Story at BACK TO BOMBAST WEBSITE

 

 

 

 

TEXT

 

 

bombast sofa frame

 

THIS SOFA WILL LAST FOR A HUNDRED YEARS (OR MORE) ...

 

How do we know this? We don't, actually. But we have always consciously attempted to create furniture that will last, intuiting that there is a correlation between quality and environmental responsibility. As part of this approach, BOMBAST works with some of the most sophisticated material suppliers in the world. Our supply chain includes textile producers committed to producing product of the highest quality -- with the lowest environmental impact. From natural fibres, to heavy-metal-free-dyes, we are making, with the help of our suppliers, choices that make your choices easier.*

 

* read the Wool Story at http://www.butefabrics.co.uk/
and see Gabriel's account of their production methods: http://www.gabriel.dk/

 



 

THE BOMBAST STORY


Bombast is a boutique manufacturer of contemporary furniture based in Vancouver, BC. Since 1990, we have been producing an ever-expanding line of furniture for the home. Marked by our engagement with the modernist legacy, our line could best be understood as the material trace of what is in many ways a very personal learning curve. Suffice it to say that when we began in this business, we were too young and too inexperienced to know that our dream -- participation in a global design culture -- was impossible from the relative isolation that is our Vancouver home. That we are still at it remains a function of our unwillingness to accept the obvious.

 

Over and against a globalized system of design and manufacture that has relegated most of us to the status of mere consumer, we have attempted to assert the value of our own experience. In a world dominated by the mediated image, by global capital that has little interest or sensitivity to the particulars of local experience, Bombast is about bringing the great world closer (by engaging with History) while simultaneously asserting the textures and experience of our own lives.

 

Which might just be a bombastic way of saying we make things for use in a cultural/social context where making is not the primary concern of our fellow citizens.

 

As many of the texts appended below illustrate, our challenge has been to work against the obvious trends in the North American marketplace -- by which we mean the shift towards off-shore, volume producers for a mass market characterized by increasingly anonymous, increasingly placeless, consumers. To survive in such a context, we have had to partner with other, like-minded, producers; we have had to conjure up, out of the relatively "thin" ground that is Canadian design history, a "pre-text" for our own production. Through it all we remain committed to the idea that it matters that the objects in our lives tell meaningful stories.


 

 

 

BOMBAST INTERIORS

 

Bombast Interiors is the most recent chapter in our story -- a story that has been unfolding for almost two decades. Located in the heart of Vancouver's historic Chinatown, the store is very much more than a corporate showroom. In addition to our own products, we sell a carefully edited range of complimentary furniture, lighting, carpets and accessories from some of the most interesting design names and brands in the world. We also offer a curated collection of vintage rarities -- objects from the historical stream that inspire us.

 

More than merely an extension of our manufacturing activities, the store has broadened our conversation with other producers and designers in the contemporary arena, and adds what we hope is an interesting layer to the retail environment in Vancouver.

 

The Bombast Interiors Collection has been gathered by a careful selection process that emphasizes quality and design integrity -- and helps to illustrate what we believe are lasting material cultural values. Just as we strive to produce quality products that respond to genuine needs, our trading partners are all firms that are recognized internationally for excellence and it is it a pleasure to represent them in the Vancouver marketplace.


 

 


HOT SHOP BOMBAST

 

By Carolann Rule (Globe and Mail, Spring 2005)

 

The best shops are the ones with a back story. At Vancouver's new Bombast, the eloquent sofas, cabinets and tables all bear the mark of a historian's eye.

 

Co-owner Russell Baker, a sculptor-turned-furniture designer, is a walking encyclopedia of furnishings both in western Canada and elsewhere. David Eichorn, a former fashion designer, is Bombast's production manager and and an expert at sourcing up-to-the minute upholstery textiles that subtly reference the past.

