A few weeks ago, our team was able to attend a screening of designer Greg Durrell’s debut film, Design Canada. Design Canada is the story of our country’s modern history, told through dialogue with the designers of some of Canada’s most recognizable symbols. A labour of love that took five years to complete, Design Canada is an ambitious, painstakingly crafted love letter to mid-century design, as well as a stinging indictment of design revisionism. For many, the subject matter might seem unfamiliar and unaffecting, but the film succeeds in speaking a common language, revealing a surprisingly rich history of Canadian design in a way that the layperson can appreciate.
When one thinks of excellent design — be it architectural, industrial, or graphic — one generally thinks of Europe. The Dutch, perhaps, or the Swiss. Canada initially seems an unlikely place for iconic design. Perhaps it’s a testament to the perfect simplicity of our most foundational graphic symbols — the flag, for one, or the CN rail logo — that we don’t view Canada as a beacon for excellent design. In truth, Canada benefits greatly from its multiculturalism in many areas; design is no exception. As the film explains, Canada’s historic tolerance toward immigrants allowed for an influx of brilliant design thinkers from war-torn mid-century Europe. Many of our iconic brands were influenced — if not outright created by — first-generation immigrants from Germany, Switzerland, and beyond.
The film opens with the establishment of the Canadian flag as we all know it, combining first-hand accounts from designers with archival footage of the flag debate during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although many of these news segments were filmed less than 60 years ago, the Canada we see is radically different. A nation living in the shadow of its powerhouse neighbour and colonial origins, this Canada is not a familiar place to those who never lived it. There’s a pervasive ‘Britishness’ — a cultural conservatism that feels somewhat alien when contrasted to today’s Canada. The 60s would prove to be a decade of astounding change for Canadian society, beginning with the flag and ending with Expo ‘67.
Expo ‘67 proved to be a watershed moment for Canadian designers. Montreal’s World Fair coincided with a major shift in Quebec’s social order. The so-called Quiet Revolution rapidly reformed Quebec’s conservative, heavily Catholic society. Economic and social reforms led to a period of artistic wealth and national pride throughout the province, and Expo ‘67 was in many ways the crown jewel.
Artists, thinkers, and designers from all backgrounds showcased their most ambitious works as Montreal, and to a lesser extent Canada, was thrust onto the world stage. Only a few years after the maple leaf first appeared on our flag, a new Canadian identity had been established and introduced to the world.
The film lingers on this formative period in Canadian history for much of its runtime, and for good reason. From CN rail’s simple, immediately recognizable logo to the 1972 Summit Series sweaters, a generation of designers perfectly captured New Canada – a forward-thinking, young, and newly nationalistic nation in charge of its own destiny.
The film wraps up with an exploration of contemporary Canadian design — or re-design, as the case may be. The subtext of the final 20 minutes of the film is vehemently anti-revisionist, and it’s hard to argue against that sentiment. The so-called improvements to each brand serve to undermine their impact and toss out decades of design history. Despite all the progress we’ve made, it’s easy to long for the design futurism and ambition of yesteryear.