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The History of Quebec Design: 10 Of it’s Most Famous Desgners

Quebec is home to a unique culture, predominantly French-Canadian, but mixed with anglophones and many other cultures and languages. The architecture and design originated in the early settlement of Quebec, and has developed through Mid-Century into the contemporary period. Read on to find out about the history, and some of Quebec’s most iconic designers. 
 

The architecture of Quebec, was characterized in the beginning by the settlers of the rural areas along the St. Lawrence who largely came from Normandy. The houses they built echoed their roots. The surroundings forced enough differences that a unique style developed, and the house of the New France farmer remains a symbol of French-Canadian nationalism. These were rectangular structures of one storey, but with an extremely tall and steep roof, sometimes almost twice as tall as the house below. This roof design perhaps developed to prevent the accumulation of snow. The houses were usually built of wood, though the surviving ones are almost all built of stone. Landmarks in the rural areas were the churches and the mansion of the seigneurs. The seigneurs built much larger homes for themselves, but rarely were the manors ornate. Each parish had its church, often smaller copies of major churches in Quebec City or Montreal. A unique style of French-Canadian church thus developed. From this early period, design and architecture evolved greatly, especially in urban areas, but remained informed by the materials and designs developed from early settlement. 

By the time the second World War started, modern design was well established in Scandinavian countries and the US. In Canada, it was a different story. Although the country had a long history of excellence in woodworking and furniture manufacturing, it was slow to embrace modern design. Furniture manufacturers and retailers tended to be quite conservative, which worked against the widespread adoption of the modern aesthetic.  Even if companies were interested in something fresh and new, they could license designs from American manufacturers and benefit, at no cost, from the advertising of these products in the widely distributed American magazines. As a result, few manufacturers were interested in investing in their own in-house designs. With no demand for homegrown designers, there was no impetus for Canadian schools to teach design or for people to pursue a career in the field, which led to further stagnation. (The job of “industrial designer,” a thriving profession elsewhere, did not even exist in Canada.) 

A shift began during the war. Throughout the mid-1940s, discussion in magazines like Canadian Art and Canadian Homes and Gardens, among others, centred on the importance of developing the furniture industry. In a country with abundant natural resources, the furniture industry was seen as one that could absorb a large part of the country’s industrial production and output of raw materials. Some publications even criticized Canadian manufacturers for not applying technologies developed during the war to furniture production. E.W. Thrift, writing in Canadian Art in 1945, noted that the Canadian home furnishing industry was “a most backward field in its lack of the use of modern technology” and pushed for training programs for designers who could help modernize the industry.  Perhaps the sentiments of the era were best summarized by the reactions to an Art Gallery of Toronto exhibit called “Design in the Household.” Held in 1946, the exhibit included both Canadian products and pieces from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Visitors to the exhibition left comments asking why “all the modern designs” were American. They also described the Canadian designs as small, plain, inferior, and impractical.

By 1949 the National Industrial Design Committee decided to take action. It published a brochure called “Good Design Will Sell Canadian Products” and distributed it to 6,000 companies. It also commissioned a study of the furniture industry that revealed an interest among manufacturers in creating new designs. This study recommended the expansion of design courses in Canada and more scholarships for Canadian students interested in studying design in the US.  There is more to the story than outlined here, but the end result was increased opportunities for Canadian designers who took full advantage and made their mark. 

 

Quebec’s 10 Most Iconic Designers 

1.Paul Boulva 

Born in Montreal in 1946, Paul Boulva is a designer who remains very much in the shadows. There is very little information about him accessible online. Yet, his chairs are some of the most famous to come out of Quebec. The Lotus chair is a Space Age Modern armchair created by Paul Boulva for the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and produced by Artopex of Canada. The chair sports a chromed metal frame with molded plastic seat with back and seat upholstered, or also comes un-upholstered.The design is very comfortable, and it is stackable if used with other Lotus chairs. Another famous design by Paul Boulva are the suspension chairs, which have seen screen time on Start Trek: The Next Generation. The illusiveness of this line makes their discovery all the more exciting. Clearly inspired by (and often mistaken for) the Etcetera chair by Jan Ekselius. Created by Canadian Designer Paul Boulva for Artopex in the mid-80’s, the avant-garde, free-flowing, post-modern design couldn’t be more suitable for the set of Start Trek: The Next Generation. Elegant futuristic curves with no hard lines makes the chairs supremely comfortable and creates organic lines that go beautifully in any room. 

