Rachel Gotlieb is one of the few willing to wade deep into the design history of Canada. Articulating the high water marks and significant ideas, her accomplishments and thoughtful work speaks for itself. She coauthored the bible of Canadian design books, and has been key in amplifying our national design story around the world. Her work with The Gardiner Museum was long over due, the work she did to revive the work of Thor Hansen was superb, her work at the DX valuable, and her influential position organizing The IDS was vital and authentic. Her curatorial work has created opportunity for our entire industry, providing a context and foundation for our work. We sat down with Rachel this week to talk about her thoughts on curating a Canadian vision.

Let’s talk about where your curatorial purpose comes from. How would you describe your approach to curating, and how does working in Toronto affect your curatorial philosophy? I can’t say that I have a curatorial philosophy. “Curated” is such a highly over-used word these days, misappropriated just to signify something that has been edited. However, as curator I am more of a good butler, more invisible, ensuring budgets and schedules are met. Toronto does feed my work, I am quite interested in what local collectors and designers are doing, and they tend to be fairly sophisticated.


Yi2005_thorhansen_i7ou have created so many fantastic design exhibits and have literally authored the design history of the country. Do you feel that your work has helped advance the design culture here? Thank you, I am honoured that you think about my work. I certainly believe that Design in Canada is an important book. It also shows may of the highlights and some weaknesses too: Bruce Mau once quipped to me that it should be titled “some in design Canada” because so many of the pieces are seen as derivative of international styles. To me that exemplifies Canadian design, it was such a sponge and it continues to be a beacon of global trends. I think the book and the trilogy of exhibitions that followed: Thor Hansen: Crafting a Canadian Style (Textile Museum of Canada); On the Table: 100 Years of Ceramics in Canada (Gardiner Museum) and Beaver Tales: Canadian Art and Design have contributed to Canada’s contemporary design culture on several important levels, but mainly as a strong visual record of our design heritage.

We are obviously struggling in two areas, the global design marketplace recognizing us, and the identity of the country applying it. Tell me what you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the CDN design industry, and what do you think will change this perception? I think you have answered your own question, Canadian designers face many of the same challenges of their predecessors; a lack of funding, small, local markets and limited prestige. Much has improved: there are great forums and marketplaces such as The CDR, and Studio North. While it’s true that you can always go to IKEA and pay less for ubiquitous design, there is a growing demand to buy local, and I think that demand can sustain Canadian design. It’s no small thing that Umbra celebrated its 35th anniversary, and Bensen and Keilhauer similarly have been exporting on a global level for decades but they don’t wave the Canadian flag to market themselves.

What do you think are the high level trends in the CDN scene? What are the ideas, forces, etc that are shaping the practice, and helping us be distinct in the global design business? I think curators should be wary of trends. Curators, like artists themselves, are caught up in the “social turn,” to make exhibitions and objects have more agency and relevancy. Trying to bring down the metaphorical walls of the museum is what many curators are concerned with today.

Imagine you are putting together a Top Ten list of CDN design. What are the essential pieces?

8683652_1_l1. Fred Moffat’s K40 Kettle
2. Jacques Guillon’s Cord Chair
3. Waclaw Czerwinski and Hilary Stykolt’s Canadian Wooden Aircraft Lounge Chair
4. Bombardier Original Ski-doo
5. Ruth Gowdy’s McKinley’s Teapot
6. Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67
7. Douglas Ball‘s System System S Office Desk
8. Bruce Mau’s Zone books
9. Karim Rashid’s Garbo Garbage Can
10. Shim-Sutcliffe’s The Integral House

You work with so many galleries and museums, what are you seeing that Toronto institutions are doing to grow, connect and improve themselves? I am finding that museums EVERYWHERE are so cautious these days due, in part, to declining attendance and therefore they rely on brand names (like here in Toronto with Douglas Coupland), understandable but very disappointing.

Why do professional curators and museums still matter? Professional curators are not simply editors or bloggers, they are actually caretakers (the British still use the term “keeper”) of collections. The custodial responsibility of caring for objects within collections is important. Curators and museums matter because they help establish the canon and play a great role in interpreting and documenting the history of the significant things that demarcate culture. Objects reflect time and place through aesthetics and materiality, and it’s critical for curators to show how objects are part of something larger.


What has been your favourite exhibit? One of my favourite exhibitions was the Frank Gehry retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York City. Admittedly a celebrity stararchitect show but I fell in love with his models which were so beautifully installed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic space. The exhibition invited you to enter into Gehry’s creative process and clearly showed his genius approach to material and form.

Art, craft and design are getting very blurry. Are curators ok with this murkiness or will they work to define and position these practices back into their silos? I like blurry. It allows for more nuanced interpretations and the mixing of old and new, art and design. I try to avoid silos, especially if I am curating Canadian design because studio manufacturing, batch production, cottage industry or digital craft, whatever you choose to call it, has always been here and will always remain. Design and craft, you can’t have one without the other.


Tell me about ‘Brand Canada’, do you feel any locational advantage for the creative community? I do not agree with your notion that fashion from Paris, or cars from Italy hold cachet for consumers. Consumers are pretty savvy and recognize that foreign ownership and global corporations confuse provenance. I felt disillusioned by national identity and product design years ago when I learned that Braun, renowned for its new Bauhaus design had become a subsidiary of American Gillette (today its Proctor & Gamble). Do consumers buy Apple electronics because it’s Brand USA or Brand Steven Jobs/Jonathan Ives simulating Dieter Rams? I don’t believe that promoting a product as Canadian makes much difference to anyone. Presumably, there are some happy manufacturers today because they benefit from our falling dollar, and that the value of the Canadian dollar is more important than a Canadian moniker. Canadian design represents what’s happening in the world at large, it’s relevant because it both reflects and contributes to this broader exchange of ideas, not because it’s exceptional or different but just the opposite: it’s connected and part of something much larger than itself, the world.

What is your fave:

Fashion brand/ Lida Baday

Flower/ Peony (especially pink ones)

Product Designer/ Joe Colombo

Chair/ Eames Lounge Chair

Junk Food/ Real chocolate





BUY Rachel’s books here.

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