Books (February 01, 2002)

Design In Canada: Fifty Years from Teakettles to Task Chairs

Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden, Alfred A. Knopf Canada: 2001

Review by Kelly Rude

Not nearly as polemical as design historian Virginia Wright’s Modern Furniture in Canada 1920 to 1970, this new title offers very little in the way of postulating theories about the state of Canadian design. Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden’s Design in Canada is more a collection (admittedly, an exhaustive one) of anecdotes about corporate mergers, acquisitions, closures and bankruptcies, and the personal lives of various designers. Much of the text appears to originate from corporate archives and interviews.

Chapters are organized by product type: Furniture, Lighting, Textiles, Consumer Electronics, Ceramics, Glass and Miscellany, Small Appliances, and Metal Arts. (Plastics should have been given a separate entry.) In the Consumer Electronics section, much space is allotted to Clairtone, whose Project G stereo commands signature status in the Design Exchange collection and was featured in Gotlieb’s Pop in Orbit exhibition. In that exhibition, the author and DX curator argued that the orb-shaped object from the 1960s was capturing space age themes of the day. In Design In Canada, she now acknowledges that this formal analysis is essentially about product styling rather than topology. This understanding of styling, however, is sadly overlooked in the book’s presentation of Bakelite radios. Much space is used to illustrate deviations in the shapes of various radios with almost no mention of styling as simply a means of product marketing.

The book is smartly designed by the Toronto graphic studio of Dinnick & Howells, but it is difficult to manoeuvre and tested my patience. It was with difficulty that I managed to get through the various chapters with cross-referenced images found elsewhere in the book–which meant that I had to continually find the corresponding page with the illustration, and then find my way back to the page of text that I was reading. And the biography section at the back of the book is printed vertically, something that is always an irritant.

The book’s hard cover gives it the heft of a definitive coffee table book, but it turns out that many pages are dedicated to objects like teakettles, irons and Bakelite radios: the very stuff that fills the catalogues of the collectibles market. The title might have been better published as an easy-reference softcover book for flea market and garage sale shoppers. A case in point: to my surprise, I learned that a ’70s polished metal table lamp with large bulbs that I bought at a church basement sale was designed by Gustavo Martinez and manufactured by his Toronto firm Origina.

When possible, the authors have included illustrations of contemporary work, like Keilhauer’s Tom chair by Tom Deacon, the Jim stool by Scot Laughton and James Bruer for Pure Design, Patty Johnson’s stool/tables, and a wall-hung desk by Andrew Jones, which reflects the authors’ familiarity with the current scene. However, there are some troubling errors and omissions. The authors describe Court Noxon’s wall mounted coat rack of 1957 as playing with atomic imagery, buy it should also be recognized as an emulation of a 1953 coat rack by Charles Eames for Herman Miller. Also, text references don’t always match up to illustrations, as when a CD rack manufactured by Edmonton’s Pure Design seems to be credited to New York designer Constantin Boym. These are minor points, but are the kinds of mistakes that ultimately undermine the book’s authority.

As a reference book, Design in Canada is a much-needed addition, given the lack of material on the subject, but more in-depth analysis and fewer lists would have produced a more serious book.