A Pioneer of Design in Canada. Julien Hébert (1917–1994) is recognized as the father of product design in Canada. Designers and students who worked with him consider him a master. Hébert played a key role in the evolution of design in Canada and Quebec, by having an idealistic and modernist vision of design, and a concentrated effort in promoting a humanistic philosophy in his teaching and creative work.

c-hebert_julienCanada still isn’t recognized in the design world, and this was even less the case in the 1940s/50s when Hébert started his career. Hébert worked to change that situation. He was concerned that Canada’s economy was based on primary resources and was convinced that the country should concentrate on designing and producing its own products—inspired by its environment and culture. Hébert was dedicated to positioning Canada as a leader, and put real effort into promoting design to the government and general public. He established a stronger foundation with organized exhibitions, relevant design courses, and a broad palette of projects. He traveled globally, visiting different design centers and design schools inspire a institute a design institute in Montreal. He played an active role as a designer for the Expo 67, at the ICSID conference also in Montreal that same year, and won numerous design awards for his art and design. In the 1960s, as an instigator of modern design, he participated in Quebec’s “quiet revolution.” A decade in which Canada’s French-speaking province evolved from a conservative, traditional community into a modern society. The Worlds Fair of 1967, where design was of great importance, is recognized as a major international event that played a key role in the evolution of Quebec society.

Hébert studied sculpture at École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal from 1936 to 1941. This institution was strongly influenced by the French Beaux- Arts tradition, and its goal was to initiate students to classical painting, architecture, and sculpture in the Renaissance spirit. Hébert questioned the role of design in society, and pursued a philosophy degree at the University of Montreal to explore his ideas , and graduated in ’44. Of this time, Hébert says “I became a designer, because I studied both sculpture and philosophy. Sculpture is related to the form, the sensual, the touch. Philosophy is the mind, the reflection. Moving to design was a logical step”.

Hébert left Montreal for Paris, where he did an internship with Ossip Zadkine. Hébert was greatly influenced by post-war France because of his contacts with artists and intellectuals who had progressive ideas about art and society. In 1948, the Le refus global manifesto was published, denouncing the abuse of power and expressing the need for more freedom of expression. This publication created an impact on Quebec society, considered a key events driving the decline of the dominant clergy. Art and design produced anticlerical ideas and initiated political and economic change, driving reform during the 1960s. Upon his return to Montreal, Hébert felt so enthusiastic about his discoveries in Europe that he decided to spark the creative furnace of his own country.

In 1951 he entered in the first design competition in Canada, organized by the Federal Ministry of Trade and Commerce created to promote the conversion of wartime industry into consumer goods. The idea of a design competition came from Donald Buchanan the head of the National Gallery in Ottawa, who was inspired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was eagerly promoting modern design in the United States. Hébert won the competition with a chaise lounge that consisted of two bent tubular forms resting on a stable triangular base that also functioned as an armrest. Hébert had discovered his passion for design, a field where he could blend his creativity and social consciousness. Design appeared as a revelation, an answer to his existential questions about social meaning and the power of art in society. The Contour Chair is the perfect synthesis of Hébert’s design philosophy: inexpensive, practical, and well adapted to production and cultural context.

The Role of Design in the Public Sphere

10766_julien_hebert_chaise_de_jardin__contour__garden_chair_1951_mnbaq_donation_de_la_succession_estate_julien_hebertAfter seeing his aluminum chair in a newspaper article, Sigmund Werner hired Hébert to design a line of aluminum and steel furniture. Werner manufactured ski poles, but sales were slow and he wished to diversify production. In the meantime, Herbert’s Contour Chair had been selected to represent Canada at the Triennale di Milano in 1954, was selected to be part of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, appeared in Domus magazine, and London’s Decorative Arts Annual. It was the first Canadian product to receive this level of international praise.

Hébert considered design as a form of art for the people. He emphasized utilitarian forms, and wished that more artists would become interested in design, applying their ideas to improving the aesthetics and functionality of everyday objects. Every aspect of design interested him, from products and furniture, to graphic and interior design. He had a global vision of design, and didn’t want any barriers between the different fields. For Hébert, all these forms of design were related to the same objective of improving peoples’ lives and their environment, and allowing everyone to have access to functional and quality products that were also beautiful.

Parallel to his design practice, Hébert kept his position as a professor at the Montreal School of Fine Arts, then at the École du meuble. The École du meuble was headed by Jean- Marie Gauvreau, who had been trained in Paris at the École Boulle in the 1920s. Gauvreau’s objective was to develop skilled craftsmen inspired by the French tradition. He wasn’t sympathetic to design, a field he associated with the American invasion of cheap and tasteless industrial products covered with chrome. Hébert had to convince him that there was interest in the discipline in Canada by providing examples from the Scandinavian model. Scandinavian design had successfully evolved from limited craft based production towards industrial production, and maintained the tradition of man-made quality. Indeed, Hébert always promoted the idea of linking design with the various crafts instead of creating a barrier between them. He was fascinated by the success of the Danish designers in the production of local goods.

