Madmen on the Otonabee

Trent University business student Richard Love is curator of an exciting legacy project for his final year entitled Madmen on the Otonabee. Last year I wrote about Ron Thom’s contribution to Peterborough’s architectural landscape and for the first time, Love has brought together a collection of Thom’s handpicked designer chairs for a public viewing at Artspace. These are the chairs that said “space age” to us before man first walked on the moon. Originally the collection consisted of over 100 chairs, created by a dizzying array of masters of 20th century industrial design and architecture such as Arne Jacobsen, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen and Thom himself, meticulously placed in intimate conversational groups assigned to Trent’s common rooms. Love has also founded a committee to document and preserve the chairs, some of which narrowly escaped becoming landfill.

It was a thrill to see a full house at Artspace at the March 27, 2013 opening with not only the usual suspects in attendance for this important collaboration between Trent and Artspace. Their history has been intertwined for decades; both will soon celebrate birthdays of 50 and 40 years respectively in Peterborough.

From his seat on one of these iconic chairs, Founding President of Trent University Professor Thomas Symons delivered his introduction, speaking with affection and passion about working with Master Planner Ron Thom on the ambitious design of Trent – on the process of community engagement, Thom’s genius, his chaotic approach and attention to detail right down to the ashtrays. He spoke of the unexpected slits and “eyebrows” of Thom’s buildings which brought light into nooks and crannies; the scale of the building and interiors designed to encourage small discussion groups as opposed to large impersonal lecture halls.  And he mentioned his regret that Thom’s progressive work has too long been unappreciated.

The significance of these chairs cannot be overstated. They include the iconic Swan chair by Jacobson which was an early use of molded polystyrene in a swooping organic shape on a single stem and featured upholstery in the unheard of colours of electric blue and orange. Bent plywood was not the ubiquitous material it is today and Aalto used it to unite form and function in the beautiful curving arms that are now a standard in contemporary furniture design. Saarinen’s Tulip chair and sidetables in white fiberglass transcend function and stand alone as 20th century sculptural forms; it was Saarinen who designed the soaring TWA terminal at New York’s JFK International Airport. Jack Diamond’s collaboration with Keith Muller and Michael Stewart resulted in a birch plywood, flat-pack chair designed to be assembled on site with an Allen key – a precursor to Ikea. You will find these designers in the databases and collections of the best of modern industrial design in MoMA, the Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, and international museums.

Thom’s own chunky, earthy designs complemented his robust architecture and gave a nod to the practical simplicity of Mission furniture.

A lovely sideline was an extant copy of a book produced by Trent alumnus Michael Cullen, professional photographer and owner of Trent Photographics,  from his 1996 exhibition “The Chair” at the now defunct Russell Gallery. The book features black and white portraits of Trent professors seated on or near a wood and leather safari chair with slingback arms. That chair and Blue Gum Design’s tribute to this classic, the Champlain Chair, were placed side by side at the exhibit.

“This exhibition is clearly significant in reminding students and alumni of Trent’s original goals, and in recognizing the historical value and meaning of the internal architecture,” writes Alice Froude for Arthur. Read her article about the project here »

Not only is it a privilege to have such a world-class design collection here in Peterborough preserved for generations, but Madmen on the Otonabee is a bright confluence of business acumen, education and the arts. Love’s project illustrates what is possible when culture is engaged with, validated and protected for good of the community.

Toronto artist Jim Verburg’s show Untitled Installation (Weights and Measures) is a perfect airy, abstract counterpoint to Madmen and continues in the gallery until April 27, 2013.

Madmen on the Otonabee

Foreground: orange and blue Swan Chairs by Jacobsen; circular table by Ron Thom
L: Eva Chair by Mathsson
Background L to R: industrial wire Diamond Chair and Side Chair by Bertoia; Tulip Chair and Sidetables by Saarinen; Jack Diamond Easy Chairs; square coffee table by Ron Thom

Video courtesy Steve Guthrie for CHEX TV

%d bloggers like this: