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Iconic Canadian Designs

Curator Rachel Gotleib shares her insight into Canadian design’s history and identity. 



Canadian Modern showcases a collection of culturally significant, limited-edition and mass-produced objects designed and crafted in Canada. Alfred Sung's Blanket Day Coat (1982). John Tyson's Alexander Graham Bell Phone, model 450 (1977). Hugh Spencer's Project G Stereo (1963) for Clairtone Sound Corporation. Dominion Electrohome Industries Ltd. (1959). John Fluvog's limited edition Dr. Henry shoe (2020). Lawrie McIntosh's Electric kettle (1960) for Superior Electrics. Jacques Guillon's Cord Chair (1952) for Modern Art of Canada. Images courtesy ROM.




Rachel Gotlieb knows Canadian design—she has spent her career researching it, writing about it, and building the Toronto Design Exchange’s collection, much of which moved to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) when the Exchange closed in 2019. Not long after, the ROM partnered with Gotlieb to curate an exhibition showcasing the objects which included everything from Clairtone’s Project G stereo to Fluevog footwear to an early BlackBerry phone. 


Canadian Modern first opened at the ROM in December 2022, running for almost a year. The exhibition showcases examples of culturally significant, limited-edition, and mass-produced objects designed and crafted in Canada, and the stories of insight, experimentation, and innovation behind them. 


Now open to West Coast audiences at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C., a slightly revised version of the original exhibition includes pieces from the RBCM’s collection, most notably a display of sketches by modern architect and designer Peter Cotton and a matching jacket and Covid mask by Indigenous designers Ay Lelum.  



Canadian Modern runs now through-February 16, 2025 at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, B.C. 


How did you approach curating this exhibition?

Its not easy to tell the whole story of Canadian design. This exhibition took about two years. I was working as a lead guest curator for the Royal Ontario Museum with Alexandra Palmer, curator of textiles and fashion, and Arlene Gehmacher, curator of Canadian art and culture. Alexandra Palmer has built up a wonderful collection and the Canadian collection includes a lot of craft design, some of which we were able to include. It was really nice to have a show that was highlighting the ROMs collection—we only have a few loans at the most. I think it was important to showcase what they've been acquiring over the years. 



Were there any surprises in putting this show together?

It’s based on my earlier research as the founding curator of the Design Exchange. I was the first person to start building the collection of Canadian design post-1945 and I published Designing Canada in 2001. Ive been looking and thinking about Canadian design for a long time so there weren't a lot of surprises for me! What I loved was learning about the fashion—that was really amazing. I thought it was great to show modern furniture like the Jack Guillon Cord Chair with a dress that expresses the new look, as theyre both from the 1950s. What surprises me is really the commitment of craft makers and designers of that period. It's not an easy thing to do, even today you have to be an entrepreneur if you're going to be a designer.



Why does craft play a significant role in the exhibition? 

This is early modern, from the 40s through to the 60s. Craft makers and designers shared very similar objectives. Initially, they wanted to both professionalize their careers. For craft makers, they didn't want to be associated as amateurs. For people like Danish-born textile designer Karen Bulow or American-born ceramicist Ruth Gowdy McKinley, it was really important for them to demonstrate this was a profession. As such, there were a lot of associations and professional groups that were formed from the 1920s right through to the 1960s.



Industrial design was a new profession, how did this unfold in Canada?

The Americans were doing it a little bit earlier during the 1930s with leaders like Raymond Loewy or Henry Dreyfus. They didnt come from an industrial design background, they came from the background of illustration. They kind of invented the profession. That was also true in Canada—the pioneering industrial designers were coming from illustration, architecture, engineering, or they were self-taught. In 1948 they set up the Association of Industrial Designers. This need to professionalize was very much shared [across the provinces]. A lot of industrial designers worked in limited editions, making small batches or prototypes because the manufacturing industry was so small in Canada. Not only was it small, it was quite conservative. 



How did that contrast to craft at the time?

Some craft makers were really turning it out, making thousands of pots. Its a huge contrast to the [small] production run as an industrial designer. I really wanted to show those parallels. Studio crossover takes a turn in the 60s, becoming more expressionistic. We included Gordan Peteran’s Chest on Chest because its conceptual and it critiques the idea of craft making in Canadian history and antique collecting. 


It was nice to show both [craft and industrial design]. It reflects my own curatorial practice as well as the ROM’s collection. Another great example is the Strala lamp designed by Scot Laughton and Tom Deacon. It fetched a lot of media attention at the time that it was made and was included in Time Magazine as one of the best designs of the year. In fact, only 500 were made, so that's a limited edition. I like to call it industrial craft.



What other designs have become iconic Canadian designs?

The Canadian skidoo, of course, is an iconic Canadian design. Its not in the museums collection, but we felt that it was very important to include. The Project G stereo is an iconic Canadian design, and the Contempra telephone was exported outside of Canada. The chrome dome kettle, which was in production for decades—thats a very Canadian product, with the bulbous shape and you put the water in the spout. You dont see that so much in the U.S. or Britain. Those are definitely really important, iconic Canadian designs that people would be familiar with, but they wouldnt think are Canadian. Thats what I think is kind of cool about the show and the collection. The BlackBerry was something that we acquired for the show because we felt that was important as part of our legacy. We tried to focus on the design side of it— how it was designed to hold comfortably in your hand. And of course, the real keyboard. Those were the design elements that made the BlackBerry successful.



Why was this an important time in Canadian design history?

Canada had a coming of age in the 60s and 70s. There's a sophistication of design, and the consciousness of Canada becoming this nation [the flag was ratified in 1965]—not just one of exporters of natural resources, but of real product designers. You have schools now teaching industrial design. We see homegrown industrial designers now, like John Tyson, who joins Contempra, or Douglas Ball, who works with Sunar— these are graduates from Ontario College of Art and Design. Theres the National Design Council, which becomes Design Canada. Designers were receiving scholarships to study at Harvard with Walter Gropius or at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Theres a sophistication that is also tied with Canadas Centennial, and Expo 67 in Montreal. The efforts of all these designers and craft makers are being employed to work on either of them. 



How do you describe Canadian design?

Its not really a style, but more of a sensibility, I would say. And the sensibility is in part practical—you cant have anything too sophisticated because manufacturing wasnt that sophisticated—so its a respect for materials. And its a respect for simpler manufacturing methods. Theres a respect for wood, and for form, and for functionalism. You may not necessarily see a real Canadian style, per se, but youll see an approach that is a little bit humbler than if it was made in Italy or the U.S., for example. It’s partly because they have to work with what theyve got. Designers who liked to work with spun or extruded aluminum would work with local suppliers. Some designers are more specific about Canadian identity. You see it in a visual motif—like a beaver form or taking inspiration from trees or lakes—or in the treatment of materials. Thomas Lamb is a great example, with the steamer chair he made in Nova Scotia. He was working with a shipping manufacturing company so he used solid, bent steamed wood. He applied the local vernacular in the industry to a chair design. Thats what I mean about working from a place.

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