Jacques Guillon’s wife once said that he was like a porcupine: When he had your attention, “he would grow to twice his normal size,” his daughter, Marie Guillon recalls. “He had a very big presence.” This was also true in his professional milieu, the world of Canadian design.
Mr. Guillon, who died in Montreal on June 7 at the age of 97, was a trailblazer: A trained architect who designed the 20th-century’s most famous piece of Canadian furniture, helped shape the Montreal Metro and helped invent the profession of industrial design in this country.
He was also a husband of 68 years, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather, who placed a strong emphasis on family and disliked talking about work on the weekend. And although he spoke little about this, either, a man who emigrated from France to Canada to fly Spitfires during the Second World War.
His long life began in Paris, where he was born on July 27, 1922, to Silas Guillon and Simone (née Bergougnan). Silas was a good friend of his wife’s brother, Pierre, who often invited him to hunt at the Bergougnans’ chateau at Changy. Her family strongly encouraged them to marry, which they did in 1920. Silas had served in the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, becoming a distinguished pilot.
Jacques would follow in his footsteps. In 1940, he came to Canada – a country where his father had lived briefly as a young man and acquired citizenship – to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He led a convoy of 12 planes, based first in Cairo and then in Cyprus. His specialty was assaulting enemy radar facilities.
After the war, he returned to Montreal and entered the architecture program at McGill University – Canada’s leading architecture school and a hotbed of modern design. He would graduate in 1950, but that hierarchical, slow-moving profession did not suit him. “I can’t imagine him working in an architecture office for very long,” Marie said. “He was very creative and always very interested in being his own boss.”
He turned his attention, instead, to industrial design. “Guillon was a true pioneer of Canadian industrial design,” said Jennifer Laurent, curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The design of furniture and consumer products was a nascent field in Canada in the late 1940s, “and that’s right where Guillon comes in,” Ms. Laurent said.
In 1952, he designed his best-known work: the Cord Chair, which is now held in the collection of major museums in Quebec and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Like other famous furniture of the era, including the plywood chairs of Charles and Ray Eames, it took advantage of advances in manufacturing technology connected to the war effort. It combined a seat made of nylon parachute cord, found at military surplus stores, and a frame of laminated plywood designed for skis. It weighed just three kilograms, but was tested and found it could support more than 1,500 kg. It won an award at the Milan Triennale and sold in the thousands through high-end retailers, principally in Montreal and New York.
The chair is now in production through the Toronto-based company Avenue Road. “The design was decades ahead of its time,” said Avenue Road founder Stephan Weishaupt. The ideas of reducing a product to very few materials and “upcycling” materials with humble origins, “are concepts that many are just starting to attempt today.”
During the same era, he met his life partner: the Westmount native Edythe (Pego) MacNaughton. The couple were introduced in 1950 by a mutual friend. The next year, he proposed; she was about to set sail to visit family in Scotland and responded that she would give an answer on her way back. On the ship’s return, Mr. Guillon was there to meet her. As the family story has it, she leaned over the railing before disembarking and nodded: Yes.
They were engaged within a year and married in 1952. The new Mrs. Guillon, who was eight years younger, continued her modelling career for a time and also ran a business: Pego’s, a retail shop on Sherbrooke Street that carried Scandinavian modern design that Mr. Guillon had spotted at trade fairs. Mr. Guillon ran his studio from upstairs.
The couple soon had five daughters, and began to build a country house in the Eastern Townships, where they would spend weekends and summers with horses, sailing and waterskiing. Marie recalls it as “a little Club Med,” but one in which the girls were expected to stay busy.
“When a stone wall had to be put up, or something had to be done, it didn’t matter that we were girls,” she said. “He wanted to make sure we stayed grounded and we knew the value of hard work.”
Mr. Guillon rarely spoke about work, his daughter says. “He was shy about what he had accomplished,” Marie Guillon said. “He was very uncomfortable with compliments; it was only as he became older that we came to discover the legacy that he had left.”
In truth his design business began growing in the late 1950s, and he spent most of his career as a leader and collaborator. In 1958, he founded Jacques Guillon Associates, which survives today as GSM. “He had great vision and a very multidisciplinary approach,” Ms. Laurent said. “That first generation, they were real generalists; they had to be. They were forging their way in a new industry, and they had to work a bit with everything.”
The Guillon office was soon working on interior design and space planning, graphic design and signage, and exhibition design, as well as industrial design. They gained experience in connection with three major Montreal design projects of the 1960s: the reconstruction of downtown around Place Ville-Marie; the building of the Metro, and Expo ’67.
Laurent Marquart, a Swiss graphic designer, arrived in Montreal in 1965 prior to Expo to work with Mr. Guillon. “He was a man of vision,” Mr. Marquart says: “an entrepreneur, a team leader, a man of action who had the talent and the capacity to talk to top Expo managers.”
With Mr. Marquart working with him – and later as a partner – the Guillon studio successfully oversaw the design of five Expo pavilions and also created furniture for the interiors of Habitat.
At Place Ville-Marie, the studio designed roughly eight acres of interior space for Alcan, including integrated custom textiles and furniture. Guillon partner Christian Sorensen designed a suite of office furniture, dubbed Alumina, which was sold commercially in Canada and the United States.
As for the Metro, “Here again, Jacques was the right man at the right place to promote local design at the top level,” Mr. Marquart says. American industrial designer Morley Smith led the project, which included all aspects of the cars from their gauge to the fibreglass seating. Bombardier would produce the cars. A Guillon colleague, graphic designer Jacques Roy, designed the Metro symbol and graphic standards along with the original route map – all icons of the city and of the era in Canada.
Mr. Guillon also oversaw the interior of the Théâtre Maisonneuve at Place des Arts. He would go on to specialize in interior design and signage through the 1970s and 80s, as the company, which was eventually known as Guillon Smith Marquart, worked across Canada and internationally. They designed Air Canada lounges around the world and much of Mirabel Airport.
Mr. Marquart says that Mr. Guillon put considerable attention into the business side of design, and was “a tough businessman” – a quality that is not shared by everyone in his profession. “At the same time, he was a man with an extremely human attitude, a deep sense of justice,” Mr. Marquart says. “He valued honesty and loyalty.” And “he knew that innovation and design would bring an added economic wealth to Canada.”
Mr. Guillon leaves his wife; daughters, Marie, Simone, Chantal, Dominique and Pascale; 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.