Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Made in Canada

Made in Canada: Craft and Design in the Sixties. Ed. Alan C. Elder. Montréal: Published for Design Exchange, Toronto in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Civilization by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Made in Canada: Craft and Design in the Sixties was published in 2005 to accompany an exhibition mounted by the Canadian Museum of civilization and design exchange [Toronto], part of a larger multiinstitutional museum project to examine the 1960s.  Opening with a preface by Douglas Copeland, that closely resembles sections of his Souvenir of Canada books, the text is divided into three sections. 

The first section contains essays which examine various aspects of how the Canadian federal government made use of modern design in the 1960s to redefine the country.  As explained in more detail in other books read for this course, including Brian Palmer's Canada's 1960s and Gary Miedema's For Canada's Sake, this redesign of the national identity was needed for number of political and demographic reasons.  As a means to counter nationalist/separatist views held by Quebecers, the federal government of the 1960s had taken steps to ensure greater participation of French Canadians within the federal government and to secure French Canadian language and culture as one of the two fundamental cultures and languages of Canada.  However, changing Canadian demographics soon led to a growing recognition that Canada was not a bicultural state, but a multicultural country.  Yet, in either case, the traditional view of the country being closely allied with its British heritage needed to be exchanged for a new national identity which could be embraced by all Canadians.  Furthermore, in a decade when close to half the population of the country was under the age of twenty-five, and were increasingly identifying with the global counterculture movement, Canada's previous national identity, which focused heavily upon the past of its two founding peoples, had to be replaced with something much more modern and which suggested a future of change and prosperity.

The first essay of the first section, written by the Regina-based architect, Bernard Flaman, examines the federal Department of Transport's Air Services Branch and its work on revising the world's perception of Canada through the design of the country's major airports. Flaman explains that beginning in 1958 with the redesign of the Gander airport, the refueling stop for most trans-Atlantic flights, the federal government embarked on an airport rebuilding project designed to leave travellers with the impression that Canada and Canadians were modern in outlook, as well as cultured and refined in taste. While not a direct result of the Massey Commission report, the airport construction project was an example of just the sort of project the commission had encouraged, one which stressed public art and architecture, and where the federal and provincial governments acted as model patrons for the arts. As the commission had suggested, such government support for the arts was to help create a true Canadian culture. Such culture included quality architectural design, furnishings, and art displays for which the Air Services Branch airport building program incorporated so as to reflect a particular image of Canada to the world, as well as inspire Canadians to embrace modern design and high art. However, with criticism over the cost of various art installations, increases in passenger traffic and security concerns, and a call for more regional content in the design expression of regional airports, the nationalist and modernist design program of the late 1950s and early-mid 1960s was gradually dismantled. This eventually resulted in regionally and privately owned airports replacing the once federally administered entry points, and new airport design which focused upon regional interests, customer demands, and exploiting profit possibilities rather than constructing a modern and unified image of Canada.

The second paper of the first section focuses upon the affect of Canada's entry into the space race in 1962 with the launch of the Country's first satellite, Alouette 1. Only the third country to have a satellite launched into space (the satellite was launched on an American rocket), the launch of Alouette 1 was not overtly part of the Cold War, but rather a satellite designed to study the ionosphere for telecommunications purposes, and in turn, to assist in advancing technology that would help people spread across the country communicate with each other. However, Alouette 1, as well as its successor telecommunication satellites, also reinforced the effect of images of space and space exploration upon Canadian design. Canadian-designed products from home stereos to lighting were all influenced by the designs of satellites, spacecraft, and other space-aged objects from both the real space race and the world of science fiction. Yet, with the end of the 1960s and both growing disillusionment that the space race had not promised a futuristic utopia and the realization that the billions required for the space race could be spent on more immediate concerns, space-aged design began to loose favour.

Michael Large's final essay of the first section is the most relevant to my proposed thesis in that it examines the development of some of Canada's most recognizable federal images in the 1960s and the inspiration for the adoption of such designs. Beginning with the design competition to replace the Red Ensign and the adoption of the new flag in 1965, Large discusses how the decision to replace the flag, as well as the choice of the final design, were made in reaction to the cultural and political circumstances of the early to mid 1960s. With increasing calls from Quebec nationalists for more of a voice in not just the affairs of Quebec, but also of Ottawa, as well as a recognition of the growing number of Canadians who were not of French or English descent, the Pearson government wanted to replace the main symbol of the country with something which was not so obviously British in origin and which could be embraced by all Canadians. As Large explains, the implementation of the flag design was followed by the creation of the "Canada" wordmark and a government task force which was charged with examining how information was provided to citizens by the federal government. A result of the task force was the creation of Information Canada and its Federal Identity Program, which, not only promoted the proper use of the flag, but implemented and strictly controlled other federal iconographic changes, all of which were designed to portray an image of Ottawa as being a modern, efficient, powerful, centralized government which treated all of its citizens equally.

