art deco design in Canada
Just as American and European artists and writers migrated to Paris in the 1920s as part of a resurgence of creative energy and in an ambiance of social ferment in the wake of World War I, so too did North American designers, and in some cases department store buyers, descend upon Paris as the European centre of new design concepts and fresh ideas about life style, fashion and city lights. All these elements came together in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The French market was still directed to luxury goods and materials, and high standards of fabrication, despite the modern, industrial production of objects for a mass market as suggested by the descriptive wording of the Exhibition title. In any case the French initiative opened North American eyes to new ideas for both products and design as well as commercial possibilities for the development of mass marketing in a reconceptualised vision of urban living and modern style.
Within this context it must be said that little published research upon Canadian Art Deco is as yet available and in the North American context the influences from the United States in terms of production and distribution were similar upon a lesser scale to those of the automobile industry today. American companies such as Westclox had a factory in Peterborough, Ontario and were producing deco and other items mainly to American designs. Other manufacturers such as The Snider Clock Company, located in Toronto, were Canadian enterprises through and through. Meanwhile Eaton’s and the Robert Simpson Company, major retailers in the Canadian market, sold deco objects, a few of which are illustrated here, through catalogue distribution and stores in major cities throughout the country. Although it is clear that many items were manufactured in Canada by subsidiaries of American companies or under some sort of licensing agreement, the question of design awaits further investigation.
Whatever the versions of deco marketed by Eaton’s and Simpson’s, the non-natural, new materials of chrome and Bakelite in particular were widely advertised. The bright, smooth and shiny surface of objects in chrome married perfectly with the similar qualities of coloured or milk glass in lighting fixtures, while chrome plated brass or steel seems an industrial version of “gilding the lily” in four of the objects presented on the previous page. Unlike silver and brass, chrome required no polishing to retain its unblemished surface. Indeed, promotional texts repeatedly spoke of “new” and “modern style” in referring to the machine-made objects of tubular or plate metal construction as well as to the moulded ceramics that offered a massively enlarged market of table wares and even art wares for the home at modest prices. Imported luxury items that proved popular became subject to assembly line methods with materials suited to the new technologies.
Among the objects shown in these photographs the folding rocking chair in chrome plated steel and wood with vinyl upholstery lends itself directly to interpretation as a probable Canadian design. Rocking chairs have been a feature of French-Canadian furniture since the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Frequently used for front porch rocking as well as hearthside comfort in winter, the folding nature of the chair lends itself to ease of displacement or storage in addition to possible recreational uses in outdoor activities such as camping. The traditional materials of wood and leather have been adapted not abandoned in this design that still employs a wooden structure and a vinyl imitation of leather. The modern tubular chrome arm and back surrounds appear as a decorative sign of modernity rather than a functional part of the structure. Further support for this claim of Canadian design lies in the continuing existence today of the Ecole du Meuble in Victoriaville which provides historical and conceptual education for students in the classroom as well as hands-on training in sophisticated techniques of furniture manufacture available in a series of specialized workshops.
Canadian Art Deco as a subject for research is still a work in progress and the objects in these photographs are an invitation to expanded study and collecting.
Photographs of the objects shown in this article have been provided by Gallerie Decollect in Port Hope, Ontario. Owner Graham Abraham is preparing a book on Canadian Art Deco.
All photographs: Michael Wallace, Imagelink Studio
Image right: From left to right: Golden Goddess mantle clock by Harry Snider, Snider Clock Company, Toronto, Ontario | Chrome and blue glass “Oracle” electric alarm clock by Westclox, Peterborough, Ontario | Chrome and pink glass mechanical shelf clock by Westclox, Peterborough, Ontario | Chrome and black lacquered wood pedestal table by Royalchrome, Galt, Ontario | Chrome plated steel and black enamel club chair with wooden arm rests and faux zebra vinyl upholstery by the Dominion Bedding Company, Montreal, Quebec |Chrome and black enamel floor lamp with twin milk-glass shades by Electrolier, Montreal, Quebec | Chrome and black enamel table lamp by Electrolier, Montreal, Quebec.