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Trent University reclaims its ‘Mad Men’ design legacy

Once credited with having one of the greatest collections of mid-century modern furnishings, the university makes amends to save what’s left.

To raise money for a heritage fund, Trent is selling limited edition reproductions of two safari-style chairs, shown here, that once adorned Trent’s Champlain College. Photo by Paul Weeks.

Even before the first student enrolled at Trent University in 1964, a team of young designers had produced more than 40 different original designs for couches, chairs, tables and other assorted furniture for the fledgling institution. “It’s quite amazing that the university actually had whole suites of furniture that were designed for it. These were complete sets – lounge chairs, love seats, couches, coffee tables, hassocks . . . And they would be different from room to room,” says Rob Tuckerman, a local furniture maker and Trent alumnus.

The style of furniture is similar to the modernist, low-slung, angular furnishings in the TV show Mad Men, says Mr. Tuckerman. “Just imagine entire rooms like that – and every piece of furniture was original to Trent.” A recent exhibit at a local museum of some of the remaining original furniture, organized as a fourth-year project by Trent student Robert Love, was called “Mad Men on the Otonabee” (the university is located on the banks of the Otonabee River in Peterborough, Ontario).

In total, the university had more than 250 individual pieces of furniture made locally or in small shops in Toronto using these Trent designs. “These were top quality pieces, too,” says Mr. Tuckerman. “The drawings and specs show very high-quality construction and hand-rubbed finishes, and materials like Knoll fabrics and leather, and woods like teak, white oak, rosewood, tulipwood and walnut.”

The furniture was supplemented with the purchase of 443 designer chairs by famous contemporary designers, including Arne Jacobsen of Denmark, Alvar Aalto of Finland and Harry Bertoia of Italy. “Several architects and design historians have all suggested that Trent in the late ’60s, already an architectural masterpiece, also had the best collection of mid-century modern furnishings in North America,” observes Mr. Tuckerman.

The university owes this design legacy to famed British Columbia architect Ron Thom, who was hired by Trent’s founding president Tom Symons to be the master planning architect for the institution. Mr. Thom, at the time, had recently completed the design of Massey College at the University of Toronto. One of President Symons’ instructions to the architect was that the Trent campus “should be a place of esthetic as well as intellectual excitement.”

Mr. Thom proceeded to design the iconic buildings, completed in 1966, that form the hub of Trent’s main campus. These include the Champlain and Lady Eaton colleges and the Bata Library – architectural masterpieces that have won international recognition and awards.

The concept of “total design”

But Mr. Thom’s designs went well beyond the buildings. Mr. Thom “was very much into the idea of ‘total design’ – not just creating the space, but the whole atmosphere, right down to the last ashtray,” says Mr. Tuckerman. “He was unique in his sensibility to small spaces and textures. It wasn’t just a stylistic thing. It was all very much about making the rooms work for a specific function.”

Arthur Erickson, another famous Canadian architect (who also designed iconic buildings for several universities, among them the University of Lethbridge and Simon Fraser University), wrote in a 1969 edition of Canadian Interiors: “The intimate and sometimes diminutive scale of [Mr. Thom’s] buildings and their conjunctive spaces, as much as anything else, establishes the harmony of the whole composition on the site. . . . Trent at this stage has everything going for it.”

Mr. Thom wasn’t working alone: he hired a team of about a dozen designers, all young Canadian architects. “Canada was at the forefront of the design world in the mid-’60s,” says Mr. Tuckerman. “We produced some of the best industrial design in the world. We had Expo 67 coming up. And these young designers graduated from architecture and they walked right into this situation where they were given the lead and the direction to ‘have at it.’”

Now, nearly 50 years later, Trent’s design legacy is a bit worn, and much of the furniture is gone. Already in 1989, on Trent’s 25th anniversary, then university archivist Bernadine Dodge was using the past tense: “At one time,” she wrote, “Trent was filled with stunningly beautiful furniture designed by the greatest international artists.” Ms. Dodge launched a major display of the original furniture that year, but confessed that “gathering examples from throughout the university proved to be a daunting task, as most of the items had been removed from their original locations, many no longer existed, and others were damaged.”

Mr. Tuckerman, the furniture maker, can attest to that. By the 1990s, “I was starting to notice that a lot of the furniture was beginning to show up on the roadside and in dumpsters,” prompting him to embark on several dumpster-diving rescue missions. “I have one of the chairs in my living room that I pulled out of a dumpster,” he says. “It was in fine shape. It still has the original, very groovy 1960s orange leather covering on it. And it’s made of rosewood!”

Mr. Tuckerman doesn’t blame the university for this neglect. “It’s understandable. They’re in the business of educating students, not preserving a design heritage.” As well, he says, conservationists often talk about the “black hole,” when something is around 30 to 50 years old and is seen simply as old and not worth preserving.

The university also has expanded exponentially over the years, with all the budget pressures that entails. “When the maintenance budget is taken up dealing with roof leaks and window replacement, the state of an original table in the dining hall is not high on the list,” says Mr. Tuckerman.

A legacy regained

But all is not lost. In anticipation of Trent’s 50th anniversary in 2014, Michael Eamon, principal of Lady Eaton College, set up a committee this past January to take an inventory of Trent’s “cultural resources,” including the remaining original furniture, with the aim of preserving what’s left. Student interns started collecting information this summer in a database.

Dr. Eamon, a historian with a particular interest in built heritage, says there have always been people at Trent interested in preserving its design legacy, but “there wasn’t a larger cross-institutional involvement. I thought we needed to have a committee that brings together all these interested parties.” Both the student who created the museum exhibit, Mr. Love, and furniture maker Mr. Tuckerman are on board.

Lee Hays, director of alumni relations at Trent, says one of her priorities is “to make sure that there’s an academic piece that comes out of this. We need to educate the Trent community and visitors about this important design legacy that exists at Trent.”

Dr. Eamon is teaching a course this fall on Trent’s heritage and he also hopes to see more programming developed around this. “We need faculty, staff and students on board,” he says.

The committee also hit on a novel idea to raise money for a special 50th anniversary design heritage fund. Mr. Tuckerman and his company, Blue Gum Design, working in collaboration with the alumni association, are making available limited-edition replicas of two original Trent chairs. “I wanted to come up with something that was emblematic of the design heritage, so I thought immediately of the chairs,” he says.

Dubbed the Champlain and Rubidge chairs, both are based on leather safari chairs that once adorned Champlain College. “Here’s a chance to own one, and the money is going to a good cause,” says Mr. Tuckerman.

The chairs, specially branded for the 50th anniversary, are being offered for $800 apiece, with $200 of that going to the heritage fund. For each style, 105 chairs will be crafted in recognition of the number of students registered in Trent’s first class of 1964.

At first Mr. Tuckerman was making the chairs himself, but he has engaged local manufacturers – “exquisite craftspeople,” he says – to build the bulk of them. “Again, that’s sort of in the spirit of the original furniture, using small local producers.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Amy Smith / September 12, 2013 at 01:35

    I particularly like the look of the Champlain chairs. It’s classy and polished as the same time.

  2. Fynn Leitch / September 13, 2013 at 13:17

    Hey Guys – just wanted to add in – the “local museum” is actually ARTSPACE – a publicly funded contemporary gallery.