Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden, Design in Canada: Fifty Years from Teakettles to Task Chairs

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden, Design in Canada: Fifty Years from Teakettles to Task Chairs

Rhona Richman Kenneally
Concordia University
Gotlieb, Rachel and Cora Golden. Design in Canada: Fifty Years from Teakettles to Task Chairs. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2001.277 pp., illus. (b&w, colour), cloth, $74, ISBN 0-676-97138-5.

1 In 1976, Bill Lishman, a designer practicing in Blackstock, Ontario, designed a rocking chair in which his wife could knit comfortably. Little did he know that it would later be used as a prize on the American game show, The Price is Right. In a similar claim to fame, a Toronto-made Clairtone Project G stereo, "the epitome of 'bachelor pad' cool," appeared in such films as The Graduate and was rumoured to have been purchased by Hugh Hefner for the Playboy mansion. Such are the nuggets of information that may be found in Design in Canada: Fifty Years from Teakettles to Task Chairs, a new and welcome publication in this under-represented field of Canadian culture. Co-written by Rachel Gotlieb, curator of Toronto's Design Exchange (a pre-eminent centre for design research and promotion), and Cora Golden, a committed advocate of Canadian design in her own right, this work is an ambitious overview of three-dimensional product design, especially for the home, from the postwar era to the present. Building on such works as Adele Freedman's Sight Lines: Looking at Architecture and Design in Canada of 1990 and Virginia Wright's 1997 Modern Furniture in Canada: 1920-1970, Design in Canada successfully contributes to Canadian design historiography, in this case staking out a domain in which selected furniture, lighting, textiles, consumer electronics, ceramics, glass, small appliances and metal arts justifiably receive the attention they deserve, both inside and outside the Canadian context. If for no other reason than this (and there are other reasons), this book more than justifies its existence.

2 Design in Canada is part coffee table book, part reference work, and both objectives are quite satisfactorily met. Five essays introduce key themes in the book, and, more or less chronologically, highlight contemporary issues and design stimuli. Incentives for innovative design are considered, through such institutions as the National Industrial Design Committee (NIDC), created in 1947 as the industrial Design Information Division and later undergoing another name change, to Design Canada. The rise in the use of such materials as plastics, aluminum, and moulded plywood is charted, and then balanced with an essay that looks at the ongoing influence of traditional craftwork, and craftmakers who also managed to integrate with Canadian industry to produce high-quality products. In two additional essays, the Pop period and Post-modernism receive attention; moreover, a look at "the new era of pluralism" beginning in the 1980s, targets designs that reflect tendencies toward bricolage and cross-cultural influences, recognizable as well in international designs of the period.

3 But it is the modernist ethos, outlined by Gotlieb and Golden in the first essay of the book, that is isolated as the dominant design ideology in Canada after the Second World War. Modernism's influence on Canadian designers is perceived as continuing through to the 1960s, when it coexisted alongside design trends derived during the Pop period, and later as providing inspiration for 1990s designers such as Karim Rashid and Helen Kerr. Early valorization of modernism had been undertaken by the NIDC, which sponsored a variety of projects for that purpose, ranging from design competitions and exhibitions held across the country to conferences, like the one held in 1954 called "How Can We Sell More Modern Furniture?"

4 Perhaps not surprisingly, modernism can be seen as a theme underscoring many aspects of the book as well. Gotlieb and Golden, themselves, pay homage to the "Zeitgeist called modernism" that "dominated the cultural agenda" in the "post-war world," and argue that the "'form follows function' dictum of modernism is regarded as the defining aesthetic of the twentieth century." Accordingly, they declare a main criterion for the inclusion of artifacts in this book to be "excellence in design," and selection to be accorded on the basis of "visual appeal," as well as "functionality, imaginative use of material and design innovation" — all of these priorities residing comfortably within the modernist paradigm.

