By David A. Hanks
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2006
Through 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 Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) in the spring of 2007.
Manufactured in North America between 1925 and 1965, the 900 objects in this collection constitute a marvelous 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, 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, 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 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 North American industrial design collection. 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, however, demonstrate the streamline style, which in turn set the stage for American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow, an exhibition organized by the Stewart Program.
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 notable Canadian design in the 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 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. 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.
But the most spectacular Canadian design in the Brill collection is the Project G Stereo, designed by Hugh Spencer and John Magyar in 1963 and produced 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. 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.