 

Fifteen years after they began selling their high-style Bombast collection through swish showrooms south of the border, the duo decided to open a shop of their own, which they have located adventurously in a down-market block along East Pender Street in Chinatown. The enterprise seems perfectly timed to meet the needs of design-savy shoppers who love modernism by want more than the prevailing minimalist look.

 

"There's a kind of thin minimalism out there right now that isn't inspiring to anyone," says Baker describing the cheerless copies of B&B Italia sofas and armchairs he sees arriving here by the crate from Asia. "I think my customers are looking for an alternative to what is being offered as contemporary or modern in furnishings. They want some layers and they want some history -- and they want some of the things that surround them to be about where they live."

 

Unlike most other local furniture stores, which strive for a cosmopolitan outlook, Bombast Interiors is unapologetically about Vancouver, particularly in its high-modern glory days of the 1950's and 60's.

 

On the walls are iconic black and white photographs of local homes shot by Selwyn Pullan during the period. Among the dwellings featured are ones by Ron Thom, Arthur Erickson and Barry Downs, who were instrumental in developing a Pacific Northwest architectural vocabulary based upon climate, geography and lifestyle. These men decorated their memorable works with the best modern furniture of the day, much of which was imported. Some of these pieces have informed what Baker makes, albeit in an abstracted way.

 

Baker describes himself as a "contemporary designer who is not afraid of a historical echo." However theoretical or understated his references may be -- and they are both -- you can pick them out if you know what to look for or are fortunate to have him as your guide.

 

For example, the reserved, angular Ofa sofa and boisterous, curvilinear Max look nothing alike, but both have features in common with the 18th century English chesterfield: The Ofa shares its form and proportions, and the Max, its rolled arm and tufting. While the Ofa has a quasi-retro appearance, the Max looks of the moment.

 

"That's because it has a contemporary relationship to the floor," Baker explains. "Right now, sofas are low slung, so Max is a mix of 18th-century idiom and current thinking." (And you thought it was just a cool sofa.)

 

To accompany their plush seating, Bombast designs and manufactures occasional tables (travertine-topped ) and consoles -- and a new line of beds is in the works. Among the few things they sell but do not produce is lighting; nevertheless, their offerings are complementary lamps by Noguchi and Spanish pole lamps from Santa & Cole.

 

 


 

MISCELLANY

 

What follow are a selection of texts written by Russell Baker (partner and principal designer for BOMBAST). While they do not bear directly upon the work of BOMBAST, we include them here in the hope that some of the design issues they deal with might contribute to a better understanding of our firm and its products.

 

 


 

BLOWN - A MINOR DISCOVERY IN MATERIAL CULTURE

 

(A version of the following text accompanied an exhibiition of contemporary and mid-century glass at the Helen Pitt Gallery in Vancouver in January 2002.)

 

"I was sure that this puny and almost humble object would hold its own against them; by its mere presence it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw down upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages."  - Jean Genet

 

"I want to live in a city where regional characteristics are revered and not obliterated by globalization." - Sir Terence Conran

 

The thrill of discovery is rare today.  Just about anything you happen upon has already been documented, photographed and enshrined in someone's master narrative.  So when I first saw a blown glass bong in a Vancouver smoke shop a number of years ago,  it took me a while to realize that I might have made a genuine discovery.  These bulbous and psychedelic forms unquestionably complimented the area's rich marijuana harvest, and invited, I immediately realized, serious ethnographic investigation.  To my eyes, these forms encoded a self-consciously delinquent identity; they suggested the existence of a complete system (of design, production, distribution, and consumption) in which the values, norms and conventions of the "straight" world were subtly inflected.  Marked by a naive exuberance, a spontaneous disregard for received conventions of taste and proportion, they suggested, further,  that in the face of the world's indifference,  alternative priorities could be successfully asserted.  In Dick Hebdige's terms, "the gentle arts of escape and subversion" appeared, on the basis of the material cultural evidence,  to be alive and well.  (Hebdige, 1979).  