 

2. Moshe Safdie 

Moshe Safdie is an architect, urban planner, educator, theorist, and author, with Israeli, Canadian, and American citizenship. In a career spanning more than 50 years, he has explored principles of socially responsible design. He is best known for designing Habitat ’67 at the site of Expo 67, a yearlong international exhibition at Montreal. Habitat ’67 was a prefabricated concrete housing complex comprising three clusters of individual apartment units arranged like irregularly stacked blocks along a zigzagged framework. This bold experiment in prefabricated housing using modular units aroused intense international interest at the time, though it did not inaugurate a trend toward the mass production of such low-cost units. Safdie was educated at McGill University School of Architecture in Montreal and began his career (1962) in the offices of Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn. While continuing to oversee projects, Safdie served as director of the urban design program (1978–84) and professor of architecture and urban design (1984–89) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Safdie’s later projects included, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a children’s Holocaust memorial (1987), a transport memorial (1995), and a Holocaust museum (2005). In North America he designed an expansion of the Toronto international airport (2007) that was a joint venture with two other firms; a headquarters for the United States Institute for Peace (2011) in Washington, D.C.; the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (2011) in Bentonville, Arkansas; and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (2011) in Kansas City, Missouri. Safdie began to seriously consider green space during this period, integrating lush gardens in such projects as the Sky Habitat Residential Development (2016) and the Jewel Changi Airport (2018), both in Singapore; the latter features a central waterfall. He also created high-density housing interspersed with gardens in Qinhuangdao (2017), China, and Toronto (2019). Safdie’s projects from the 2020s included the mixed-use complex Raffles City Chongqing (2020), China, which he described as a vertical city.

3. Jeannette-Meunier-Biéler

Jeannette Meunier was born on December 29, 1900 in Sainte-Anne-de-Sabrevois in the province of Quebec. She studied from 1924 to 1928 at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal where she also exhibited works that would be noticed by Émile Lemieux, at the time director of the decoration department of the T.Eaton company store.  It was, therefore, in 1928 that she decided to leave her studies to accept Mr. Lemieux’s offer to become his assistant. So, she never finished her program at the École, or received a diploma. From 1928 to 1931 she was Émile Lemieux’s assistant at Eaton’s, whom she considered her mentor. During these years Jeannette Meunier assisted Émile Lemieux as interior decorator and exhibition organizer. Among other things, she participated in creating the L’intérieur Moderne studio presented in the Eaton’s store from 1928 to 1931, which was greatly inspired by the decoration studios of Parisian department stores. Following this experience, Ms. Meunier wrote an article on Modern Interior Design for La Revue Moderne. Also attracted by the Montreal arts community, Jeannette Meunier organized Eaton’s second exhibition of Canadian art taking place in the store’s art gallery from May 6 to 18, 1929. She also met André Biéler there, a Swiss artist who also exhibited his works. They proceeded to marry on April 27, 1931. During their honeymoon spent in France and Switzerland, she discovered a whole world of fashion and design and was particularly interested in the design. Back in Montreal where the couple moved into an apartment, she left Eaton to become an interior designer. She and her husband became the principal representatives of a group of Montreal avant-garde painters, the Oxford Group, whose aspirations resembled those of the Toronto Group of Seven. At the same time, Jeannette Meunier-Biéler is also part of a group of friends, called L’Atelier, made up of Montreal artists and architects promoting modernity in art. Their vision was not far removed from that of progressive Europeans for industrial production and the use of new materials in artistic expression. Jeannette Meunier-Bièler’s artistic career ended in 1936 when she and her husband moved to Kingston where André Biéler was offered the position of Director of Fine Arts at Queen’s University.
 

4. Marcel Parizeau 

Marcel Parizeau was born in 1898 and died in 1945. He studied architecture at the Polytechnic School of Montreal where he received his diploma in 1922 after 5 years of study. He was one of the few Quebec architects to complete his training at the School of Fine Arts in Paris where he spent 7 years enrolled in the Héraud workshop. He spent a total of ten years in Paris from where he made expeditions to other countries such as Belgium, Switzerland and Italy… It was in 1933 that he returned to Montreal where he executed the plans for a few houses. Very modern in spirit, the achievements that mark him the most on Montreal soil are the silos in the Port of Montreal.

He returned to Montreal in 1933 to open an office with Antoine Monette (1899-1974), who had also trained at the École des Beaux-arts de Paris. Projects by the firm of Monette & Parizeau include a collaboration with French architect Eugène Beaudoin (1898-1983) on the design of the art-deco French embassy in Ottawa in 1936, and soon afterwards the reconstruction of the Craig St. Armory in Montreal. Parizeau also designed numerous smaller projects such as furniture and interiors, country cottages, and a number of notable residences for friends in Montreal and Outremont. These include semi-detached twin residences for the brothers Marc and Maurice Jarry (1935-1936), and for the brothers Jean and Paul Leman (1936), and the Paul Larocque house (1936), also known as the J. B. Beaudry Leman house. The buildings feature clear, simple volumes, ribbon windows and industrial detailing like pipe railings and glass brick, which make them remarkable as early examples of modernism in Montreal.

In 1936 Parizeau began teaching theory and interior design at the École du meuble de Montréal, and became professor de l’histoire d’architecture à l’Université de Montréal in 1945. During this time he published numerous articles on architecture, urbanism, design and the fine arts. In 1943 Parizeau was appointed architecte-conseil of the Service d’urbanisme de Montréal, and he became an associate member Royal Canadian Academy in 1944. Parizeau died in Montreal in 1945. He was also a consultant architect for the City of Montreal. In addition to several homes in Outremont, which have a very notable curved brickwork, he made many pieces of furniture. The furniture is on exhibit at the Montreal Fine Arts Museum, which similarly features curved lines. 

 

5. Jacques Guillon

Some Canadian designers were prolific creators whose name recognition comes more from a single, iconic piece than their complete body of work. Jacques Guillon is among them. The company he founded in Montréal worked in commercial office planning and interiors and still exists today as GSM Design. Yet it was the cord chair he designed while a student in the early 1950s that brought Guillon his greatest acclaim. Fittingly, the chair was produced by a company that manufactured tennis racquets. In an article on the Canadian Design Resource website, Rachel Gotlieb placed the Guillon cord chair in second place on her list of top ten Canadian designs. In her book Design in Canada, she describes the chair as “the perfect balance of fragility and strength” and notes that it was load-tested and could support 1,533 kg (3,380 pounds). The chair appeared at the 1964 Milan Triennale and was sold in stores in Montréal and by American retailers Macy’s and Lord & Taylor.  

6. Ernest Cormier

Ernest Cormier was a Canadian engineer and architect. He spent much of his career in the Montreal area, designing notable examples of Art Deco architecture, including Cormier House (his home in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile) and the Supreme Court of Canada Building in Ottawa. Cormier’s major work is the central building of the Université de Montréal (now known as the Roger Gaudry Building) on the north slope of Mount Royal. This huge example of the Art Deco style was built between World War I and the middle of World War II, and it has been kept in a nearly pristine shape over the decades. It is a composition of simple forms of planes and surfaces in successive relief, emphasizing vertical lines. The light buff vitrified brick has trimmings of Missisquoi marble. The only major destruction of his designs took place within the interior spaces. These changes occurred in the 1970s, when the great multi-storey hall of the central library was filled up with several smaller, single-storey rooms for the faculty of medicine and its library. Another important example of Cormier’s work can be found on another Quebec university campus, the Casault pavilion of Université Laval, familiarly known by students as the ‘Louis-Jacques’. Designed in 1948 but only completed in 1960, it is a massive cathedral-like building, originally designed as Quebec City’s Grand Séminaire, which is particularly spectacular viewed from a distance along the impressive mall that runs along the east–west axis of the campus grounds.  Despite an unfortunate renovation scheme in the 1970s, which gutted the chapel, filled in the magnificent enclosed courtyard and transformed the interior into an undecipherable labyrinth, the building has become the most recognized landmark of the second-oldest university in North America and home to Laval’s faculties of Music and Communications, as well as to Quebec’s National Archives.

