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Open this photo in gallery:Canadian Modern images  show at the ROM -- K42 Electric kettle (p. 18)
K42 Electric Kettle and original packaging, 1940 Chrome-and-nickel-plated brass shell, steel base, Bakelite handle Fred Moffatt, b. Toronto, Ontario, 1912–2006 Canadian General Electric Company (CGE),  Barrie, Ontario2024.53.1By transfer from Design Exchange, originally gift of Glenn Moffatt This kettle’s dome shape originated from the headlight of a McLaughlin Buick. Fred Moffatt’s design standardized the two screws, which reduced production costs, and used heat-insulating Bakelite for the handle. Manufactured in Barrie, this kettle series sold in the millions and became the mid-century industry standard. The kettle was featured on a Canadian postage stamp. Moffatt was a successful industrial designer with a long career designing homewares for Canadian General Electric.

K42 Electric Kettle, 1940. Chrome-and-nickel-plated brass shell, steel base, Bakelite handle. Designed by Fred Moffatt.Paul Eekhoff/Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum

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.

Open this photo in gallery:Canadian Modern images  show at the ROM -- Contempra phone (p. 62)
Contempra Telephone (Imagination series), 1968 ABS plastic, PVC cord. John Tyson, b. Ottawa, Ontario, 1942 Northern Electric Company (later Nortel Networks), Ottawa, Ontario2020.24.49 By transfer from Design Exchange. With over 15 million units sold in Canada and abroad, the Contempra phone is an icon of Canadian modern design. The rotary dial hides in the handset, which sits vertically on the base rather than across. John Tyson, who graduated from Ontario College of Art in 1964, was Northern Electric’s first industrial designer.  With the Contempra, he created a distinctly angular design,  transforming the phone into a sleek, sculptural object with a futuristic name.

Contempra Telephone, 1968. ABS plastic, PVC cord. Designed by John Tyson.Paul Eekhoff/Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum

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.)

Open this photo in gallery:Canadian Modern images  show at the ROM -- Project G stereo (p. 48)
Project G Stereo, 1963 Brazilian Palisander (rosewood) cabinet, leather side panel inserts, aluminum speakers, brushed aluminum base, felt-lined interior, T10 chassis, Garrard Lab Series turntable Hugh Spencer, b. United Kingdom, 1928–1982 Clairtone Sound Corporation, Toronto, Ontario2020.24.1 By transfer from Design Exchange, originally gift of Peter Munk. Hugh Spencer graduated from Slade School of   Fine Art in London, immigrating to Canada in 1956. Working closely with Clairtone engineers, his design of the Project G stereo featured globe speakers that evoke revolving planets and rotated   340 degrees to direct the sound in a room. Though fewer than 500 were made, Project G became Clairtone’s signature product,  not only winning awards, but also outfitting the sets of stylish Hollywood movies. The radical globe speakers anticipated the popular spherical motif of space-age styling found in fashion, architecture, and product design.

Project G Stereo, 1963. Brazilian Palisander (rosewood) cabinet, leather side panel inserts, aluminum speakers, brushed aluminum base, felt-lined interior, T10 chassis, Garrard Lab Series turntable. Designed by Hugh Spencer.Paul Eekhoff/Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum

Open this photo in gallery:Canadian Modern images  show at the ROM -- the Susie Kosovic Mini dress (p. 56 ) or the Marilyn Brooks Acapulco dress (p.38)
Mini dress c. 1967Acrylic double knit Susie Kosovic, b. United Kingdom, 1944 Poupée Rouge, Toronto, Ontario2014.62.58 Cleaver-Suddon Collection, Gift of Katherine Cleaver. Susie Kosovic was known for designing ultra-short Mod mini dresses in striking colours, like the fuchsia and orange here. Describing her meticulous process to Macleans magazine, she said, “Sometimes it takes weeks to work out the simplest-looking design to get exactly the right line. Then I spend hours and hours cutting up muslin prototypes... And I'm wild about mad colour combinations; that takes a lot of fiddling and experimentation, too.”

Mini dress, c. 1967. Acrylic double knit. Designed by Susie Kosovic.Paul Eekhoff/Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum

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.

Open this photo in gallery:Separating Leather Biker Jacket (p.140)
Woman’s separating leather biker jacket and belt, 2015Leather lined in cotton knit, metal zippers Izzy Camilleri, b. Toronto, Ontario 1964 IZ Adaptive, Toronto, Ontario2019.14.2.1-2 Gift of Izzy Camilleri Designed by Izzy Camilleri, this jacket is engineered to meet the needs of people who use wheelchairs. It separates into two pieces to make dressing easier and follows the form of a seated body, rather than a standing one. The design minimizes chaffing that can lead to life threatening injuries. IZ Adaptive is one of the first fashionable and affordable lines that exclusively considers the needs of those with disabilities.

Woman’s separating leather biker jacket and belt, 2015. Leather lined in cotton knit, metal zippers. Designed by Izzy Camilleri.Paul Eekhoff/Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum

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.

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