“I am concerned to see that Denmark, with a population of only six million, has 2,000 members in its association of professional designers. In comparison, Canada has 200 designers for a population of 28 million. The Danish produce a great part of the designs they use, while in Canada, we import most of our manufactured goods.”

Hébert’s major objective was to develop a design culture in Canada. In 1953, he was a founding member of the Canadian Association of Industrial Designers, and because of his leadership and professional reputation was elected president in ’58. He worked to expand Canada’s natural resource economy to include the creativity capacity of the nation. Hébert helped to change this situation through his involvement in the professional association and by playing a leading role as a designer.

mezzanineMetro stop Place Saint-Henri commemorates Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion, 1980.

The decade of the 1960s was very important in Hébert’s career. In those years, he worked on various projects, demonstrating the diversity of his practice, including murals, architecture and wayfinding for the City of Montreal Transport Commission. He also launched a collection of successful office furniture, and created dozens of graphic identities and symbols for clients.

expo-67-logo-32The most important design event in Canada at that time was definitely Expo ‘67. Hébert hired a few of his former students to help work on designing exhibits and installations for the Canadian and Quebec pavilions. The theme of Expo ’67 was “Man and his World.” In 1963, Hébert won the design competition for the official symbol. His bold design was composed of abstract figures forming a circle on the planet, living in equality and harmony, their hands raised in the air in celebration. It also recalls the form of a snowflake or trees. This ambiguity suggests an interesting and ingenious relationship between nature and culture, and man and the world.

The public unveiling of Hébert’s design for the symbol created an uproar. Instead of being saluted for its simplicity and meaningful aesthetic, it created bitter debate when members of the Canadian Parliament found out that the work had been selected to represent Canada. Many politicians thought the logo was a monstrosity, and wanted to replace it with something traditional, such as the Canadian flag, the beaver, or some other variation of the maple leaf. Others were even more cynical, arguing that the logo looked like the drawing of a five-year-old.

The situation was quite shocking for Hébert, who realized that design was still not widely understood. The symbol was defended by the creative community who argued that it was recognizable and memorable, as well as functional. It had all the qualities of great trademark design. The controversy ceased as soon as it won an international design award in New York, and as the best trademark at the prestigious Top Symbols and Trademarks of the World competition in Switzerland. In light of this international acclaim, the critics did recognize the credibility of the design, and the symbol was used for and identified with Expo ‘67 with great success.

In 1970 Hébert designed the Canadian Pavilion for the Osaka Worlds Fair in Japan (with Arthur Erickson), worked on the interior and furniture furniture for the new international airport in Mirabel, and continued to teach. In 1979 he received Quebec’s highest award, the Borduas Prize for the quality of his work and career as a designer. It was the first time this prize had been given to someone who wasn’t primarily a painter or a sculptor. For Hébert, it was an indication that the design field finally was valued as highly as the fine arts, and he considered this one of his greatest achievements.


Design and Ethics: Hébert’s Idealist Vision. In order to understand Hébert’s position more accurately, one can consider two different projects that he tried to initiate in the 1960s. In 1961, he prepared a proposal for a design institute in Montreal, a suggestion to the Quebec Ministry of Trade and Commerce that a study to value the provincial design industry, and to look at creating a university degree in design at the Master’s level. He also foresaw the establishment of an design exhibition center, accessible to industrialists, designers, and the public. The government agreed to study the question and assigned Hébert the responsibility for preparing a report on the project. For this task, he visited institutes and schools around the world. The list of the people he consulted is impressive, including Bauhaus graduate Max Bill, Charles-Édouart Geisenhof, Eric Herlow from the Kongelige Akademi in Copenhagen), Mors Nilsson, Director of the Danish Design Center, Rudolf Harde, Hans Gugelot and Bruce Archer in Ulm, and then went on to France to see Jean Poirier, from the Formes utiles association and also met with representatives of the French Ministry of National Education, and consulted with faculty at the Royal College of Art, and the Chair of the British Design Council.


Hébert was convinced of the necessity of grouping all the design fields within the same structure. He had surveyed successful design institutes and felt the most successful ones were those organized in a centralized manner. For the implementation of a design institute in Quebec, he suggested two objectives: the training of qualified designers and the promotion of good design to industry and the general public. Hébert strongly recommended the creation of a specialized degree in design, since there was none at that time. Hébert pushed the development of a design field in Quebec, and insisted on creating better products that would support local cultural identity, be used by Canadians, and sold to the world. Hébert believed that design could revive the lost tradition of excellence related to the arts and crafts. He always felt that industrial design was the logical evolution of traditional crafts, and that good craftsmen should orient their art towards industrial production.