The second section of the book looks at what design historian Lesley Jackson has called the "high point and a turning point in [Canadian] design": Expo 67. Located on two islands across from Old Montreal (3/4ths of which were artificial), the 1967 World's Fair was a showcase of national and international design and technology. In her paper "Excellence, Inventiveness, and Variety: Canadian Fine Crafts at Expo 67", the Halifax craft historian, Sandra Alfoldy looks at the place of hand crafts, including how they were incorporated into various kinds of design, amongst the presentation of Canadian visual arts at the fair. While displayed in the art gallery at the Canadian pavilion -- the one building of the Canadian pavilion which is still standing -- Alfoldy argues that the place of such crafts amongst the visual arts had been one of inferiority, with the crafts typically associated with ethnographers and women's groups. However, their display at the Canadian pavilion was organized by the new director of Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre for the Arts gallery, Moncrieff Williamson, who was determined to improve the public and art world's conception of crafts. Unfortunately, as Alfoldy argues, the collection displayed at the pavilion consisted overwhelmingly of works of the contemporary modernist style, which had the effect of having many view the field as being only of that time. Furthermore, the failure of Williamson and others to establish his dream of a national crafts museum in the decades following Expo 67 reinforced the idea that the field was still not understood to have the same artistic merit as other forms of visual art. 

As in the case of craft, the Quebec design historian Paul Bourassa explains in his article on Habitat 67 that the place of Canadian interior design in the presentation of the innovative housing complex was initially not celebrated. Rather he explains that the designer of the housing units, Moshe Shafdie, and other Montreal designers had to lobby the Expo commissioners to include Canadian interior designs in twelve of the twenty-six model suites which were to be displayed for the public. With almost no budget and little time, many of the Canadian designers invited to participate were forced to use recent, but existing, designs. Others, however, were able to fashion new designs for interiors and furnishings, often borrowing from the buildings own modern and modular design.

The last section of the book is dedicated to examining not just the 1960s rebellious nature, but how the baby boom generation's displeasure with the status quo was reflected in their demands upon manufacturers to produce new kinds of goods which met their individualistic lifestyles. Continuing a theme begun by Rachel Gotlieb, who mentioned how plastic was the design material of choice during the 1960s, Brent Cordner's paper explains that, as the patents on many plastics ended during the 1960s, the material became less expensive, and thus, was increasingly incorporated into the design of numerous affordable products. Furthermore, the moldable and expendable nature of plastic made it attractive as an alternative to the metallic and severe look of post-war industrial design. Almost any household product of the period could be made out of plastic, and because of its low cost, such products could be manufactured for any economic class.

As the Ryerson professor of design, Michael Prokopow, explains in his paper, the move away from conservative and austere post-war design was also reflected in Canadians' taste for Scandinavian furniture. Slender and incorporating fabric and lighter coloured woods than the more masculine furniture of the 1950s, this penchant for Danish, Swedish, Finnish, or Norwegian furniture, expressing what has been called the "international look," was an illustration of Canadians' new more international-oriented attitude and a desire for more freedom and variety in furnishings.

The book's final paper, by its editor, Alan C. Elder examines how the 1960's trend of rejecting the status quo led some, not to demand new products, but to reject consumerism and to rediscover artistic traditions in an attempt to live simply and seemingly reduce their impact upon the world around them. Ranging from baking bread to making cloth and furniture, this early anti-commercial and environmentalist movement included a significant section of the 1960s and 70s youth and young adult counterculture population, and was a less commercially minded precursor to today's growing emphasis upon lifestyles and products which are both environmentally and economically sustainable. However, he also notes that while the popularity of craft amongst the baby boom, and particularly the hippy, population continued into the 1970s, it was also widely adopted by Canadian society at large. Those who were not actively part of the counterculture, and even those who were often defined as being part of the establishment, adopted the same affinity for macramé, rough ceramics, and other elements of counterculture art. Yet, as business and mainstream culture was appropriating the art of the counterculture, and thus, at least adopting elements of its perspective and ideals, the counterculture began to disappear. The peaceful protests of the mid-sixties became increasingly violent and the self-possessed generation of the 60s began to loose their idealism. Their more communal protests for general peace and love began to fragment into very particular and concrete concerns.

No comments:

Post a Comment