Article by David A. Hanks

T
hrough the kind assistance of the American Friends of Canada, Eric Brill of Bedford Hills, New York, has donated a comprehensive collection of industrial design to the Stewart Program for Modern Design in Montreal. Many of these objects will be on display in the exhibition American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow, coming to the MMFA in the spring of 2007. Manufactured in North America between 1925 and 1965, the 900 objects in this collection constitute a marvellous record of modernism in many of its important phases. Brill’s generosity to a Montreal institution is rooted in the history of the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts, whose mission it was to collect the best examples of postwar design and craft on an international scale. This initiative – unique in its day – appealed to Brill, who found that his passion for the objects of that period was shared by the museum staff and the museum’s founder and president, Mrs David M. Stewart. In 1987 Brill made his first donation to the museum: the Ball chair and table of 1963-65 by Eero Aarnio.


In 2000, the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts was incorporated into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, including the donation of the Stewart collection of international design. That same year, Mrs Stewart founded the Stewart Program for Modern Design with a mandate to continue acquiring important examples of twentieth and twenty-first century design, and to utilize the Stewart collection in exhibitions and publications.

Whereas Eric Brill had previously donated important single objects to the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts, in 2001 he began offering works to the Stewart Program from a focused collection of North American industrial design. Although primarily composed of American objects, it also includes a number of items designed or manufactured in Canada, and a few from Italy as well. Most of the works in this collection could be described as functional modernism. A selection demonstrating the streamline style, however, became the basis for American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow, an exhibition organized by the Stewart Program. The multiple manifestations of modernism were elucidated earlier in the pioneering exhibition Design 1935-1965: What Modern Was.

Functional modernism spanned several decades from the 1930s through the 1960s, and later. The concept maintained that objects created according to universal and rational principles were imbued with an identifiable character that
could be recognized, defined, and admired. Derived from
the teachings of the Bauhaus, functional modernism utilized
modern technology and materials, and rejected ornament.

A well-designed object was to be admired for its classic,
understated beauty and its fitness to purpose, attributes
seen in many of the objects in the Brill collection, and in
the Canadian objects illustrated here.

Designers in both countries could protect their inventions –
both design and utility – by means of government-related
patent systems. These invaluable archives help to identify
the designers, the date of design, and the manufacturers.

Thus the “unknown designer” now often can be identified
and approximate dates based on style can now be made more
precise thanks to patent records. The complex interrelations
between manufacturing and retailing in the United States
and Canada during this period can also be explored.

One of the earliest Canadian designs in the Brill collection
is the Reliance Electric Grill, c. 1940. Made for the grilling of
sandwiches, a type of appliance still popular today, its shiny
chromium-plated steel surface contrasts with the darker
Bakelite handles. Elements of streamlining are seen on the
top in the speed lines that emanate from the glass-enclosed
heat indicator and the gently raised centre section.

Another Canadian design in the Brill collection is the
Magnajector Projector, which is accompanied by its original
box with an image of the machine in use, indicating it was
intended for use by children. This projector illustrates the
interrelationship of designers, manufacturers, and retailers
between Canada and the United States, since it was designed
in Canada but patented and sold in the United States.

A United States patent drawing filed June 8, 1954,
establishes that the designer of this “Opaque Projector”
was the Toronto-based Sidney Bersudsky.4 Made of Bakelite,
the Magnajector is a simple device – a light bulb, a reflecting
mirror, and a focusing lens – which projected an image of
whatever document was placed beneath it. Light in weight
and quirky in design, it has an engaging appeal.
The Tee-Nee Portable Radio is an aptly named design
manufactured by Brand & Millen, an Ontario-based
company, for the Jewel Radio Corporation of New York.
Popular at mid-century, such mini-radios could be carried
on the shoulders of teens listening to pop music. Its convex
maroon-coloured rectangular form with horizontal ridges
contrasts to the bright white knobs. A hinged back could
be opened for access to the batteries.

The most spectacular Canadian design in the Brill
collection is the Project G Stereo, designed by Hugh Spencer
and John Magyar in 1963 by Clairtone Sound Corporation
of Toronto. Founded jointly in 1958 by Canadian electronic
engineer and businessman Peter Munk and furniture designer
David Gilmour, the company established an international
reputation for stereo and cabinetry design in the 1960s.
The Project G consists of black spherical speakers flanking
a wood cabinet section – an innovative departure from the
more standard rectangular cabinets containing sound systems.

According to the manufacturer’s original brochure, “The
speakers are brought outside the cabinet into sound globes
that can be turned to adjust to the recording and the
acoustics of the room. With the development of transistors,
need for ventilation has been eliminated, the cabinet is once
again finished on all sides and can be moved away from the
wall…” This novel special arrangement is emphasized in an
image in the company’s brochure of the stereo in the middle
of a room. The futuristic Project G won a silver medal at the
1964 Milan Triennial and was marketed in American cities
and in Britain. Its popularity is reflected in its appearance
in the 1967 film The Graduate.

With its focus on designs of the recent past, the Brill
collection reminds us that preserving this legacy is as
important as that of the earlier centuries. Modern design
can too easily be taken for granted, and apathy threatens
the preservation of our twentieth century cultural heritage.
Eric Brill’s vision has been to preserve this recent past for
future generations, and is a welcome new direction in the
study of material culture in our own time.

David A. Hanks is Curator of the Liliane and David M. Stewart
Program for Modern Design, Montreal.

Image: Project G Hi- Fi Stereo Cabinet, designed 1963
Hugh Spencer, John Magyar
Rosewood, leather, anodized and brushed aluminum, plastic, 72.5 x 214 x 48 cm
Produced by Clairtone Sound Corporation, Toronto, Canada
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Liliane and David M. Stewart Collection
Gift of Eric Brill, 2004.150.1-2
Photograph: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Christine Guest