To mark Canada 150, Globe Style's Clearly Canadian series explores iconic examples of domestic design. Russell Spanner's Lounge Chair with Arms, learns Nathalie Atkinson, is the piece that secured Canada's place in the mid-century modern movement
- In 1941, Russell Spanner joined his father Albion and uncle Oliver at the family-owned woodworking company, Spanner Products Ltd., where he worked as a foreman at the Toronto factory on Elm Street. Spanner had studied production management at Ryerson and was interested in streamlining, tinkering with his own design projects at night while he worked on the banal breakfast room furniture and tennis tables produced at the factory by day.
- The National Industrial Design Committee, in 1949, issued two publications for manufacturers: a leaflet called Good Design Will Sell Canadian Products, and the follow-up How the Industrial Designer Can Help You in Your Business. They made the case for a correlation between architectural practice and furniture design, and pointed out that many new modern homes in British Columbia and Quebec created demand for less cumbersome furniture to match the airy, open-plan surroundings.
- Spanner’s Lounge Chair with Arms, designed with a solid Canadian birch frame and formed back and tapered legs, came in a variety of finishes and coloured seat webbing options. It launched in 1950 as part of his Ruspan Originals contemporary furniture collection of “basic occasional pieces.” The collection was heavily advertised during the post-war building boom and furnished both residential and commercial spaces. Its success was quickly followed by the modular Catalina and Pasadena lines (“Furniture that adds up”). “He built it for strength,” grandson Paul Burry says, sharing the tale that Spanner put pieces to the test with the full weight of his husky, former wrestler’s frame. “He designed it for post-war couples, new families starting out – he wasn’t trying to sell it to a niche market. His designs are good and that’s why he still stands out today.”
- Spanner Products closed for good in 1963, and Spanner died in 1974. His lounge chair was dormant for decades until it was featured in Robert Fones’s 1990 exhibition A Spanner in the Works at Toronto’s Power Plant Art Gallery, which helped renew interest in the piece. Burry approached Canadian furniture company Gus Modern about a revival of the design, and in 2014, Spanner Originals by Gus* resumed Canadian production staying faithful to the original specifications. “I always felt that I had a responsibility to do it. I know that losing Spanner products was a real devastation for him,” Burry says. “It had been forgotten, there wasn’t much information” When it hit the market in 1950, the Lounge Chair with Arms cost $34.50. The revival costs $995 and is available at Gus* retailers across Canada.
- Maintaining his grandfather’s design integrity, Burry says, was a big component of the revival. The chair’s seat dimensions (and woven seat webbing) still conform to the proportions and joinery of the original. Lindsay Spanner, one of Spanner’s two daughters, had kept boxes of dealer price lists, catalogue pages and illustrated brochures (the family’s cache of records and papers was recently donated to the City of Toronto Archives).
- The adaptable, angular, atomic-age Lounge Chair has an élan that makes it a spiritual descendant of German-born California industrial designer Kem Weber’s iconic Airline chair of 1934. Mid-century modern experts have also suggested Paul McCobb and Jens Risom as influences (the latter’s designs were manufactured in Canada under license). The chairs are scarce on the vintage market – because of the creator’s fundamentally pragmatic streak, they were built to last. Presumably, the modern workhorses are still in use.