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Modern in the Making: Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia

The draw to mid-century modern design has been perceived as being about craftsmanship, minimalist design and materials. But what “Modern in the Making: Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia” has brought to the forefront is the historical context of modernism — and a history not only rooted in the arts and crafts movement, but also in regional, provincial and Indigenous history.


The show, held at the Vancouver Art Gallery, was curated by Daina Augaitis, Allan Collier and Stephanie Rebick. The objects on display in the exhibition were collected from homes, private and museum collections and vaults. The foundation of objects as living pieces of history has a strong tie to collective memory that is displayed wonderfully in this exhibition. 

The objects are arranged in groups, categorized by date and ideology, from 1945 to the mid 1970s, from the end of the Second World War to the 1960’s Counterculture movement, engaging with familiar objects , the importance of craft in this context is the familiarity of domestic objects and focus on materials. Rather than having to explain memorabilia and its specific context, chairs, clothing, baskets, and experimental ‘environments’ speak to their own provenance. 


Setsuko Piroche’s “Dizzy Dome” (1974) is an interactive experience, where visitors cross the ideological art gallery boundary to interact with the work by walking under and through, bringing the materials of everyday objects out of the formal gallery into one of personal delight. 


Focusing on materials was part of the legacy of both the Arts and Crafts movement, and a period of experimentation and innovation after the war. From plywood by the Canadian Wooden Aircraft Company, to plastics, epoxy resins and fibreglass, the exhibition highlights the broadening range of how materials were adapted to domestic Canadian design in B.C. 


“Modern in the Making” excels in grounding familiar objects as crafted pieces, objects of admiration for their craftsmanship. Without alienating the viewer, the show breaks away from the white cube — whose modernist history would be strikingly out of place. Instead, “Modern in the Making” uses coloured walls and large blown-up photographs to serve not only as visual breaks, but reference points to suggest  a domestic interior. A monochromatic wall devoted to images and text of the Salish Weavers Guild is visually linked to a dress by Mary Chang, whose evening gown in black and white draws the eye. The myriad of historical narratives are presented through the focal point of the objects themselves in their familiarity to domestic life, rather than as art objects behind plexiglass, floating in a space intended to be neutral, devoid of history and of societal context. From the converging circular shelving on the wall displaying functional ceramics, a hanging pendant light, the exhibition space is closer to that of a trade show, showcasing the best in design that one may covet for their home. 


Most of the displays in the exhibition as a whole is set upon plinths at relatively low heights, that allow the craft works to be at a level that identify them as domestic objects, from chairs and rugs almost on the floor, lamps and basketry at table-height to give the impression of familiarity to those objects as pieces in a home. As you wind yourself through the space, able to see the objects from all angles, the atmosphere is less formal, once again tying into the impression of domesticity. 


Many of the objects have their roots in the societal context of the period, drawing from waves of immigration to B.C. after the Second World War, Indigneous cultural resurgence and land rights. “Modern in the Making” does not shy away from a critique in Indigenous-settler relations, but rather places Indigenous craft, rightfully, as part of the modernist design movement. 


There are masks by Ellen Neel, a Kwakwaka'wakw wood carver who spoke up for modernizing Indigenous crafts, materials and tools, and who had been outspoken against appropriation of mass-produced souvenirs, instead calling for hiring actual Indigenous makers. Neel’s masks hang on a wall somewhat removed from the other objects, but in a place of prominence. Behind a plexiglass dome, jewellery by Bill Reid (Haida), who adapted Haida designs with a modernist eye, captures attention, as do woven buttons by Nellie Jacobson (Nuu-chah-nulth). 


A powerful visual narrative in this exhibition lies in the contrast between the handmade object and  mass production.


A stunning “Ucluelet Basket” (1944) mirrors pottery by Wayne Ngan. From Helmut Krutz’s “Fold Down Couch” (1970) in striking orange to Hans Behm’s “Vancouver Chair” in vivid blue, function is observed before design is noted. Furniture’s ties to architectural designs abound, with influences from Le Corbusier to Mario Bellini brought together in the “Vancouver Chair”. Culminating in the feature devoted to Peter Cotton, the only part of the exhibition putting furniture on the wall. Cotton, a trained architect and co-founder of the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture, is a Canadian designer preoccupied with the economy of materials. He is known for the thin steel rods that give his pieces an impression of lightness, and his work was prominently displayed in the exhibition. Yet his pieces were discordantly arranged against and on a wall in something akin to an Ikea display; a thoughtfully arranged tableau would have made for a stronger display.


The exhibition is a delight to the eye and with key informative texts dotted around displays that make the experience educational as well. Engaging local and regional histories adds a strong link between modernist design and the craft objects on display, placed with forethought to their functional heritage. 


Online Review




Winter 2021

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