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Thor Hansen: Crafting a Canadian Aesthetic Legacy

By Rachel Gotlieb


In the global economy, where so much design is unconnected to a local culture or a particular place, it is timely to consider the work of Thor Hansen (1903-1976). Today, Hansen is little known, but from the mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s, the Danish émigré was a popular artist, designer, and tireless promoter of the craft movement in Canada. He carried out his mission via corporate industry, independent of government support. Largely self-taught, he completed his most important work as art director for the British-American Oil Company. A charismatic speaker, he gave over 1000 lectures to professionals and hobbyists alike, including the Harvard School of Business and the Cosmos Club, the prestigious arts and letters club for Washington’s social elite. From 1957 to 1964, he served as Vice-President and Director of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Ontario branch.

Shaping Hansen’s Advocacy

Hansen joined the influx of Scandinavian immigrants who spearheaded the craft revival in this country during the first half of the twentieth century. He came to Canada on a whim in 1928 after winning a ticket to Japan, but inspired by the illustrations of spectacular scenery on Canadian Pacific posters, he chose Canada instead. In Canada, Hansen and his wife Donna supplemented their income by opening a small shop to sell their needlework and painted hats and scarves. Their shop closed during the Depression and he found clerical work at the B-A Oil Company in Regina. Throughout this period, Hansen's interest in Canadian iconography grew and he began to address local art associations on the topic.

What the Group of Seven did for Canadian painting, Hansen wanted to do for Canadian handicraft. Like the Group of Seven, Hansen believed that expressing elements of nature would energize a Canadian identity. Hansen, however, sourced his imagery from books and museum collections, rather than drawing directly from nature. In this manner, Hansen developed a repertoire of motifs: silhouettes and profiles of birds in flight, leaping salmon, and horned animals, as well as native wildflowers and plants, especially trillium, lady’s slipper, and morning glory.

Hansen’s talent caught the attention of his employer and he transferred to the head office in Toronto in 1938 to work as an artist in the Department of Advertising and Sales Promotion. In 1948, Hansen began a fruitful relationship with the newly-established Simcoe County Arts and Crafts Association (SCACA), located in Ontario’s Georgian Bay area. His lecture “Canada in Design” inspired the guild to start a rug and quilt fair. Hansen, in turn, designed patterns using regional imagery for SCACA artisans to copy. B-A Vice President Gerald Godsoe discovered his employee’s work at the Georgian Bay fair and invited Hansen to decorate the company’s new Toronto headquarters on Bay Street.

Developing a National Art Program for the British-American Oil Company

While other North American corporations had lobbies with murals illustrating their industry, none matched the scale of B-A Oil. Hansen furnished the eight-story, glass and concrete modernist building entirely with handicraft designs in an autumnal colour scheme to capture “the essence of Canada.” Canadian artisans adapted his designs to everything, including woodcarvings, wall murals, and drapery. Metalsmith Nancy Meek Pocock hand-pierced patterns of Indian pipe and skunk cabbage in 24 copper radiator grills for the president’s office. Archibald Chisholm, of Eaton’s, built the boardroom table, reception furniture, and president’s desk in naturally-finished local wood. Noted sculptor Jacobine Jones craved maple wall plaques.

The reception area displayed the wall hanging Geese in Flight. Also known as Sundridge after the town by that name, Geese in Flight became Hansen’s signature design. Hansen created a dynamic composition depicting flying geese in a curvilinear landscape of trees, horizon, and clouds. Chéticamp craftspeople in Nova Scotia hooked Sundridge for both the Toronto and Ottawa offices, and the A.B. Caya company of Kitchener issued the design as a printed fabric. While Hansen preferred craft and folk art to “universal and formulaic abstract art,” modern design, such as George Nelson’s Coconut chair, was also part of his arts and crafts interiors.

The success of the Toronto head office resulted in Hansen developing decorative schemes for B-A Oil’s offices in Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, St. John’s, Halifax, and Pittsburgh. More importantly, this investment in Canadian design led B-A Oil to create a national art program. Hansen also convinced the company to co-produce Craftsman of Canada with Crawley Films in 1959. The following year, John Fisher, Executive Director of the Canadian Tourist Association, commended the B-A project for “bringing so much of Canada together in one place.”

