While several countries around the world have established a national design identity, Canada is probably not the first that springs to mind. As a nation formed largely by the many Europeans who ended up settling there, its design identity has been much informed by the International Style from overseas. Despite this, however, Canadian design is distinct from that of its European counterparts as well as its vast southern neighbour, the US.
Examples of Canada’s distinct aesthetic are recorded by Blair Thomson in Canada Modern, an online and physical archive of modernist Canadian graphic design from 1960 to 1985. He tells It’s Nice That, “It’s easy to point to the design cultures of countries like Switzerland, Italy or the Netherlands, and I’d like Canada to take its place alongside them. That’s not to say that Canadian design is better, but it is well defined. Design certainly helped this nation to find its voice and its sense of self-identity, especially after British rule ended.” It’s a project that is part of a broader movement to reassess and re-value Canada’s design heritage.
Since childhood, Blair has continuously collected examples of Canadian graphic design. “As a youngster in the early 70s in Toronto, modernism played a big part in shaping my surroundings,” he says. “It brought a sense of optimism and confidence to the nation.” Artefacts such as books, stamps, posters, packaging and signage went on to inspire the young enthusiast to pursue a career in graphic design – he later went on to start the branding agency Believe in, that now spans the UK and his native Canada.
As time went by, and as Blair’s collection and interest continued to grow, the designer sought out further information behind the studios and the designs he loved, but often found it an “impossible task”. As he explains, “The more I learned, the more I felt there was a bigger story to be told, celebrating and sharing the development of Canada as a modern nation through design.”
Canada Modern thus became a passion project for Blair, but he was both the designer and the client. Approaching the collection with a tenacity bordering on obsession, Blair began reaching out to the designers whose names were behind old logo books, magazine articles and award annuals. “To my delight, they started writing with keenness and support,” he says. Consequently, the project has enabled Blair to get to know people like Stuart Ash, Fritz Gottshalk, Burton Kramer, Tony Hobbs, Glenn Fretz and Raymond Bellemare, to name a few.
Going on to create his own identity and website for the collection, the archive’s website launched last year, and is currently approaching its 250th post. With over 1,000 artefacts ready to be documented, there is plenty more in the pipeline for Blair and Canada Modern. Delving through the archive, there are hints to Canada’s European forefathers and the freer North American design style. “The result was an exciting blend of grids and systems, but with a sense of humanity and vibrancy,” says Blair.
Describing his role in the project as “a bit like a DJ” who’s making the most of his skills for the benefit of an audience, but ultimately playing someone else’s records, Blair’s eventual hopes for the archive revolve around inspiring the next generation of Canada’s designers. He goes on to say, “I hope that maybe through a better understanding of Canada’s first golden age of graphic design, we might start to usher in the next.”
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