Also known as Geese in Flight, the Sunridge textile pattern by Danish-born Canadian designer Thor Hansen was influenced by The Group of Seven. Nathalie Atkinson reports on how the print from the 1950s represents a longstanding relationship between Scandi
Beginning in the mid-1920s, waves of artisans from Sweden and Denmark settled across Canada, Thor Hansen among them. According to Canadian design historian and curator Rachel Gotlieb, it was the memorable graphics of Canadian Pacific tourism posters that initially inspired him to immigrate here. A charismatic and tireless advocate of national identity and expression through arts and handicraft, he could be considered the William Morris of Canada. “Culture is something that evolves out of the simple, enduring elements of everyday life,” Hansen said in a 1955 talk. “Elements most truthfully expressed in the folk arts and crafts of a nation.”
Hansen first settled in Saskatchewan in 1927 and worked as a farm labourer before finding clerical work at the British American Oil Company’s Regina office. He opened a shop that sold needlepoint and a small production of textiles to supplement his income. In 1938, Hansen transferred to the company’s Toronto offices, and a decade later its vice president, Gerald Godsoe, hired Hansen to create the decor for their new Toronto headquarters. The modernist building designed by Page+Steel was completed in 1951 and Hansen soon became the company’s national art director, setting the design tone at other offices around the country.
Hansen lent his designs widely, on everything from quilts, rugs, wood panels and needlepoint to metalwork, carved linoleum panels, posters and souvenir objects. He also practiced a sort of open-source design, at one point giving his Georgian Bay-inspired patterns to local arts groups to adapt and remix in their own way.
Patterns refresh and subvert Canadiana clichés such as geese, loons and forlorn leaning pines, and many of Hansen’s other designs (including Eagle Pass, 1956) were inspired by indigenous and folk art. Animal, wildflower and plant life are frequent subjects of Hansen’s prints, with heavy outlines and stylized, colourful pattern fields. Yet even in motifs that ostensibly reflect the stillness of the landscape, there is a sense of dynamic motion.
Most of his production textiles were hand-screened fabric designed for Kitchener, Ont. upholstery manufacturer A.B. Caya Ltd. in the 1950s. Original textile swatches are scarce today, and the Huronia Museum in Midland, Ont. holds the largest collection of Hansen artwork in the country. To mark Canada 150, Globe Style’s Clearly Canadian series explores iconic examples of domestic design.