Drawing from his Scandinavian upbringing, Hansen espoused that all the crafts played equally important roles. He grew alarmed at the increase of art hierarchies and separation of art, craft, and design and blamed the Canadian Handicrafts Guild for encouraging this division. Hansen believed that uniting craft and design with tourism could raise the profile of Canadian handicraft by stimulating demand.

To this end, he encouraged the free reproduction of his art. Under Hansen's direction, B-A Oil made souvenir posters, ashtrays, and glassware that were sold in department stores and gas stations, while its roadside restaurants featured Canadian imagery on carved linoleum panels. He even organized a design competition to foster the production of high-quality souvenirs in 1963. The competition received 3,000 submissions, but Hansen thought the venture a failure because both the media and the tourist industry showed little interest in the initiative.

Heron Bay, 1970s. All photos by Maciek Linowski.

Crafting a Legacy

Hansen recognized that fabrics contributed significantly to unifying an interior’s decor, and it was his printed textiles that brought him the most success. By the 1950s, many artists and designers in Canada embraced hand-screen printing as an inexpensive and accessible process. Hansen’s fabrics suited the fashion for regional imagery fuelled by postwar nationalism and the trend toward suburban living. His large repeat patterns of deer, mountain sheep, and musk ox show an inventive blend of naturalism and abstraction.

In 1954, Hansen began collaborating with A.B. Caya and the firm launched “Canadian inspired HAND-PRINTS,” which included Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Heron Bay, and Sundridge. Their second collection by Hansen offered new designs in 14 different colourways. “What John Fisher has done for our country in the literary field Thor Hansen is doing in the field of stylized art,” trumpeted one company brochure. Moderately priced, Hansen’s printed textiles furnished rec rooms and cottages and reached the American market.

Hansen looked to folk art and in particular First Nations imagery for inspiration, as did many of his peers. David Lambert and Elizabeth Wilkes Hoey, for example, appropriated West Coast Indigenous iconography documented by Grace Melvin and Hunter Lewis, and the illustrations in Alice Ravenhill’s An Outline of the Arts and Crafts of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia were also a design source for Hansen, Lambert and Hoey.

This practice of cultural appropriation and quest for a Canadian aesthetic had its critics. One was Harold Burnham, head of the Royal Ontario Museum’s textile department. Burnham insisted that, “We in Canada have no more right to claim the designs of Ojibway beadwork or West-Coast Indian carving as part of our own peculiar heritage than we have to claim designs that come from Asia or Africa.” He conversely advised Canadian artisans “should feel free to draw on influences from the whole of the world’s culture,” because to be limited to Canadiana is “isolating” and “provincial.”

Another detractor was Marius Barbeau, an ethnologist and former director of the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of History). Barbeau cited poor execution and lack of authenticity as reasons for dismissing much of his work as “do-dads” rather than “real works of art and decoration.” Hansen, defended his academic approach and claimed creativity “for planning, coordinating and personally designing all the items” for which he consulted many sources, including his treasured copy of Barbeau’s Totem Poles.

Despite these objections, Hansen’s national vision caught the imagination of the populat press, and he made numerous radio and television appearances. Esteemed colleagues such as Lawren Harris and Ontario Crafts Adviser Joseph Banigan, also lent their support by praising Hansen's efforts. Even the influential Massey Commission Report on Canadian arts and culture deemed the B-A’s interiors worth mentioning in its brief discussion of craft.

Hansen’s insight into craft theory and practice is no less remarkable. Collapsing the divisions between design, craft, and industry as well as promoting craft to avoid marginalization continue to be relevant concerns. His vision to construct a national style for handicraft and design via corporate industry was perhaps naively optimistic but never insincere.

Dr. Rachel Gotlieb is a craft and design historian. She is the Ruth Rippon Curator Ceramics at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California.

This article is adapted from an essay originally published by the Textile Museum of Canada in 2005.


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