True Nordic strong and free

Wood has been an important material in the world of furniture design for a very long time. But by the mid 20th century, there were a lot of competing materials, reflecting new technologies and modernism in general. Despite that, Canada retained a strong loyalty to wood.

A very fine exhibit has been mounted that illustrates this. It was curated by Rachel Gotlieb of the Gardiner Museum and Michael Propokow of OCAD University. Initially mounted at the Gardiner Museum, part of the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto, it will then travel to both our East and West coasts, and possibly even elsewhere.

By Paul Epp
Paul Epp
Paul Epp

The show is called True Nordic, and the premise is that Canada is similar to other circumpolar nations in its taste in design and materials, and has been heavily influenced by the Scandinavian countries in particular.

There is a wide range of artefacts in a range of materials but the furniture on display is predominantly wood. For full disclosure, a chair of mine named Nexus, produced by Ambiant Systems in the ‘80s and shown on the cover, is in the show and another is pictured in the show’s catalogue. Also included are my former teachers, mentors, business partners, employees and students. I feel right at home there.
When I first began to study design, in the late 1960s, Scandinavia still had a strong grip on the tastes and imagination of the design community in Toronto. It was lessening, being distracted by the very dynamic new work coming out of Italy, but it was still loyal. The best furniture was being made by Craftwood Industries, and although his origin was Germany, Gary Sonnenberg’s orientation was to the north. Jan Kuypers had designed a lot of furniture that was conspicuously influenced by Scandinavia.

Michael Stewart, Keith Muller and Tom Lamb all produced designs in both wood and in moulded plywood that would have looked at home in any other Nordic country. Jeff Fear’s work for Kinetics, although in steel, was very obviously Scandinavian in influence. At that time, Janis Kravis’s Karelia store (named after a region of Finland) was the preeminent destination for design shopping and his designs for the Three Small Rooms restaurant at the Windsor Arms Hotel made them a special dining experience.

Don McKinley was the director of the new Sheridan College School of Design and he was recently back from a Fulbright funded year in Finland. Its influence helped mould the aesthetic of the new design school along with input from other Scandinavia referenced faculty like Vivika Heino and Haaken Baaken.

As a student at that school, I absorbed those influences like a desert absorbs rain. When, at graduation, I was offered a travel/study scholarship, my destination choices seemed obvious: Scandinavia or Italy. I stayed in the north. Don had helped me arrange a period of time as a private student of the quirky cabinetmaker, Jim Krenov, who was emerging into international notice. His principal teacher had been Karl Malmsten, so even though American born, his visual language was Nordic. And while I learned a lot of my vocabulary from him, I also made a point of visiting Artek, the furniture manufacturer that Alvar Alto and Viljo Revell had established as well as Bruno Mathsson’s facility. I visited as many of the young and innovative designers as I could and when I returned to Canada, I was ready to establish my credentials as a north-oriented designer.

Wood remained a popular material for furniture, with that loyalty perpetuated by Ambiant Systems (Muller + Stewart), who I worked for, and by Nienkamper, who were collectively the design leaders in the Toronto-based furniture world.

Things have changed to some extent, since then. The globalization precipitated by the Free-Trade Agreement and then NAFTA caused wood-based industries to industrialize more fully and the traditional craft-based (skill-based) approach, which was important to Scandinavia, was mostly left behind.

But interest in the artefacts and values of the mid-twentieth century have rebounded. The wood-furniture designs most knocked-off in Asia are Scandinavian and those countries are a popular mobility exchange and grad school destination for Canadian design students. It seems more than likely that Canada will retain its interest in wood for its furniture design and continue to keep its northern cousins company.

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University and former chair of its Industrial Design department.


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