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So many pretty things, so many memorable objects (and so many awards). Furniture, televisions, radios, housewares, audio and visual equipment, computer equipment, bathroom and kitchen accessories, sporting equipment, garden accessories, household appliances and electronics, and packaging. André Morin has been busy. Making things for us, and making things that improve our daily living. His products are solid, iconic forms, inspired by function and married to a strong modern aesthetic that created sales around the world, exporting the best of what “Made in Canada” represents. We had the fortune to chat with him this summer, and learn more about his life as a Canadian designer.

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Tell us your path into product design – why is this your thing? What changed since you started, did things work out to plan? My path into product design…I do remember when I was very young, visiting stores with my mother. I was always very impressed by the new products on the shelves. Some would stand out and spark my interest and I would explore them, reading their labels to find out where it was made; most of the time I would read USA, Germany, Japan or Taiwan, and sometimes Hong Kong. I do not know why, but in secret, I was always looking/hoping for a “Made in Canada” or “Fabriqué au Québec” mark, and every time I was disappointed when I didn’t see it. This was true for all kinds of products, housewares, tools, toys, etc. so few were from my home country, and I wanted to change that.

Later on, when I was 15 years old, I used to design all kind of products and just build things as a hobby. At the age of 19, architecture was my first choice but as my best friend decided to go to a prestigious design school, and I decided to follow him. We went to the Arts Applied Institute of Montreal to obtain a degree in industrial design and interior design. After that, I pursued my studies at Montreal University in Design Management, Administration and marketing, which was rare for a designer to do, mix the business with the craft.

What got you excited to do your work, was there any influences that feed your ideas? What in the process is the most satisfying part? The most exciting thing was when I found the key that would open my mind, a door that lead to the ideas for a new product. I was influenced by new technology, people, love, music, nature, and real life and tried to bring this into my work. It was also exciting when, after all that work, the whole process explored, to have a success on the market and get it exported, for the first time to many new places. To export was my most important criteria, the Canadian market is small and we wanted to help clients with the equipment and machinery to produce large quantities to actually use them. If a company spend $300,000 on a mold for a garden chair in plastic they must export it, it is the only way to recuperate their investment in tooling. Aesthetics and high quality, the design, would ease the export of the product. I enjoyed thinking about other countries when designing, it was always in my mind, I wanted to be accepted by different countries that had a different way of life. I wanted to design for people world wide.

Is there a particular design or designer that you admire, is there a design object that you think is best? New technology is creating so many designs that I admire. I am very impress by the Dyson brand and most of their products. I like the new Tesla cars and their green mission, and I always liked Apple products – but worry about e-waste – and that the Apple products are not designed to be serviced.

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You had such a long career, what are your highlights, and what client/project did you find most satisfying? Every project and client were special but RCA and IPL gave me a lot of satisfaction. RCA was very special for me as they opened my eyes to designing with the consumer as guide. They were one of the largest electronics company of the world at the time, and were influential in connecting product design to consumer insights. They wanted their industrial designers to be very close to people, exploring and understanding the way that people lived, and decoding their needs in terms of new technology.

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I was trained to study the current ways that people were living in North America and in different Western countries of the world. They were designing conferences on all kind of subjects. As an example we met the Black Power Group in USA who represent a large segment of the population, we were asked to assist in August 1969 to the Woodstock Rock Festival to understand the changing spirit of the younger generation (the millenials of that time). Then we had the skills to design new products for people and to be innovative. The result of this research an observation was the introduction of the”Forma Collection” a real success story in Canada according to the Government of Canada who printed a brochure to illustrate it. The Forma Collection that I designed was a complete break with the traditional furniture that was used at the time to display electronics components.

