Design Lessons

TEXT Annmarie Adams
PHOTOS Michel Brunelle, unless otherwise noted

I wish I had met Norman Slater (1921-2003). The Montreal architect and artist taught at the School of Architecture at McGill University from 1977 to 1986. He died in 2003, in the midst of an intense period that saw the loss of so many giants of the postwar Montreal architectural and urban scene including Norbert Schoenauer (died 2001), John Schreiber (2002), John Bland (2002), Guy Desbarats (2003), Harry Mayerovitch (2004), and Harold Spence-Sales (2004). These architects and educators gave 1960-’70s Montreal (and Expo 67) its über-cool, modern vibe, and taught a generation of students to think big and make beautiful places. 

For two months, the Université du Québec à Montréal’s (UQAM) Centre de Design and curator Réjean Legault gave those of us who missed Slater in person a chance to discover him through his complex work, and those lucky enough to have known him an opportunity for rediscovery. Norman Slater: Design Lessons, which ran from November 2011 to January 2012, featured a stunning exhibit, a bilingual catalogue, a walking tour, a roundtable discussion, the work of UQAM students inspired by Slater’s ideas, and a dramatic video projection on the façade of the design school. In its exceptionally broad sweep, Norman Slater: Design Lessons accomplished what most low-budget, university-based exhibits can never do: touch audiences beyond its own student body and make a big difference.

The difference accomplished by the Norman Slater exhibition is that the architect’s complicated oeuvre was tracked, catalogued, and organized for the first time. While almost all the drawings, photographs, models, furniture, and even jewelry in the show came from his widow’s collection, public sculpture by Slater was also rescued from demolition (and obscurity) and highlighted in the exhibition. Video interviews with Slater’s longtime colleagues Joseph Baker, Guy Legault, and Harold Ship enlivened the large, rectangular exhibition hall.

An MIT-trained architectural historian and former head of the Study Centre at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Legault and architect Gary Conrath assembled the Slater material they found in a stunning display that would surely please even a perfectionist like their subject. Emphasizing Slater’s beloved aluminum, 100 2’ x 4’ panels framed in aluminum were suspended from the Centre de Design’s open-truss ceiling and walls illustrating 25 Slater projects. The regularity of the hanging panels was punctuated by large works of public art by Slater, most notably the 3,000-pound aluminum ingot he designed for the Canadian Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, and colourful, triangular pieces from an original setup of 17 aluminum tripods designed in 1959-60 for pharmaceuticals giant CIBA. My favourite part of the exhibition was a massive “drafting” table with stools (inviting visitors to linger and enjoy) which featured blueprints, sketches, magazines and other evidence of Slater’s creative process as well as real examples of his designs for household objects. Since Slater apparently worked out many of his design ideas by trial and error in the basement workshop of his home, the inclusion of an iconic and “messy” drafting table is particularly appropriate.

Especially clear in the exhibition were the multiple scales of work he produced over his prolific, four-decade career. Always intensely interested in technical problems, Slater devised a way to install the famous, arched concrete curtain wall of Montreal’s swankiest hotel, the Château Champlain. He designed the lighting systems at Place des Arts and for La Ronde at Expo. Particularly beautiful were Slater’s many large-scale decorative screens, well-represented in the show by images of Steinberg’s grocery stores, the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, the Alcan offices in Place Ville Marie and Morgan’s Department Store in the city’s upscale Rockland Shopping Centre. These large-scale art projects showed the same painstaking commitment to high design illustrated in the exhibit’s smallest object: a prototype for an exquisite bracelet designed in the 1980s for Henry Birks & Sons.

For those who missed the show, Legault and colleagues have produced a handsome 200-page catalogue of photographs and essays. This includes a touching tribute to Slater the teacher by Mark Poddubiuk, following up on his back-page feature on Slater for Canadian Architect in 1996, as well as a tribute from Slater’s friend Harry Stilman. Poddubiuk, who studied under Slater in 1982, remembers him as an unremarkable teacher until he presented the curtain wall of the Maison Alcan to his design studio. “To a second-year architecture student, Norman Slater’s attention to detail, to verifying performance, and to ensuring consistent quality control on the construction site was completely unfamiliar…Slater let us see the domain of technicians and standard product catalogue details. It was the very stuff of architecture. And it placed the architect at the very point of making the building.”

Poddubiuk’s statement is interesting, given that one of the main messages of the exhibition concerns boundary-crossing, or what Maurice Cloutier summarizes in the catalogue as “Norman Slater: unclassifiable.” Equally comfortable among architects, artists, industrial and graphic designers, Slater’s output in multiple fields recalls other internationally known polymaths such as Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) and Charles (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988). Legault addresses this theme as ambiguity, reading Slater’s multi-scaled output as evidence of “a somewhat atypical practice in the world of creation.” Slater studied architecture at McGill under Bland and Gordon Webber, but he also attended László Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design in Chicago, then headed by Serge Chermayeff, to learn about product design; later he headed to London’s Royal College of Art to study wood, metal and plastics, returning to his hometown of Montreal in 1955.

The common denominator through all of Slater’s educational ventures was photography. Slater used photography as a tool of exploration in his design work, more so than drawing. His photographs, however, captured everyday scenes such as people in doorways and children playing, differing radically from classic architectural image-making. A camera may have been the way the working-class kid from a single-parent family discovered the streets of Montreal and his early love of architecture.

John Bland called him an architect’s architect, perhaps because Slater was much sought after as a consultant for specialized problems. Because of his involvement in large infrastructure projects, his design decisions are still all around us. For example, in 1962-65 he was hired to determine standard materials and equipment for Montreal’s new metro system in an attempt to establish “visual uniformity.” The black granite edge and orange dotted lines, for example, that define the subway platforms were Slater’s specification.

Norman Slater: Design Lessons highlights this distinctive role as a Montreal design consultant working between multiple professions, inspiring us to see Slater’s prolific output all around us. CA

Annmarie Adams is the Director of the School of Architecture at McGill University.