British Columbia has long been celebrated as an epicentre of modernist architecture. But what did people decorate those sleek glass-and-wood homes with? What did they sit on, and what locally created fashion and jewellery did they wear?
It turns out the province was also a unique hotbed of homewares and apparel, as the massive new Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit Modern in the Making: Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia shows. With more than 300 works of ceramics, furniture, jewellery, weaving, and more finds made between 1945 and 1975, the show is the most comprehensive overview of this region’s mid-century craft and design ever assembled.
“It has not been mapped out in any considerable way in this province—kind of shocking but true,” VAG interim director Daina Augaitis says at a virtual tour of the exhibit. “It was a remarkably creative period in the province’s history, with multiple ways that modernism was enacted here in B.C.”
The result illustrates how widely the creative scene here interpreted modernism. A modular, gold-upholstered Airfoam Lounge Chair by Earle A. Morrison Ltd. might sit alongside a formline silver bracelet by Robert Davidson, a serene raku pot by Wayne Ngan, or a glam tricolour swimsuit by designer Rose Marie Reid.
“It’s really the diversity of how modernism landed here—the materials that are here, how cross-disciplinary it was here,” Augaitis explains in an interview with the Straight, pointing out that waves of postwar immigration from Europe and Asia brought new craft forms and ideals to a place that was already rich with a reinvigorated Indigenous craft movement. “They sort of invented new hybrid forms.”
It took Augaitis and guest curator Allan Collier, with the help of associate curator Stephanie Rebick, two years of intrepid research, tracking down old show catalogues, finding family descendants who had inherited key pieces, and digging through museum vaults.
“It was remarkable,” Augaitis relates. “Many of the artists have indeed passed away, so then they have the materials split up between the children; you find one and you get the material from the different siblings and you go and look and get more stories.” She adds that many of the families had cherished the pieces for decades and were overjoyed to see the work of their elderse finally recognized in a gallery setting.
“Even Allan, as a collector, has often thought of his work as a rescue mission. He started many decades ago and a lot of times it was just getting tossed out in the laneway or would show up in the Sally Ann,” Augaitis says of Collier’s collection, which has pieces in Modern in the Making. “So a lot of his work started out as salvaging, and he started filling his home. And before you know it he’s got one of the most important furniture collections in the country.”
The team has organized the exhibit chronologically, tracing the functionalism of the 1950s, when there was an increased demand for a wide range of domestic objects to complement the new West Coast modern architectural style. That leads into the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s here, and the textiles, fashion objects, and visual artworks that blur the distinction between design, craft, art, and even performance. You’ll see a photo of artist Evelyn Roth wearing her funky Video Armour, a minidress, pair of boots, and floppy hat woven out of discarded video tape, as well as Setsuko Piroche’s cascading woven Dizzy Dome. In furniture from this era, check out Niels Bendtsen’s iconic, cushy Ribbon Chair, made in 1975 of tubular steel, cotton canvas, and polyester fill.
One aspect that sets the exhibit apart is the way it displays Indigenous craft and design alongside modernist works that draw on Asian and Scandinavian or other European styles. In the era covered, there was a slow return of potlatching and a rebirth of traditional craft. Key pieces of weaving appear here, including those of the Salish Weavers Guild and Nuu-chah-nulth artist Nellie Jacobson’s grass buttons and traditional baskets. Elsewhere, Bill Reid cufflinks show how that artist was the first to use semi-precious stones in Haida jewellery, blending European skills with the Haida aesthetic.
“It is about the complications of modernism,” Augaitis sums up. “Modernism was about the breaking with what came before—and that has more to do with the people than a glorified hierarchy. If you think of Indigeneity, it’s important to acknowledge that we know there were long-standing traditions here, and let’s look at them in relationship to the other work.…I think we have to look at the exhibition from the lens of today and look at the gaps and try to fill in these gaps of what was going on.”
What’s perhaps most striking about the exhibit is how so many of these items look as stylish today as they did in their own, groundbreaking era. Look no further than Mary Chang’s impossibly chic, bell-sleeved black-and-white dress, from the collection of fashion historian Ivan Sayers, or Helmut Krutz’s curvy, orange fold-down couch, with its minimalist steel and teak arms and legs. The sleek aesthetic and celebration of handmade elements put forward by these diverse mavericks speak directly to today—proving that in Vancouver, modern may still very much be in the making.
The Vancouver Art Gallery presents Modern in the Making: Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia until January 3, 2021.