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Trent University alumni starting to reclaim a past that’s been trashed

Just last year, furniture maker Rob Tuckerman pushed past old mattresses and fibreglass insulation to pull, from a dumpster at Trent University, iconic wooden chairs – known as the Ant and Series 7 – by the Danish great Arne Jacobsen. Dumpster diving was something Tuckerman did not exactly relish. At 58, he is educated as a biologist and has enjoyed an extensive career illustrating books for the likes of David Suzuki. But he is also a passionate Trent alumnus, and has been doing whatever it takes to salvage at least part of the Ontario university's vast collection of mid-century furniture, which has been trashed for decades. That same day, in the freezing cold, Tuckerman fashioned a slide from old mattresses and eased out of the dumpster a 1960s wood-frame couch that had been designed by Toronto architect Jack Diamond with the Muller and Stewart furniture studio, and showcased in a Habitat suite at Expo 67.

Of more than 1,000 designer chairs – enduring icons of modernism that could individually retail these days for more than $1,000 a piece – only a handful still exist on the Peterborough camps. Eero Saarinen Tulip chairs and Harry Bertoia Diamond chairs that once adorned intimately scaled student lounges and dining rooms at Trent – itself a modern architectural masterpiece by Canadian genius Ron Thom – have been trashed, stolen or sold at yard sales. Over the past three decades, and up until last year, hundreds and possibly thousands of those works, and of Thom-designed furniture, were thrown onto garbage heaps; some were even tossed by revellers into the Otonobee River that flows through the stunning, cinematic campus.

Let that reality sink in and you might never want to move past the disbelief of how little design matters in this country. To his credit, Tuckerman has moved past the pain to attempt a small resurrection of the badly battered legacy of design at Trent. Working with Alumni Affairs Director Lee Hays, he is making exquisitely crafted chairs inspired by the safari leather sling designs that once adorned the small library inside Trent's Champlain College. (Naturally, Tuckerman had pulled an old Safari chair, turned green with mould, from the garbage.)

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His newly reconfigured Champlain chair is now available at the Green Light District furniture store in Toronto; and, for Trent alumni, through the university, with a healthy percentage of sales going to its 50th Anniversary Design Heritage Fund, whose proceeds will aid in the restoration of the surviving mid-century furniture at Trent.

Out of respect for issues of patent protection that are rightly safeguarded by the Thom family, the Champlain chair doesn't pretend to be an exact replica of what went before. But Thom would be impressed. It is slung with supple leather produced by a family-run Belgian tannery used by Louis Vuitton and Hermès. Tuckerman has added a leather pad for comfort to the seat. The wood is Forestry Stewardship Council-approved.

Design trashing is not always the rule in Canada. As an antidote to the wanton culture of Philistinism flaunted at Trent, there exists a nearly spiritual reverence for the integrity of architecture and design at Massey College – another Thom masterwork – at the University of Toronto. There, Thom created a sensory refuge for graduate-student residents: a secret quadrangular garden washed in the sound of gurgling fountains. Since opening in 1963, Massey has been maintained in luminous condition, with Thom-designed hanging lamps and Antelope chairs by the Swedish furniture collective, Zinna, in the main commons lounge.

Whether to build or destroy is one meaningful way to measure the worth of any society. Although Trent is shot through with Canadian values – it even housed the country's first Indigenous Studies department – its unique design roots have not always been appreciated. The 1998 - 2009 administration of President Bonnie Patterson, which struggled under budget cuts and failed to invest in maintenance of the design collection, caused the most damage. During her tenure, valuable 1960s furniture was replaced with cheap office-catalogue stock. Wood-burning fireplaces, designed as minimal pieces of sculpture in study rooms, were shut down. The website of Trent's archives tells stories of how Saarinen-designed chairs and tables were "disposed of in a garage sale held by Lady Eaton College Cabinet in the early 1980s."

Walking the Trent campus last weekend was like experiencing the mystery and melancholia of a Mayan ruin. Wooden arbours next to towering red pines were in a bad state of repair. Peering through windows, I saw stacks of Hans Wegner chairs with twisted kraft-paper-woven seating, some of which was ripped apart. There were still a dozen long oak tables in Champlain College's dining hall – though several other dozen have been lost. In offices, study desks by Thom were suffering from lack of maintenace, wood veneer peeling away.

It's hard to believe that Trent itself has never been given heritage protection. Turns out, remarkably, it has never applied. "That is a misfortune," says founding president, Thomas Symons. "The responsibility for that lies with the board – it simply hasn't got around to that. I think it's a great pity and remiss."

Molly Thom recalls helping her husband purchase furniture for Trent by Scandinavians and Americans. "Some of those Scandinavian dining chairs were $30. It was affordable for a university."

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There were attempts in the 1980s and nineties to revise Trent's original, deep commitment to the arts and architecture. With President John Stubbs, enlightenment burned brightly again. But with his departure in 1993, the fires wavered, then flickered out.

This time around, says Hays, an inventory of the iconic furniture that remains will be documented; a course recognizing Trent as a national heritage treasure is a possibility. "There are representatives from across the university who definitely have an interest in the preservation and recognition of the art and culture that Trent built," he says. Actually, the whole nation has an interest in attending a tutorial on the epic vision that once thrived at Trent.

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