A patriotic ranking of the most iconic items in the ROM’s new Canadian Modern exhibition
Featuring the homegrown design innovations that put us on the map
Canada is widely known for its breathtaking landscapes, ice hockey and maple syrup (and extreme politeness, of course). But a lesser-known forte is our impact on the history of design. Innovative and prominent Canadian design is all around us, from the clothes we wear to the furniture we use. Canadian Modern, a new exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, celebrates the country’s indelible contribution by showcasing a collection of 100 limited-edition and mass-produced objects—all made in Canada.
The exhibition casts a wide historical net, looking back on the past six decades of Canadian design. Rather than following a chronological structure, it groups the objects by theme: Modernism and Professionalization; Pop and the Swinging Sixties and Seventies; Of Land, Sea, and Sky; and Post-Modernism and Beyond. The museum also partnered with OCAD University to include six student works and highlight the next generation shaping Canada’s design and craft culture.
Here’s a ranking of some of the most influential and iconic Canadian-crafted pieces, on display until July 30.
12In 1956, famed Paris couturier Christian Dior asked Swarovski for a Northern Lights–inspired crystal. Montrealer Gustave Sherman, who designed increasingly popular costume jewellery using Swarovski crystals, worked with the company on an elegant, twinkling multicoloured cuff called Aurora Borealis, versatile enough to be worn on the wrist or over an evening glove. The bracelet became a smash success for the Christmas season, and Sherman jewellery was sold across Canada and the US.
11In the mid-1980s, Douglas Ball, a design leader in the world of office furniture, needed a comfortable workstation that didn’t strain his neck and eyes. Inspired by his Audi’s low reclining seat and dashboard, he built a prototype of the Clipper-CS-1 Workstation, an edition of 100 produced by New Space in Fort Worth, Texas. The self-contained office pod combines the comfort of a car with the environmental considerations required for long hours on the job. It has lighting, a desk, storage, ventilation, and adjustable seating that slides on a rail. Plastic panels and wooden flaps ensure privacy and reduce glare. The piece has since become an emblem of the cubicle office movement.
The Inn Chair
10Elaine Fortin’s 2011 Punt Chair is an homage to the history and rich culture of Canada’s east coast. The design nods to the punt, a boat used for fishing or transportation between ports in Newfoundland. She also paid tribute to Fogo Island boat builder Don Wells by using the natural curved grain of the juniper harvested on Fogo Island along with a traditional woodworking method to achieve the chair’s dowel joinery. Fortin was one of the international designers commissioned by Fogo Island Inn to create an object that reflected the island’s community. The Punt Chair now features in every room of the inn.
The Habitat Chair
9Jerry Adamson’s Habitat Chair was inspired by Moshe Safdie’s modular apartment complex unveiled at Expo 67 in Montreal. The iconic cube shape references Safdie’s concept of square living, which is also reflected in the manufacturing process: inexpensive rotational-casting-powder polyethylene sealed in a tin box. The plastic chair garnered widespread media attention, and Interiors International agreed to license the design. Only a few thousand were produced over ten years, but design-minded visitors can see the chair for themselves at George Brown College in Toronto and Trent University in Peterborough.
8The Clairtone Project G stereo is the brainchild of electrical engineer Peter Munk and art director David Gilmour. The pair founded Clairtone Sound Corporation in Toronto in 1958 and noticed a niche market for sleek, stylish speakers. So they tapped British designer Hugh Spencer to develop the award-winning Project G globe speakers in 1963, which cantilever outside the minimalist, Scandi-style cabinet. Fewer than 500 were made, but the product, which was endlessly copied, had an outsize influence on stereo design.
The Jacket and Belt
7Since founding her brand IZ Adaptive in 2009, Izzy Camilleri has established herself as a leader in adaptive design by creating fashionable and functional clothing for people who use wheelchairs. Her 2015 leather biker jacket is adapted for sitting and eliminates bulkiness, which can cause severe, even life-threatening sores from chafing. Two separate pieces joined by a zipper in the upper back make it easy to put on, and a cut-out in the back allows for optimal comfort.
The Table Lamp
6In the 1950s, Danish immigrant couple Lotte and Gunnar Bostlund began designing lamp bases in the Danish modern style. Eventually, “Lamps by Lotte” popped up in Canadian embassies and consulates and were sold by upscale retailer Georg Jensen. Bostlund’s Table Lamp 900, with its tapered square base and textured shade, became a bestseller.
The Blanket Coat
5In 1981, the Hudson’s Bay Company asked five designers to interpret their iconic blanket as a coat. The blanket, called a capote, first emerged in the 18th century, on trade routes between Indigenous, English and French communities. Designer Alfred Sung’s collarless wrap version with gold-stitched seams and contoured sleeves became a symbol of classic, simple modern fashion. Sung later became a titan in the Canadian apparel industry, launching the Monaco Group Inc. with Joseph and Saul Mimran before founding his eponymous label Alfred Sung and the diffusion line Sung Sport. In 1986, he became the first Canadian fashion designer to trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
The Fluevog Shoe
4John Fluevog burst onto the fashion scene in the early ’70s with his quirky and colourful footwear and has since established a global following of Fluevog fanatics. One such customer is British Columbia’s health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who regularly wore Fluevogs during her daily pandemic updates. In her honour, Fluevog decided to make a limited-edition 2020 shoe—red leather with a pink patent leather cap toe and buckle—and to donate all sales to Henry’s charity of choice, Food Banks BC.
The Paperclip Stool
3Anyone who scours the internet for vintage furniture has seen—or purchased—the K700 Stool. First developed by Toronto-based designers Philip Salmon and Hugh Hamilton in 1969, the Paperclip Stool earned its nickname from its innovative design, which features a metal base that resembles a paperclip. The stool now comes in various sizes and colours and furnishes the home of many an Instagram aesthete with an eye for mid-century design.
2The K40 kettle series is an icon of 1940s Canadian manufacturing. Illustrator turned industrial designer Fred Moffatt was allegedly inspired by a clever engineer who turned the headlight of a McLaughlin Buick into a kettle by flipping it upside down and affixing a coil. Moffatt swapped the metal handle for a heat-insulated Bakelite one and raised it to avoid steam. The chrome-dome economy kettle became the industry standard and furnished the stovetops of millions of tea-drinkers.
1Before BlackBerry Messenger lit up the phone screens of every high schooler in 2007, the BlackBerry was the device of choice for corporate executives around the world. This 2003 exhibition model is from the 7200 series and features cutting-edge design from then head designer Jason Griffin, like its unique earpiece, a sculpted form to fit the hand comfortably, and finance-bro-friendly blue to suit the Bay Street crowd.