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

Exploring the historical impact of Indigenous culture and immigration on British Columbian art at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Alexis Zygan // Contributor

Modern in the Making: Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia shares insight into the many mediums united to form the aesthetics and taste of the West Coast. The show at the Vancouver Art Gallery illustrates the impact of colonization and immigration patterns on contemporary design, with over 300 pieces of artwork showcasing jewelry, furniture, and fashion.

I spoke with Stephanie Rebick, one of five other curators, about the exhibit. She addresses how Modern in the Making coalesces a plurality of “material, formal and aesthetic approaches,” that provide attendees with an aesthetically stimulating experience. 

Earle A. Morrison and Robin Bush for Earle A. Morrison Ltd., Victoria, BC. Airfoam Lounge Chair (#141), 1951. Steel rod, plywood, walnut, upholstery.
Collection of Allan Collier. Photo: Ian Lefebvre, Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Vancouver Art Gallery resides on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. “Of course it is impossible to discuss this history without acknowledging and understanding that modernism’s utopian goals of progress were tied to and implemented by the colonial enterprise” shares Rebick. The exhibit presents a lengthy essay, so viewers comprehend that modernism necessitates subversion of the autonomy and agency of Indigenous people. 

“Throughout the exhibition we tried to insert Indigeneity into the narrative; to acknowledge that there were significant languages of craft and design in the region prior to the arrival of European settlers,” says Rebick. The exhibit features components from a variety of Indigenous creatives. Grass baskets by Nuu-chah-nulth weaver Nellie Jacobson, pieces from Ellen Neel who designed ceramics for the tourist trade to ornament modernist homes, and Bill Reid whose work has appeared all over Vancouver. Reid worked alongside Robert Davidson to interlace traditional practices with contemporary to produce stunning jewellery pieces. 

Idar Bergseth. Broochc. mid-1960s. Sterling silver, 18-carat yellow gold, Japanese Akoya pearls. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Ian Lefebvre, Vancouver Art Gallery

Migration to British Columbia incited exchange between craftsmanship and proficiencies of designs among locals and foreigners. North Vancouver became a hub for experimenting with the loom. “Of particular interest to me are the grouping of three-dimensional weavings in the last room of the exhibition made by Lynda Gammon, Sharon Butler and Setsuko Piroche,” shares Sarah Rebick. The sparsity of artwork from this era led Butler to recreate a piece inspired by the 1970s. 

For art gallery novices, Rebick recommends taking a moment to examine the unique construction required to bring pieces to life, things like the vibrant orange fold-out couch created by Helmut Krutz, or a bold standout print sewed by Mary Chang. “So many people who visit the exhibition keep telling me how much they would love to have many of the pieces in the exhibition in their homes,” says Rebick. Those interested in a minimalist approach to Scandinavian design should ponder the steel-rod furniture made by local designers Peter Cotton, Earle Morrison, Robin Bush, graciously provided by guest curator Allan Coiller.  By studying the craftsmanship, guests can better understand the implication of small-scale domestic spaces and post-beam home plans for designers. 

Axel Ebring. Pitcher, c. 1940s. Ceramic (earthenware). Collection of John David Lawrence
Photo: Ian Lefebvre, Vancouver Art Gallery.

Modern in the Making: Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia showcases the cultural impact of Scandinavian design and traditional Japanese ceramics in the 60s and 70s. “I think this period remains a huge influence on design and craft in our contemporary moment, and so many of the pieces in the show are both of their time but also sort of timeless. There is something about the simplicity and the deep reverence for craftsmanship that continues to resonate today, particularly as making crafts by hand at home has become increasingly popular during COVID,” says Rebick.
Stephanie Rebick encourages attendees to pre-book a tour online to view the collection. Safety measures arranged by the gallery include mandatory masks and an abundance of hand sanitizer. Modern in the Making allows visitors to immerse themselves in the functionality and beauty of mid-century modern British Columbia design.

Header image: Helmut Krutz. Couch, c. 1970. Steel, plywood, upholstery, teak. Collection of Allan Collier. Photo: Ian Lefebvre, Vancouver Art Gallery.

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