 

The bong is not, of course, a new typology.  Nor is the pipe.  Both exist in a continuum of production with which the local, until now, has had a merely mediated (ie. consumer) relationship.  In order to understand the significance of the locally produced manifestations of this tradition,  I knew I had to determine the extent of their rootedness.  An informal research initiative (I called Blunt Brothers) confirmed my suspicion that I was dealing with something of regional significance.  I learned that Portland, Oregon was the  centre of the phenomenon,  but that it included communities of producers throughout the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver Island.   My experience told me that in smoke houses, squats, multi-person living quarters, at parties and in public parks, these products were in use.  But I had been unaware of the degree to which their producers were known to each other, enjoyed profiles in High Times magazine, and had a developed following among devoted "consumers."  That a "star" system of distinguished producer/designers was already in place was perhaps the biggest surprise.

 

So my intuition was correct.  This was a discovery of something I could justifiably point to with a conviction that it had something to do with here, with questions of regional identity.  Looking at a bong, I could say, rather in the spirit of a Dane engaging with a Danish chair from the 1950's:  "this is me, this is one of my people's forms."

 

Further investigations lead in surprising directions.  Specifically, to the mid-century  production of smoking-related paraphernalia in Murano, Italy.  Like the bong and pipe production of the Pacific Northwest,  Murano glass is characterized by an exclusive reliance on hot techniques (such as blowing) to the exclusion of cutting and engraving.  The Italian's bold colour palette, in which primary colours are fearlessly, even defiantly, juxtaposed, coupled with an easy asymmetry and looseness of form, suggested an affinity with the local production. 

 

The fabled extravagance of Murano glass has long been linked to post-war disenchantment with pre-war articulations of modernist purpose.   As the modern movement succeeded in realizing its goals,  its critics increasingly argued that the defiance of the cultural order of the  bourgeoisie -- so central to pioneering modernity -- had been fully assimilated (in Habermas'  formula,  modernism was "dominant but dead".)   The mid-century glass artists in Murano were part of this critique.  Drawing on a two thousand year-old tradition of Italian glass artistry, they responded to modernist prescriptions with an irreverence that decisively distinguished their products in the context of global glass production and prefigured post-modern (read: Memphis, etc.) critiques by  decades.  Even the most modest Murano ashtray encodes a will to subvert the reductive impulse at the core of international modernism.  Like our local bong and pipe makers, the glass artists of Murano aimed to mitigate the effects of a global system of production and consumption, "to exasperate all the [aesthetic] police in the world".  Over and against an increasingly globalized system of material cultural governance, they wittily asserted a counter-project that valorized the spirit of play -- and aesthetic autonomy -- in decidedly local and historical terms.  

 

The bongs and pipes of the Pacific Northwest beg the question as to why these particular forms, and the sensibility that shapes them,  should occur at this particular time, in this particular place. I would argue that they have something to do with a shared experience of geographical isolation coupled with cultural late-coming -- or belatedness -- to borrow from Harold Bloom's vocabulary.  Here, on the western edge of the European diaspora in North America, a community of producers has intuitively understood that "figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves" (Bloom, 5).  Whether conscious or not of an indebtedness to the Italian tradition, the formal and technical "borrowings" of the glass artists of the Pacific Northwest express a felt understanding of the larger issues of cultural and aesthetic autonomy that are central to any experience of the modern.  Rather than manifesting traces of any anxiety of indebtedness, these objects reach across time and space to form an alliance with their Italian precursors in a spirit of genuine solidarity. As such, these "puny and almost humble object[s]" deserve consideration as one of our most interesting material cultural contributions to date.

_

 

Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence: A History of Poetry. Oxford University Press, London, Oxford, New York, 1973.

 

Hebdige, Dick.  Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, London and New York, 1979.


 


 

CANADIAN DESIGN HISTORY

 

(A version of this text was first published by The Value Created Review - an online design journal based in Vancouver.)

 

The history of Canadian industrial design, including contemporary furniture, has been marked by a double emphasis. While the adoption and development of modernist principles (e.g, the honest use of materials and processes to satisfy functional needs in an industrial context) has constituted the ostensible core of design education and promotion in Canada, concern with issues of national identity has also played a significant role. "To strengthen cultural identity, enhance our standard of living, and create wealth in the economy by fostering a demand for sustainable Canadian design" is the vision statement of the Design Exchange ("Canada's design museum and centre for design research and education"). This is a telling hierarchy of concerns and goes some distance to explain the state of design in Canada.

 

The Design Exchange is the latest incarnation of the impulse (born in the early years after the Second World War) to help develop a design industry in Canada that would be equal to German, American or Scandinavian models. Following the lead of design centres in the United States and Britain (the British Council of Industrial Design was founded in 1944), the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) established its Design Division and Industrial Design Index -- a "qualitative photographic index of industrial design for articles of everyday use" -- in 1947 (Buchanan, "Design Index," 88). In 1953, Canada's first design gallery, the NGC's Design Centre, was opened.

 

Like the Design Exchange of today, post-World War II design institutions conceived of design in terms much broader than function, aesthetic competence or economic advantage. While overtly promoting the idea that good design can make products and services more competitive, the Design Centre also inspired an expectation that industry, in tandem with an emerging design profession, might generate an expression of Canadian culture paralleling efforts in other creative disciplines. Scott Watson has described the aim of the Design Centre as an attempt to " aestheticize and nationalize the object." Employing a pictorial rthetoric borrowed from other creative disciplines, the Design Index presented design "like sculpture...not in any 'use' context but in a a dramatically lit white field...persuad[ing] people to look at furniture, toasters and radios as if they were objects for aesthetic contemplation" (Watson, 79). Implicit in such a rhetoric was the assumption that design, like sculpture, painting or literature, would come to play its part in defining and expressing a specifically Canadian experience. Buttressed by government, manufacturers and retailers, as well as a curious public, designers fared well in the first decade following World War II. For a time it looked like design might emerge as an identifiably Canadian concern. (Various commentators have covered this period. In addition to Watson, Virginia Wright's ground-breaking Modern Furniture in Canada, 1920 to 1970 is notable, as is the more recent Design in Canada by Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden. Allan Collier's many contributions to exhibition catalogues of West Coast designers and manufacturers of the 1950's are also of interest.) Though some might characterize the products dating from this period as derivative of international trends, they do collectively express the desire to fully comprehend and naturalize the lessons of modernity. That an identifiably "Canadian" way of life -- expressed by a continuum of objects -- has not come into being is a concern latent in most accounts of the period.

 

As early as 1951, Donald Buchanan expressed the designer's challenge in terms of American influence. (Buchanan, "Good Design or Styling"). Urging designers to resist American "fadishness" in favour of principles that would "unite clarity of structure with fitness for purpose," Buchanan interprets American tendencies ("styling") as a clear threat to the emergence of Canadian design. The intensity of Buchanan's rhetoric is noteworthy. More than merely an injunction to avoid the dangers inherent in ornament, Buchanan's anxiety, expressed as it is in national terms, is clearly as much about identity as design rigour. The very possibility of a distinctive Canadian identity -- one fully expressed in objects for use -- seems to hang in the balance. The Design Exchange's more recent expression of a desire to "strengthen cultural identity" is but the present moment's manifestation of Buchanan's nationalistic anxiety. Subsequent commentators have explained the state of contemporary design in Canada in similar terms. References to the "takeover of facilities by multinational organizations,: or to our branch-plant economy dominated by foreign (read "American") ownership, merely restate, with different emphasis, the belief that the predicament of design in Canada has something to do with proximity to the United States. And of course this is true. The integration of the economies of our two countries -- combined with the fact that Canada's home market is insufficient to support an independent manufacturing industry -- constitutes a distinctive ground for design practice. One might argue that geography, more than cultural policy, has determined the evolution of design in Canada.

 

The forgoing notwithstanding, the history of innovation in Canada is considerable, and there is a growing public awareness of the contributions Canada has made in many areas of manufacturing. Canada produced the first one-piece moulded plastic chair (Wright, xvi), the first jet liner and the first paint roller! (Gotlieb). Indeed, Gotleb and Golden's survey of design from 1945 to 2001 is clear evidence that designers and manufacturers have been successfully collaborating in a surprisingly broad range of materials and consumer typologies. And, as others have noted, Canada has also made many advances in the design of objects or implements that are a direct response to the natural environment (snowmobiles, snow ploughs, all terrain vehicles, industrial technologies relating to resource extraction, etc.). It is important, though, to distinguish between what Jan Kuypers call "austerely engineered products" and objects for everyday use. The latter have a way of getting tangled in cultural policy debates, which have little or no resonance in discussions regarding the manufacture of (for instance) logging equipment. That the objects of everyday use are expected to "strengthen cultural identity" seems to be an accepted fact -- though in this era of global capitalism, offers little to either design practitioners or educators

 

If there is hope for design in Canada, it could be argued it is to be found in the emergence of discussions bereft of identity concerns. New dialogues framed on the basis of multidisciplinary collaborations are a case in point. In place of an "anxious eagerness" (Watson, 79) to create a Canadian design, more recent debates among "user experience professionals seem to auger the beginning of a new era -- one where the "deliberate design of products and services to create positive experiences for people" is deemed a sufficient and possible goal.

_

 

Buchanan, Donald, 1948. "Design Index" in Canadian Art, Dec. 1947-Jan. 1948.

 

Buchanan, Donald, 1951. "Good Design or 'Styling' -- The Choice Before Us." Canadian Art, vol. 9, no. 1 (Autumn 1951).

 

Gotlieb, Rachel and Cora Golden, 2001. Design in Canada: Fifty Years from Teakettles to Task Chairs. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

 

Kuypers, Jan and Glenda Milrod. "The Shape of Things Now: A Review of Canadian Designed Products." Exhibition pamphlet. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario.

 

Watson, Scott, 1983. "Art in the Fifties: Design, Leisure, and Painting in the Age of Anxiety" in Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931-1983. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery.

 

Wright, Virginia, 1997. Modern Furniture in Canada: 1920 to 1970. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

 

 


 

THE KNOLL LEGACY

 

(A version of the following text was first published in a catalogue accompanying the exhibition "Lounge-Ware: mid-century modern furniture design"  at the Kamloops Art Gallery in January, 2000.  The objects included in the show were selected by Susan Edelstein from the collection of the Knoll Museum in East Greenville, Pennsylvania.)

 

The Knoll Furniture Company enjoys a unique position in the history of modernist achievement.  Indeed, the firm's developmental trajectory has become the stuff of modernist mythology.  Though the story literally begins with Hans Knoll in 1938,  the legend was initiated by Florence Knoll (according to various reports) with her observation  that there was a "conflict" between modernist buildings' external appearance and the look of their internal spaces, including equipment. (Rouland, 7).  This insight reputedly  precipitated a drive toward an aesthetic coherence that in material and formal terms matched the precedents of the "Heroic Period" of prewar modernity.  And, as even a cursory survey of period Knoll interiors reveals (I refer to both the photographic evidence and the graphic representations of Eszter Haraszty) Knoll's aesthetic did have an affinity with the radical experiments of the prewar.  Every detail in a Knoll interior expresses the will to contemporaneity.  No trace of the nineteenth century survives.  From spatial organization (an emphasis on the open plan)to the form and materials of discrete particulars -- a Knoll interior suggests an unconflicted embrace of the material, technical, and economic opportunities of the postwar moment.

 

It is perhaps ironic that Knoll's success in realizing its vision would ultimately contribute to the conclusion of the period we now designate modern.  Post-war economic expansion in America would offer the firm and its affiliated designers an unparalleled opportunity to implement the ideas of the prewar European avant-garde.  Emphasizing functionality of design, standardized production methods, and new materials and processes, Knoll would distinguish itself by an exclusive commitment to modern design. But as the modern movement succeeded in achieving its aims, critics would  increasingly charge that the defiance of the bourgeoisie so central to pioneering modernity had been fully assimilated by the mainstream. (Foster). The products of Knoll, like the expressways 
of Robert Moses, Costa and Niemeyer's Brasilia, and the new towns of the United Kingdom, would ultimately be interpreted as failing to deliver the promised "new world".

 

It was, in fact, as early as August 1958, that Reyner Banham observed that the "junior avant-garde"  was  "admiring with equal fervor peasant houses on Santorin...the chrome-work on Detroit cars;  the Cutty Sark,  Chiswick house,  Camel cigarette packs, and Le Corbusier's cathedral at Ronchamp; Pollock, Paolozzi and Volkswagen."  Banham's account of the end of "stylistic prejudice" (read: the hegemony of modernist aesthetics), and his interpretation of the new pluralism ("a more viable integration of design with practicalities of machine-age existence") would be  variously received; but his insight -- that something new was afoot -- was not disputable (Banham, 28).   And as would quickly become evident, more than mere "practicalities" were at stake.  The new stylistic  heterogeneity implicitly expressed a far reaching scepticism vis-a-vis the modern project itself. Mass production, once embraced as the means of delivering good design to the masses, as a fundamentally democratic mechanism, had come to be regarded with suspicion.  To even the most casual  observer, the liberative impulse at the core of modernism had been reduced to mere consumerism.

 

The past forty years have seen the emergence of a number of cultural streams which can be interpreted as responses to the legacy of modernism.  Least interesting, but perhaps most obvious,  is that which Hal Foster dubs the "arriere-avant garde."   Characterized by a neo-conservative  antipathy to modernism (guilty by association with socialism) the "arriere-avant garde" frames its practices in sentimental, recuperative terms -- restoration and revival are its catch-words.   Arriere-avant gardism, in Foster's terms, answers both the need to innovate and the need to change nothing" (Foster, 24). The most shrill manifestations of architectural post-modernism, recalling  nineteenth century stylistic revivalism, flow from this stream.  At the other end of the political  spectrum are practices grounded in a suspicion of the moderns'  faith in the social value of "good design." Critical of the subsumption of the individual in a modern, rationalist order, regarding almost any form of material expression as tantamount to complicity with  late-capitalist consumerism,  designers of this persuasion substitute political action and philosophical  speculation for either product or architectural production (Ambasz, 20). Practices as various as those of the English architectural  collective Archigram, the Italian groups Superstudio, Alchemia, Gruppo Strum, and the French and Dutch Situationists have contributed to this diverse and often anarchic reaction to modernity. 

 

Alternatively, an undertaking that is best understood as an extension, rather than a transcendence of the modern project has quietly proceeded.  Fundamentally an annotative exercise, one devoted to the emendation of master narratives by the likes of Gideon and Pevsner, this re-reading of the modern is rooted in a desire to enlarge our understanding of what modernism is, rather than motivating finite  articulations of what modernism (just another historical style?) was. Replacing a narrowly defined  emphasis on functionality, standardization, and new materials, this "alternative" modernity offers a more  complex response to the idea of the new, to the will to change -- and includes within its purview anxious  responses to same.  It is to this annotative project that we owe the recovery of some of the unruly and eccentric expressionisms that had been systematically edited out of the official history.   Figures as diverse as Pierre Chareau, Gio Ponti, Carlo Scarpa, Rudoph Schindler, Josef Frank, Jean Royere, Jose Plecnik (and a host of others -- this list is by no means comprehensive) have been recognized as contributing to a modern that is anything but narrowly prescriptive.   Each of these figures demonstrated an ability to reconcile an enthusiasm for the new with a respect for tradition;  each sought,  in different ways, to express "the practicalities of machine age existence" without abandoning the "psychic  and sensual forces of place, material, and memory" (Olsberg, 10).  More than a cosmetic return to the "verities of tradition" (Foster) and more pragmatic than the counter-project of the anarchic avant-garde (informed by impulses rooted in Dada and Surrealism), this alternative modern speaks a suggestive and reassuringly complex material language.  It is, finally, the result of a growing appreciation for the nuances of the modern movement that we find ourselves witnessing a re-emergence of interest in all things modern. 

