Saying it with Colour

TEXT Herbert Enns
PHOTO Henry Kalen

Grant Marshall (1931-2012) was one of Canada’s most distinguished and revered interior designers. Launching his professional career in the mid-1950s, he was swept up into the tailwind of Winnipeg’s postwar explosion of modern architecture, and designed interiors for many of the most significant projects of that era. These included the John A. Russell Building (1959), the Monarch Life Building (1959-1963), and the Manitoba Health Services on Empress Street (1959). His peripatetic movements included frequent travel to Europe and New York, one of his favourite cities. On the road he pursued his fascination with costume and set design in New York’s Theatre District. And, his lifelong commitment to watercolour painting was manifest amongst the villages and landscapes of France. 

Marshall’s contribution to Winnipeg’s lifestyle was significant: importing modern furniture from Copenhagen and Marimekko fabric from Helsinki, he heightened our sense of modern living, and gave definition to literally thousands of homes in a style fixed by his extraordinary confidence and abilities in design. Working steadily until his passing at age 80, he arrived on site as a man on a mission, with his leather satchel in hand, an authoritative black Armani coat draped over his shoulders, and his large-swatch Benjamin Moore paint catalogue from 1961 locked in his elbow. 

In the early years, colour selection was an art form, and tubes of tint were mixed onsite by the painters. Well before the arrival of big-box hardware paint desks staffed by neophytes, Marshall accessed his phenomenal innate gifts of spatial cognition. Assessing light, shadow and prospect in interior living spaces, he then charged ahead with balanced spectral arrays that induced walls to luminesce and ceilings to float. He also designed furniture and selected artworks to more fully define the environments of his many devoted lifelong clients. With the potential for ebullient larger-than-life spectacle always near at hand, he filled the living spaces of his family and friends–a camouflage for his immense sensitivity and refined expertise. Marshall’s final exhibition was comprised of watercolours, which were installed in the Assiniboine Park Pavilion alongside paintings by Ivan Eyre and Walter J. Philips in the summer of 2012–the opening a radiant and sun-bleached celebration of life amongst his closest friends and associates. 

While we might all agree that material accomplishments matter, Grant’s highest gift was to almost five decades of interior design graduates from the University of Manitoba. Launched into practice with countless national and international awards, they established themselves around the world, and they speak of his “…mentorship, teaching ability, graceful technique, insight, endless capacity for work and life, and a generosity of spirit and kindness.” As Lloyd Danku, BID ’86 (Lead–Interior Design Engineer, 787 Progam, the Boeing Company) wrote, “Grant was a great mentor to me and will be missed. I would not be where I am today without the teachings and dignity Grant instilled in me.” CA

Herbert Enns is the Director of the Experimental Media Research Group and a Professor at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture.