspired by two modernist movements: the German Bauhaus, stressing sleek lines, metal and glass, and the Scandinavian, with its biomorphic shapes and preference for wood. And they were supported both by professional guilds and by governments.
What they achieved with that backing and inspiration is admirable. On the everyday side, there is the Contempra phone designed by John Tyson for the Northern Electric Company (later Nortel) in 1968. It was such a staple of Canadian homes in the 1970s that users may not have noticed its sleek solution to clunky phone technology, hiding the number dial in a handset that fit almost seamlessly into a low base. But put the Contempra on display in a museum and you recognize what a fine thing it was.
At the other end of the spectrum is the famed Project G stereo, with its globe-shaped black speakers attached to its rosewood cabinet like two orbiting planets. Created by Hugh Spencer for the short-lived Clairtone Sound Corporation in Toronto, it was a piece of technology so glamorous it appeared in several movies – including The Graduate – where it denoted all that was new and desirable. (The exhibition includes some video clips.)
In the 1960s, Canadian designers also fell for the brighter and more exuberant look of pop, and here dresses designed by Marilyn Brooks, Maggy Reeves and Susie Kosovic, with their loud florals, bold geometrics and hot colours are the best examples of that trend.
The show does take the viewer forward to the 1990s and 2000s, including the first smartphone, a 2003 BlackBerry with its renowned miniaturized keyboard, like the drupelets on a berry, that gave the device and the company its name. Meanwhile, on the bespoke end of the spectrum, office furniture designer Douglas Ball addressed his own neck pain and eye strain at the computer when he created the pod-like Clipper CS-1 workstation in 1993. It’s a little nest of bent maple plywood with a low chair and a domed roof of adjustable plastic panels to provide privacy and cut glare. (New glues and techniques for bending wood, developed in the wartime aviation industry, were key to many modernist designs and particularly useful for chairs.)
These are later additions to the modernist project. By the 1980s, postmodernism had moved in – and Canadian governments had become less interested in supporting industrial design. This show includes some prominent examples from that decade, such as Scot Laughton’s tall, thin arrow-headed Strala lamp, Gord Peteran’s humorous Chest on Chest (a miniature version of a dresser set on top of its big brother) and a sweater with a graphic cityscape by Barbara Klunder, but there is a definite sense of falling off. Postmodernism’s coy references and representational elements quickly dated it and made it feel lightweight in comparison with even the most riotous examples of modernist design.
That is not to say current Canadian design lacks life or quality. On the contrary. A section on connections to the land looks at the way Canadians departed from the international aesthetic in response to their own geography and history and features several powerful pieces of very recent design. These include the punt chair (inspired by the boat) designed by Elaine Fortin for the Fogo Island Workshops in Newfoundland and a long raincoat (and matching sanitary mask) in a Coast Salish pattern by Ay Lelum, The Good House of Design in Nanaimo, B.C. Meanwhile, Dori Tunstall of the Ontario College of Art and Design University has also curated a selection of innovative work by current and recent students that points to the future.
And the exhibition concludes with a powerful demonstration of the way good designers solve practical problems. Izzy Camilleri of IZ Adaptive in Toronto creates clothes for people who use wheelchairs and is represented here with a black leather jacket that comes off in two pieces for ease of dressing and is cut away at the back to eliminate excess bulk. In a video, Camilleri explains her revelation: She is designing for the seated body rather than the standing one.
The mantra of modernist design was that form follows function. In Canada, it ain’t dead yet.
Canadian Modern continues to July 30 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.