 

Forty years of narrative emendation provides a unique perspective with which to approach the legacy of Knoll. Armed with a model of a multilayered modernity -- distinguished by complex responses to the new and the old --  it is now possible to see Knoll as a particularly rarefied,  perhaps even naively optimistic manifestation of the will to contemporaneity.  Knoll, it is now possible to say, is merely one expression of modernist purpose -- rather than modernist purpose made manifest.  While there can be no doubt that Knoll's "classics" speak a language of democratic utopianism with a conviction that is entirely foreign to the contemporary marketplace, it is also apparent that their faith in the social efficacy of design is tainted with an air of prescriptive rigor.  And it is this prescriptive air, as much as the absence of historical referentiality, that would precipitate a turn of the tide against them.  It needn't necessarily have been so.  

 

The historiographic effacement of the real diversity of the prewar  modern movement  (unquestionably the legacy of the International Congress for Modern Architecture -- an organization devoted to both the promotion  and policing of the idea of the modern ) resulted in an incomplete transmission of much that we now value in prewar modern  (Ciucci, 68-91).  Well developed critiques of (for instance) the machine metaphor underlying the modern  program, as well as an informed understanding of the limitations of Gesamtkustwerk (totally-designed-environment) strategies, failed to find their place in the postwar, new-world,  incarnation of modernity (Botstein, 34). Such simplifications contributed to a modernity that inspired in the public a perception of the modern movement as a coercive, monolithic force (Banham's "stylistic prejudice").  Only recently, and as a result of extensive historical revision, has that perception started to shift.

 

If the current revival of interest in the modern is to be more than a turn of the wheel of fashion, it is important to position the objects that illustrate the phenomenon in the context of the complex diversity from which they arose. Firms like Knoll participated in a collective effort the goal of which was nothing less that the rebuilding, reappointing, and reorganizing of every aspect of postwar existence.  Consequently,  Knoll's classics have much to teach us about curiosity, optimism, a willingness to experiment.  The have, as well, an obvious (if negative) relation to the historical impulse.  Ironically, fully ensconced in History as they now are,  they owe their return to the very habit of mind that they repudiate.  If I am not mistaken, it will take something very like the spirit of what I have called alternative modernity to ensure they hang around a little longer this time.

_

 

Ambasz,  Emilio. "Introduction" to Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1972.

 

Banham, Reyner.  "Machine Aesthetes," in A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham.  University of California Press, Berkeley. 1996.

 

Botstein, Leo.  "The Consequences of Catastrophe: Josef Frank and Post-World-War I Vienna,"  in Josef Frank: Architect and Designer. Yale Universtiy Press, New Haven. 1996.

 

Ciucci, Giorgio.  "The invention of the Modern Movement" in Oppositions 24 (Spring 1981).

 

Foster, Hal.  Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics.  Bay Press, Seattle. 1985.

 

Olsberg, Nicholas.  "Introduction" to Carlo Scarpa Architect: Intervening with History. The Canadian Centre for Architecture and the Monacelli Press, Montreal. 1999.

 

Rouland, Steven and Linda.  Knoll Furniture: 1938 - 1960. Shiffer Publishing, Atglen. 1999.

 

 


 

PROVINCIAL ESSAYS

 

(This text accompanied an exhibition at the Canadian Craft Musuem. "Provincial Essays" was a design partnership founded in 1985 by Russell Baker and Neil Malbeuf -- and morphed into "BOMBAST" in 1990.)