-4My project with IPL was also very special to me, so much work and so many objects. The first time I met the c-suite of this company they said “We are interested to create a line of high quality products for the table and the counter that we want to export, are you interested in designing it? Before saying yes, I met with the most important buyers in Canada to discuss the product needs for their market. In 1978 most of the quality products that Eaton’s, The Hudson’s Bay Company, and the smaller shops were selling were imported from Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the US, and these imported brands were forcing them to buy large quantities, which was a challenge to sell, and limited what other inventory the stores would carry. There were no Canadian manufacturers that could supply them with premium products on demand, and the foreign brands were better branded and already global, which was an enormous advantage. They could compete in ways that Canadian makers could not match.

-3We were then able to identify and marry the needs of the Canadian consumers and the retailers. Knowing which product to design in Canada and checking in on what was selling in Europe and USA. In 1978 the next step was to design the Phase One of the design program, and in 1981 Phase Two completed the entire housewares collection. We did everything, storage, jugs, small vessels, kitchen tools and so much more. As soon as we introduced Phase One, it was a great success in Canada and IPL was able to export in Germany, France, Japan and USA. All this was followed a year later by the Phase Two, which was also accepted on with enthusiasm. The Phase One earned an Award of Excellence of Design Canada in 1980 and the Phase Two the same Award in 1982.

RCA and IPL are two different collections in terms of products, but both were satisfying, and I felt I got out what I wanted them to say.

 What drove the design scene in Canada during the 60s, 70s, 80s was there a big idea – or purpose to the design community? In the 60s, 70s, 80s it was not easy for industrial designers, the profession was not known or understood. When meeting with a possible client, we really had to explain the work that we could do for the company, selling design was hard. At first they asked us to make a sketch, and often they did not know the product to design. Most of the time they were asking me to identify the product(s) I could design for their company. The sales manager would show a picture of its competitor, and would say “this is a product that we need, could you do one similar to?” It was very difficult to sell professional services in industrial design.

I felt fortunate, after RCA, to have a complete portfolio with portable televisions, radios, tape recorders, displays etc..which made my presentation more easy if I was approaching other clients – we could talk about these pieces to sell our skills and thinking.

Do you think that design equals culture? Is design really able to do something more than sales and marketing? Industrial design is the art that talks to people through products. It is a language that carries emotion into a product, to marry the need and demonstrate the taste of a human being. Without emotion a product is only materials. The aesthetic, the color and form of a product, are the tools that emotion is transmitted. This is what I call “People Design” or “Design for People”.  I also think it is a good idea for modern industrial designers to understand and speak the language of sales & marketing…and branding.

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Design has become so important in other places (Italy, Holland, etc). Has Canada missed this part of its national character, or do you think that design is doing well here? Canada is a big country with a lot of natural resources and a small population. We do not have as many manufacturing plants Canadian-owned if we compare to what they have in Italy, Holland or Germany and all other modern economies.

In Ontario and Québec we have many furniture companies (all small – or even one off) who sell their product mostly in Canada. The competition is very difficult, with stores selling brands that customers are more familiar with, at prices that Canadian made pieces cannot compete with. The cost of shipping furniture is also very expansive in Canada, another challenge.

We also have IKEA which is playing a very important role in Canada by increasing the competition across the country. Facing this international competition, our manufacturers have to invest in new technology and change their way of thinking (which they are being slow to do). They have to produce more at a better price, with new innovative designs and get these idea to the international market. Too many manufacturers have gotten way too confortable with weak sales, and I am afraid that if they don’t change their way of manufacturing they will all disappear soon. To face tomorrow they should regroup, get smarter with a plan of attack, understand areas that they can compete in, and get outside of the country to really fight internationally.

Your question: Is design doing well in Canada? My question: Are Canadian Manufacturers doing well in Canada?

What was it like practicing in Quebec, what are the pros and cons compared to working in English Canada? My experience in Quebec industrial design looked like this – 75% of my practice was contained in the province of Québec, 18% of my practice in the United States, 5% was in Italy, and 2% was in Japan. I was never able to find a client in Ontario, and I was never approach by any. But I was approached by the largest English department stores to buy my designs, some crossed over. It was hard to be a Canadian designer…but pretty ok being a design in Quebec.

Some André Morin Favourites:

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