Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The Role of Canada in the Development of Plastic Furniture

This is a welcome opportunity to share a significant story about Canadian furniture
innovation. I'm a design historian in Australia, writing international furniture manufacturing
history and global trade history. From 1996 to 2001 I was Curator of Canadian Decorative
Arts and Post-1900 International Design at the Royal Ontario Museum, and a lecturer in
furniture history at the University of Toronto from 1989 to 2001. My doctoral thesis, titled 'A
Quintessential Global Product: Bentwood Furniture in Canada and Australia 1860 to 1945'
was completed in 2017 at University of Technology Sydney. 

World’s first prototype of a one-piece moulded plastic chair, designed by A. J. Donahue and D. Simpson. Fabricated in Ottawa in 1946 by the National Research Council of Canada.
(Library and Archives Canada PA-160515)

The world's first prototype for a one-piece moulded plastic chair was made during
1945 and 1946 in the Structures Laboratory of the National Research Council of Canada in
Ottawa. It was displayed in the 'Plastics' section of the Design in Industry exhibition, which
opened at the National Gallery of Canada in October 1946. The exhibition was one of several  industrial design projects jointly supported by the National Gallery of Canada, the
Department of Reconstruction and Supply, the National Film Board of Canada, and the 
National Research Council of Canada. The plastic chair was designed by Canadian architects Arthur James (Jim) Donahue and Douglas Colborne Simpson.

Jim Donahue (1917-1996) was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, and completed a
Bachelor of Architecture degree at the University of Minnesota in 1941. He was awarded a
Master of Architecture degree in 1942 at Harvard University where he was the first Canadian to complete a degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. There he studied under the illustrious ex-Bauhaus architecture and design professors Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Donahue's familiarity with pre-fabricated housing systems developed by Gropius with Konrad Wachsmann enabled him after graduation to obtain a job working on pre-fabricated housing structures for the National Housing Authority in Ottawa.

A parallel interest in materials research and applications was encouraged by his
studies under Breuer, who had been a furniture pioneer in the use of bent steel tube in the
1920s and of moulded plywood in the 1930s. In 1945, Donahue designed and co-curated a
national touring exhibition called Wood in Canada that included new bent-plywood and
moulded plywood products.

Douglas Simpson (1916-1967) was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and graduated from
the University of Manitoba in 1938. He worked as a government architect in Ottawa before
serving with the Royal Canadian Navy during the war. At the end of the war, he joined the
staff of the Building Research Division at the National Research Council where he recruited
Donahue for the furniture design project.

Their chair and table prototypes displayed in the 1946 Design in Industry exhibition
had a light grey, glossy finish, and were fire and acid resistant. They were made of ten layers of glass fibre-reinforced cotton, 3/16 of an inch in total thickness, moulded onto a reusable form with epoxy-resin adhesives, and baked in an autoclave at 350 degrees Centigrade. The epoxy resins were developed during the war for use in the Canadian fabrication of plywoodconstructed Mosquito bomber planes. The NRC engineer for the plastic furniture project was Eric Brown.

Simpson and Donahue applied for a patent for their moulded plastic chair but the
application was refused and the design was not put into production. The reason for the refusal of the patent is unknown as rejected applications are not disclosed by the patents office. This protocol protects the privacy of the design product information in the initial application and enables applicants to re-submit with revised applications. 

Jim Donahue and Douglas Simpson were founding members of the Affiliation of
Canadian Industrial Designers in 1946 with eight other architects, furniture designers, and
product designers from four provinces. This group became the Association of Canadian
Industrial Designers (ACID).

Donahue and Simpson both established successful architecture practices. Simpson
was a partner of the influential modernist firm Semmens and Simpson in Vancouver.
Donahue was appointed a professor of architectural design at the University of Manitoba in
1947. He moved to Halifax in 1963 to teach in the School of Architecture at the Nova Scotia
Technical College (now NSCAD University). He died in 1996, before publication of my
book for University of Toronto Press titled Modern Furniture in Canada 1920 to 1970, which
included the first published documentation of the plastic chair prototype since 1946. I had
discovered the negative of the photograph at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, in an
unsorted and uncatalogued collection of negatives from the first years of the National Film
Board of Canada. The first manufactured one-piece moulded plastic chair was designed by
Danish architect Verner Panton in 1960, going into production in 1967.

Furniture production was a long established industry in Canada when the plastic
research was undertaken in the 1940s, and Canada continues to be one of the world's leading furniture producing and exporting countries. Large-scale manufacturing and trade began in the mid-19th. century, with Canadian exports to Australia, for example, starting in 1869.  Historically, a considerable amount of Canadian exported furniture was recorded in
importing countries as American because the goods were shipped from Boston and New
York. When they were trans-shipped via British ports they were recorded as imports from
Britain. These anomalies in global trade history have obscured the scale and importance of
Canadian furniture design and manufacturing history.

Virginia Wright

Launceston, Tasmania

Author: book Modern Furniture in Canda 1920 to 1970 (University of Toronto Press 1996)

Doctoral thesis ‘A Quintessential Global Product: Bentwood Furniture in Canada and Australia 1860 to 1945’ (University of Technology Sydney 2017)

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