Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition tells the unique history of B.C.
Modern in the Making: Post-war Craft and Design in British Columbia conveys stories of post-war life found woven into modernist designs
With B.C. residents vacationing closer to home this summer, it’s the perfect time to learn more about the province’s unique history. A new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery offers a fascinating entry point into B.C.’S past through the stories of rare objects: post-war modernist designs.
Modern in the Making: Postwar Craft and Design in British Columbia features more than 300 items by 134 artists, including jewellery, weavings, textiles and furniture. Covering a 30-year period from 1945, the exhibition takes an inclusive look at the design trends that shaped the era.
“The exhibition is quite timely for its sense of materiality and making,” says Daina Augaitis, interim director of the Vancouver Art Gallery. “During the pandemic, people have been returning to practices like bread-making, sewing and looking at one’s living space. There’s an increased consciousness about the objects in our lives, the meanings they hold and the pleasure they bring us.”
Many of the designs use materials that were abundant after the end of World War II. Bent plywood, once used for warplane manufacturing, was adapted into a ready resource for furniture. The exhibition traces a trajectory from the highly functional pieces of the 1950s to the radical, eclectic stylings of the 1970s.
The mid-century modern aesthetic feels surprisingly contemporary, as the minimalist and abstract tenets of the period have become popular once more. Most of the items come from storied provenance: co-curator Allan Collier saved an item from being thrown out, as the owner didn’t know what to do with the piece. Other objects in the exhibition were found by happenstance: a conversation with a jeweller led to a previously unknown collection of jewellery by influential curator Doris Shadbolt.
Visitors may recognize other local artists in the exhibition, such as architect Peter Cotton and Hollywood swimsuit designer Rose Marie Reid — but also potter Wayne Ngan and famed Haida artist Bill Reid.
“The West Coast received influences from a lot of different places in the world,” says Augaitis. “Modernism from Europe, the American aesthetic from draft dodgers, values from Asia — and of course the Indigenous peoples, the very foundation of culture in B.C. This exhibition is one of the very first in Canada to include Indigeneity in a survey of the modern movement.”
The exhibition opens with a basket by Nuu-chah-nulth weaver Nellie Jacobson and features works by others who helped revitalize Indigenous culture after the potlatch ban was lifted in 1951 — including Ellen Neel, the first female Kwakwakaðwakw carver.
Local and international influences are seen coalescing in stunning designs woven into baskets, engraved into metalwork, and threaded into textiles made by Indigenous and non-indigenous creators alike.
“The post-war period saw a lot of creative cross-pollination. It was an interdisciplinary moment, when people shared not only their methodologies but also a collective optimism about the future. There was excitement about innovation and this exhibition captures the timelessness of B.C. designs.”
Visit vanartgallery.bc.ca to learn more. Modern in the Making: Post-war Craft and Design in British Columbia runs through January 3, 2021. The exhibition catalogue, featuring essays by Michelle Mcgeough, Michael J. Prokopow, Allan Collier and more, is now available at the Gallery Store.