5 Design in Canada is a prioritization of designers' and design promoters' intentions and strategies. Notwithstanding the authors' articulated interest, not only in a given design's suitability in response to its creator's intentions, but to "its reception in the marketplace," the book primarily "recognizes and honours the work of design pioneers of the second half of the twentieth century" and analyses the artifacts contained in the book as a function of how they reflect and satisfied the goals of the makers. Significantly, this rationale operates despite a shift that has taken place in the fields of material and visual culture and communication studies. In research undertaken over the last decade or so, many critics have turned their attention from producers to users, that is, to an investigation of the reception and appropriation of design by those who chose — or did not choose — to incorporate these products into their lives.

6 The repercussions of Gotlieb and Gulden's point of view can be illustrated by focusing on one significant issue, namely the relatively low priority given by national design institutions referred to in this book to the implications of the degree to which Canadians voluntarily elected to embrace these manifestations of modern. Initial consumer response to modernism, particularly outside urban areas, was reluctant, especially at first. For example, undated statistics publicized at the aforementioned NIDC conference revealed that only eight percent of buyers of dining room furniture purchased suites in the modern style, as opposed to eighty-two percent of buyers who preferred more traditional design. Rather than accommodating consumer demands, concerted efforts were made to impose modernist "taste" in the marketplace. In one such gesture, the NIDC created a portfolio of material aimed specifically at schoolchildren, entitled Designs for Canadian Living, to assert the merits of modernism for an impressionable audience. Gotlieb and Golden are clearly aware of the hesitation apparently felt by many Canadians in this regard: they note in one instance that the interior of the Three Small Rooms Restaurant in the Windsor Arms Hotel, which opened in 1964, "dragged Toronto society into the modern world." But aside from commenting on the occasionally extreme methods of advocates — "viewers could be forgiven if they found the tone of the literature [of the NIDC] somewhat hectoring" — the elitism inherent in such a hegemonic stance seems not to require direct address, in light of the work of such scholars as Valerie Korinek, who notes the discontent of many readers of Chatelaine magazine during the same time frame over what they perceived as unrealistic lifestyle expectations imposed in its advice columns, important components of design history from the users' perspective seem to have been sidelined by the decision to focus on production.

7 Instead, Gotlieb and Golden rely on the tried-and-true, greatest-hits method of presenting Canadian design, which defines a worthy canon of artifacts in accordance with the parameters outlined above. To this end, most of the book consists of sections on Canadian artifacts divided according to material or typology, each section containing a brief introduction. Into each section are placed entries on individual objects, with one or more paragraphs describing the influences or strategies of the designers, and adding interesting production information. At least one image accompanies each entry, most of them in colour, making this a useful visual archive. It is interesting that here, too, the photographs often emulate the modernist impulse of a contextuality, since many objects are presented as isolated entities against a solid coloured background. It is when this routine is broken, for example, in an image depicting the female staff trimming mugs at the Hycroft China factory in Medicine Hat, Alberta, in the 1940s, that one most laments the missed opportunity to include more revealing historical visual documents such as advertisements and old photographs, as a means to gain further insight into the significance of these objects as reflecting the culture of their time. Similarly frustrating, in cases when contextual images are included, is the occasional irreverent gesture of superimposing the text right over the picture, as is the case for Peter Cotton's dining chairs; Christen Sorensen's 1+1 series modular seating; Gordon Duern's 701 stereo; and Duern and Keith McQuarrie's Apollo 861 and Circa 711 stereos.

8 And yet, Gotlieb and Golden do Canadian design an immense service with this book. Establishing ground for further work in the field are documentation of knowledge gleaned from numerous interviews with designers, an appendix of biographies and corporate histories of preeminent practitioners, and a bibliography that includes periodicals, archives, and both published and unpublished primary and secondary sources. In addition, a list of artifacts included in the book, which are part of the collection of the Design Exchange in Toronto, is a welcome point of entry for the researcher who wishes to study these artifacts in more detail. Design in Canada, then, deserves to be considered as a major contribution, highlighting an impressive national design heritage, setting precedents in its breadth of attention both regional and typological, and challenging academics to devote subsequent critical attention to this fascinating and pivotal field.