Canada Modern Archive

As someone who has spent a great deal of time archiving photographs and ephemera over the last decade, I have a massive amount of appreciation for the work Blair Thomson is doing with the Canada Modern Archive. From his acquisition efforts to the meticulous research, documentation, presentation, promotion, fundraising, and everything in-between, it’s clear that the legacy of mid-to-late century Canadian graphic design is in good hands. 

Ryan Mungia: What inspired you to start collecting?

Blair Thomson: I collect for several reasons. Firstly, because I am a designer, I collect as a source of reference and inspiration to inform the design process—like many designers. Secondly, as a proud Canadian who has lived much of my adult life outside of Canada, in the UK, I collect as a form of self-directed design education, specifically Canadian graphic design of a modernist flavor, from the period 1960–1985. I use this as a means to learn from and interpret the future through a new lens. In tandem with this, my Canadian archive responds to an inner calling and civic duty to tell this important story, sharing with the world this important epoch and the evolution of Canada’s identity and place in design history.

RM: How do you source material?

BT: Canada Modern artifacts are acquired in a couple of ways: they’re either purchased in the traditional fashion—in secondhand stores, antiques fairs and markets, thrift stores, online auctions, and bookstores; given to me by friends, contacts, and supporters; or donated to me for legacy from the original designers themselves, their families, or business associates. I am always on the lookout for new material not already in the collection, wherever they may come from.

Exposition poster
Exposition poster, 1967; Via Canada Modern Archive
Montréal Museum of Fine Arts guide
Montréal Museum of Fine Arts guide, 1977; Via Canada Modern Archive

RM: Why has there been an absence of resources on what you called a singular red thread?

BT: There are several designers of the era who have built more enviable reputations than others. These designers were often AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) members and would gain exposure for their work in magazines and annuals such as GraphisIDEANovum Gebrauchsgraphik, and Typographische Monatsblätter. By the mid–’80s, Canadian design drifted out of the spotlight, and with the passing of time (and the introduction of the Internet), much of this early work disappeared from view—unless you happened to have those old magazines or annuals. The work itself was not produced, on the whole, in massive numbers here in Canada. So much of it quickly became scarce and impossible to find. It was not always meant to be kept, after all. Things like stamps and material for global events—such as Expo 67 and the Montréal Olympics—are a little easier, but even then, there are a few pieces that are like gold dust. The collections of work by the likes of Burton KramerAllan Fleming, and Julian Hébert exist in academic institutions and are preserved for posterity but difficult to experience. Canada Modern seeks to change all of that. I invest a lot of time to continually research and locate materials that have either drifted into obscurity or have never really received any exposure, to begin with, especially for the merits of its design. With this, I uncover names and points of contact I was unfamiliar with. It’s a challenge but extremely rewarding.

RM: What defines the Canada Modern aesthetic?

BT: In the early 1960s, the emergence of a new Canadian visual identity developed, which was at once both modern and human, combining a strong utilitarian sensibility with honesty and warmth. It came as a result of trailblazing collaboration as European designers trained in the International Style worked alongside their freer, more expressive North American counterparts. These designers were not simply applying a finished formula but adapting their own design language, in the process developing a truly distinctive Canadian aesthetic.

National Film Board of Canada badge
National Film Board of Canada pinback badge, 1968;
Symbol by Georges Beaupré; Via Canada Modern Archive
Graphisme Québec poster
Graphisme Québec poster, 1982; Design by Anthony Hobbs;
Via Canada Modern Archive

RM: Was there a difference from design coming out of the United States at that time?

BT: There was great work of a similar philosophy also coming out of the United States, mainly from places like New York and Chicago. I would argue that the Canadian equivalent featured more human fauna and flora references, which appeared in simple, bold graphic form. Canada is a place where adventurous people built something new, often in challenging situations, drawing from the cultures we ventured from but never feeling like we couldn’t challenge established orders. So, there is definitely a more “northern” stamp, which is distinctively different from our neighbors to the south.

RM: Were there any geographic or regional hotspots?

BT: During the ’60s, Montréal was definitely the city that “got it” most. Toronto was, and still is, a more commercially-driven city, and the bigger agencies mainly worked out of there. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, after Expo 67 had passed, Toronto grew to challenge Montréal, and the leading English-speaking designers and studios worked out of there, whereas the French-speaking Québécois continued working hard out Montréal. Events like the Montréal Olympic Games in 1976 kept the spotlight on Montréal through most of the ’70s. There were a few studios in other locations like Ottawa, Quebec City, and Vancouver but less so creative hotspots for this kind of work.

RM: Were there certain art schools that proved influential?

BT: In Toronto, the OCA (Ontario College of Art) produced many great designers and is still a highly-regarded institution. In Montréal, l’École des Beaux-arts de Montréal, McGill University, and, later, Université du Québec à Montréal all have very fine reputations and design alumni. Several studios, often run by European-born principals, sent their young talented designers to Switzerland to train with the masters in places like the Schule für Gestaltung Basel and Zürich.

RM: What are your short and long-term goals with the archive?

BT: My aim is to continue the great work I have started. Currently, the online archive does not even touch on the scale of the physical collection, so getting more work on the site is important to me—but not if it’s unresearched or rushed and, hence, the time this takes. I intend to continue offering surplus materials for sale via the Canada Modern shop and producing limited-edition merchandise and products, all of which help me to raise funds to reinvest back into the project and give people access to the real thing to own themselves. In the long term, I would love to gain national and international recognition for the work I am doing and reach people from all walks of life who can enjoy seeing this wonderful time capsule of modernist expression and execution. I would also like to gain the attention of the government of Canada and, with this support, undertake a large-scale exhibition within a museum or gallery of international reputation. I would also like to teach and consult more and continue to build my reputation as one of the world’s leading experts on the subject.

Sex Counselling in Family Practice LP
Sex Counselling in Family Practice, 1971; Design by Rolf Harder;
Via Canada Modern Archive
Canadadian postage stamp
Rehabilitation/Réadaptation postage stamp, 1980; Design by Rolf Harder;
Via Canada Modern Archive
A book titled Calculus, Complex Numbers and Polar Co-ordinates
Calculus, Complex Numbers and Polar Co-ordinates, 1972;
Via Canada Modern Archive
Book titled Educating Canadians
Educating Canadians, 1973; Design by Stuart Ash, G+A Toronto;
Via Canada Modern Archive