 

Provincial Essays was founded in 1985.  Initially our work involved the exploration of formal concerns related to the aesthetic quality of consumer goods. Ours was a modest attempt to participate in a global design culture which valorizes serial, rather than one-off (i.e. craft) production and has its roots in the modern movement's faith in the potentially liberative role of technology. Latent in our program, but nevertheless central to it, was the hope/expectation that eventually a design practice might emerge from the necessarily mixed enterprise that was the small design-driven workshop,

 

As our work progressed (and we began to grow into our name) our focus shifted from an exclusive emphasis on the formal qualities of autonomous objects to include far more general considerations of a socio-cultural nature. This shift reflected an acquired appreciation of the problems inherent in any attempt at product production in a resource/service economy.  Further, increasing historical self-consciousness enabled us to see that we were repeating a paradigm well known to observers of the history of design in Vancouver.  Scott Watson, writing of that moment in the 1950's when local craftsmen/designers were encouraged by government to establish a regionally based industrial design industry, has observed that "this ambition was not realized." The designer craftsmen of the 1950's in Vancouver  would ultimately come face to face with the realities of a situation that was in opposition to their projects "given the place of British Columbia and Canada in the structure of world capitalism" (Watson).

 

In recognizing the similarity between our situation and that of designers like Peter Cotton, Robin Bush and Earl Morrison, we were forced to re-evaluate our program and reframe our objectives.  Central to that reappraisal was a consideration of the significance of our status as regional producers, of the socio-cultural meaning of the "Provincial" in Provincial Essays.  The conceptual re-tooling that followed was as much a personal as a professional realignment.  Our naive enthusiam for modernist theory and practice (including modernisms' social utopianism) had to be measure against our  experience of alienation from the productive sequence in universal culture.  Were we doomed to the status of mere consumers in a centralized consumer culture -- or was participation a possibility?

 

Those who have little or no chance, at least for the moment, of participation in mainstream practice (design related or otherwise) inevitably find themselves forced to articulate a strategy of resistance. In the world of product design, this has most often meant a revival of vernacular models: pre-industrial (i.e. craft) modes of production, replete with golden-age ideologies, are championed as a means of reintegrating the human world with the world of commodities.  That the reactionary ideal of the idiosyncratic "creative" individual with which this model is imbued had no attraction for us necessarily dictated an alternative approach.  The problem, as we understood it, was social, not individual; our task was to somehow recapture the aesthetic and social vision of the moderns without contributing to the culture of rational manufacture and consumption which relegated us to the status of mere consumers.  What we were looking for was increasingly a methodology for inquiring consumer culture -- not a haven from it.

 

Inspired by the writings of Kenneth Frampton, who observes (with respect to architectural practice) that "peripheral nodes" (as distinct from "apparent" centres of culture such as New York, London, Paris) "were able to sustain more multi-layered complexity of architectural culture,"  that "more sensitive and relevant...interstitial cultural manifestations arose when there was a desire and a willingness on the part of architects and their clients to develop a self-conscious and local contemporary expression," we came to see issues of place, identity, and (ultimately) consumer culture itself as central concerns.  Our desire to  express place in our work lead to a consideration of the consumer good as a vehicle of expression, as a semantic unit charged with cultural significance.  The consumer good, so conceived can either express or challenge received cultural categories and principles (centre/periphery, international/regional, industrial/craft, etc.) can be employed to construct identity, to initiate (and survive) social change. (cf. Grant McCraken, Culture and Consumption).  Most importantly, in so reappraising the consumer good, we were able to avoid what we saw as the craft trap.  Though our scale of  production would necessarily link us with craft producers, an emphasis on semantics would constitute an alternative defensive strategy vis a vis universal culture. As a means of qualifying a received mass culture and ultimately buttressing the self, our encoding of personal, local, and  adversarial meanings in our products would become our way of reintegrating our experience with the world of commodities. 

 

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Watson, Scott. "Art in the Fifties" in Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983. Vancouver Art Gallery. 

 

 

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