Canadian Design, Beyond Moose and Maple Syrup (Kinda)

Canadian Design, Beyond Moose and Maple Syrup (Kinda)

When you think of nations at the fore of modern design, Canada hardly springs to mind. As far as everyone else is concerned, the country’s greatest contributions to world culture are hockey and Strange Brew.

Enter Bent Out of Shape, a new industrial design exhibit at the Design Exchange in Toronto. Featuring more than 400 objects and archival materials from the museum’s permanent collection, it covers everything from post-war tea kettles and pimped-out rocking chairs to the plastic fantastic of expat Canuck

One of Canada’s prominent early modern designers technically wasn’t Canadian. Jacques Guillon was born in Paris then studied and worked in Montreal. His simple 1950 Cord Chair, show below, had a seat back made of nylon, an army surplus item–and hence an ideal design material–in the aftermath World War II. (Guillon himself worked as a pilot before attending architecture school.) After more than 40 years out of production, the chair was reissued by the Toronto manufacturer Avenue Road last year.

Canada was a refuge for Scandinavian immigrants at the front end of the 20th century. Ergo Thor Hansen, a Danish emigre who became a prominent craft geek way before craft geekery was cool and produced a series of graphic fabrics based on Canadian foliage. Here’s Sunridge/Geese in Flight from the 1950s.

Douglas Ball is one of Canada’s most successful living industrial designers. Never heard of him? Exactly! He has spent most his career cranking out “systems furniture”–the desks and cubicles and other workplace junk you never, ever notice. (How Canadian!) But back in the swinging ’60s, he briefly flirted with pop design, creating this sunny lamp, called the Glo-Up.

Here is William Lishman‘s 1976 interpretation of the classic 19th-century Thonet bentwood rocking chair. The thing is made out of metal, gah! Keep granny away. Apparently, they gave it out on The Price is Right right alongside the toasters and the fridges and the four-poster beds and, let us hope, not instead of the free trip to Cabo.

Here’s a 1996 trash can by the prolific and eternally pink-suited Karim Rashid, Canada’s flashiest design export. (Well sorta. He studied in Ottawa, but was born in Egypt.) Curious that the curators chose to exhibit this, of all things; it has to be one of the tamest and–dare we say–most Canadian objects Rashid has tossed off over the years. It’s also probably the most recognizable.

We have no idea what’s Canadian about these, but they’re pretty sweet. The Retrofit Balls, by Brad Turner, were inspired by the iconic 1960s Ball Chair.

The new crop of designers is carving out a self-consciously Canadian aesthetic–both joking about national identity and paying homage to it. Case in point: Rob Southcott‘s United We Stand. Joined by wooden deer antlers, the seats are meant to “evoke the awareness that we can all use a little support from our neighbour.” Awwwwww. Or is he making fun?

You didn’t think we’d escape having at least one moose, did you? Check out this onsie from Toronto-based bookhou.

The exhibit is done up in QR-coded wallpaper, so visitors can scan the walls with their mobile phones to get more info about the objects on hand. The wallpaper is designed by the Canadian firm Rollout. (Whom we recently featured here.)

Here’s the logo for the exhibit. We love how aggro it is–Canada gets bent out of shape! Canada takes control! Canada answers to nobody but Canada! On the other hand, it looks exactly like a Roy Lichtenstein painting and Lichtenstein, of course, was American. The exhibit opens July 16. For more information visit