“We absolutely need a design institute in order to develop the field of design in Quebec. The quality of the products available to us is poor, they are copied on foreign model and do not reflect our culture or our specific tastes and needs. We have great natural resources but do not exploit our potential to design and produce manufactured goods better adapted to our specific cultural identity.”

Although he fought for the establishment of a design institute, his project was not approved. Design never became a priority of the government. Hébert really thought the province was missing a great opportunity to develop an important cultural and economic pole. He was convinced that Canada had the potential to be a leader in design, and eventually could export quality products to other countries. He had studied the situation all over the world and was envious of the importance the Scandinavians, Italians, and Germans were giving to design. In his report, he also wrote about the situation in Japan “known for producing cheap products and copying foreign models at a poor quality, is now putting tremendous efforts into developing the design field and raising the quality of its production.”

picnicYears later, seeing how Japan had gained one of the strongest reputations in product design, he was frustrated to note that the field could have been developed with a lot more energy, instead of remaining stagnant. Eventually, some of Hébert’s ideas were adopted, including the promotion center named “Design Canada” was active in the 70s and early 80s, and a design institute finally was opened in Montreal in 1992.

Hébert’s Vision and Influence. Hébert had immense respect for the crafts and wished that design would inherit the richness and quality of their work ethic developed over the ages. Since he had social concerns, he was against all forms of art reserved for the elite, and he hoped that craftspeople and artists would orient their skills toward the creation of aesthetic and functional objects accessible to everyone, thanks to the reduction in costs brought about by industrial production. In many ways, he shared the ideas of Walter Gropius and other pioneers of modern design. That is why, at the end of his career, Hébert felt very troubled by the postmodern movement and the evolution of design on the international scene. He was angry to see that design was becoming more and more associated with expensive, premium, and high-end products. He thought that designers signing their creations like artists signing their works created a “starsystem” and elitist attitudes.

9d89e74749e8f2cd3fc288a77650f381The Importance of Social Design. Hébert promoted the idea that designers are not just creators of aesthetic objects meant for industrial production. He thought that designers played an active role and contribute directly to the positive evolution of society and culture. They could be proactive by initiating social projects designed to improve the lives of the poor, the handicapped, the sick, the elderly, and so on. It was obvious to Hébert that designers should not work solely for the benefit of private companies, but should participate actively to make their expertise available as part of the social economy. In this sense, he was close to the current represented by such important figures as Buckminster Fuller and Victor Papanek.

The Role of Design in the Public Sphere. Although Hébert was active in the creation of furniture and products oriented towards private and domestic use, he also was very concerned about the importance of design quality in the public environment. Hébert felt that the public deserved excellent environment design, and he promoted the idea that designers and architects should become cultural role models and work to improve the urban landscape.

The Link Between Modern Design and the Traditional Crafts. Contemporary architecture and design are accused of turning their backs on traditional approaches. International architecture is considered as the epitome of this attitude. Generating impersonal buildings, designed with very little concern for their integration into the native landscape and devoid of any social and cultural context. Naturally, Hébert was not in favor of this radical aspect of modernism, he was concerned about traditional crafts declining in Quebec and failing to meet the challenge of industrial production. He could see that industrial processes were not getting the benefit of craft knowledge, since links were not being established between the two.  As a result of such attitudes, both have not moved forward harmoniously in Canada, as they have in Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia, where modern design is outstanding. Obviously, the conflict between the arts and the crafts has roots in the history of design, from Muthesius to van de Velde, and from Morris to Gropius. Between the tides of Gauvreau’s conservative advocacy of traditional crafts and the massive invasion of imported manufactured goods, Hébert promoted the idea of distinct, original Quebec design, in continuity with the craft tradition.

Hébert the Humanist. When we look at his career, it seems clear that his ideas were well ahead of their time in Canada. Many of his initiatives and projects were only realized recently. Design is still developing in Canada, but it seems that the political and economic spheres are much more aware of the situation and have a better understanding of its’ importance. There is no doubt, that through the quality of his work and his many efforts to promote design as a global activity touching the whole community, Hébert remains as one of the major figures to have contributed to this evolving scene.

Day, P., and Lewis, L. Art in Everyday Life, Observations on Contemporary Canadian Design, (The Power Plant, 1998).
Gironnay, Sophie. “Julien Hébert ou le discours de l’âme,”
Le Devoir (Montreal, July 23, 1994).
Gotlieb, R., and Golden, C. Design in Canada,
Julein Hébert’s estate archives, Muséedu Québec, Québec City.
Lesser, Gloria, “Le Design au Canada de 1940 à 1980,” ( Cahierdes arts visuels No. 24).
Linteau, P.A.; Durocher, R.; Robert, J.C.; and Ricard, F., Histoire du Québec contemporain (Montreal: Boréal, 1989).
Wright, Virginia, Seduced and Abandoned: Modern Furniture
Designers in Canada, the First Fifty Years, (Toronto: The Art Gallery at Harbour Front, 1985).
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