7. Jean-Paul Mousseau

Jean-Paul Mousseau was a Quebec artist. He was a student of Paul-Émile Borduas and a member of the Automatist school. He was a founding member of the Association on Non-Figurative Artists of Montreal. He designed murals for the Hydro-Québec building and the Peel Metro station in Montreal. Jean-Paul Mousseau studied painting at the age of thirteen while at the College Notre-Dame in Montreal under Frère Jérome (1940–45). He became a student of Paul-Emile Borduas at the Ecole du Meuble, Montreal. He was a member of the group of painters known as the Automatistes. In 1948, he was one of the signatories of the Refus global manifesto. At the end of the 1950s he was one of the first Quebec artists who saw the necessity of integrating art into the urban environment. His most important contributions are original murals and other collaborations with architects. Works by Mousseau in the metro include the mural Opus 74 at Viau station, two murals at Honoré-Beaugrand, and a mural at Square-Victoria. He also created some sculptural lighting elements in the concert-hall of the Orford Arts Centre, in collaboration with the designer Léonard Garneau, who was in charge of the interior design of the centre. His work is integral to Montreal’s airport and several of its skyscrapers. A major work is a mural (Lumière et mouvement) in the Hydro-Québec building in Montreal.

8. Phyllis Lambert

Born in Montreal, Quebec, she studied at The Study, a premier independent school for girls, and was educated at the liberal arts Vassar College (BA in 1948). At the age of nine she was already committed to sculpture and her drawing skills were commented upon as remarkable early on in life. And at eleven she began exhibiting in annual juried exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Société des Sculpteurs du Canada. While reading architecture history in New York she became engaged with the connections of art and architecture which would last a lifetime. Her family is of Jewish background. While Lambert was living in Paris, the Seagram Company Ltd was planning a new headquarters in New York City under her father’s instructions. During her time in Paris she had come into contact with the newest artistic and architectural movements of the time. She was vehemently against the building that had already been designed for the plot by Pereira and Luckman Architects. In an eight-paged letter to her father (dated June 28, 1954), the 27-year-old Phyllis managed to convince him to re-think the initial project. She was given the mandate to find a suitable alternative and after an extended research lasting six weeks Mies van der Rohe was brought forward as the new candidate. He received the project and became her mentor supporting her in her wish to become an architect.  From 1954 to 1958 she was immersed in the process of designing and building the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York City. Though she enrolled at the Yale School of Architecture in 1958, she then changed to the Illinois Institute of Technology, which she felt better suited what she wanted to learn. In 1979, she founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA),  an influential museum and research centre in Montreal’s Shaughnessy Village neighbourhood, and donated 750,000 shares of Seagram to help fund the Centre. It houses extensive collections of architectural drawings, books, photographs, and archival materials. The guiding belief of the CCA is that “architecture is a public concern,” and its collection and activities “are driven by a curiosity about how architecture shapes—and might reshape—contemporary life.”

9. W. Waclaw Czerwinski and Hilary Stykolt

World War II forced restrictions on the supply of materials used in furniture making but also led to innovations that would later be used in the furniture industry. The Canadian Wooden Aircraft Company was one of the first to adapt wartime technology to furniture production. During the war the company made plywood components for Mosquito bombers. After the war, designers W. Waclaw Czerwinski and Hilary Stykolt used their expertise with bent laminated wood and moulded plywood to create a dining table and chairs with a modern aesthetic. Czerwinski and Stykolt were greatly influenced by Finnish modern designer Alvar Aalto who had crafted this bentwood lounge chair in the early 1930s. In their creations, the two designers were heeding the advice of W.F. Holding, the chair of the Toronto Branch of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, who said in 1946 that products made in Canada did not need to be “instantly recognizable as being Canadian.” Rather, he thought that Canadian designers should take the “best from the past or from the inspiration of other countries.” (Wright, p. 92). Holding was expressing a viewpoint very much in keeping with modern designers of the era who, as we noted in other posts in our Great Designers series, often re-interpreted designs from the past and from other cultures.

10. James Donahue

James Donahue had studied under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at Harvard before returning to Canada to pursue a career as an educator and furniture designer. With his architecture students at the University of Manitoba, he developed yet another landmark piece that would serve as inspiration for a celebrated American designer. Donahue’s Winnipeg chair, created in the late 1940s, included a bent plywood shell, rubber shock mounts, and a metal rod base. It is estimated that 200 of the chairs were produced and about two dozen of the highly collectible chairs exist now.James Donahue was one of the founding members of the Affiliation of Canadian Industrial Designers, which, with its creation in 1946, helped establish the profession of industrial design in this country. Donahue, who died in 1997, has been remembered as “an influential teacher and architect with a passion for furniture design.”

 

Many of Quebec’s architects, painters, and designers studied abroad in the first half of the twentieth century and then brought their ideas and training home with them. The Ecole de Meuble in Montreal had a massive impact on this generation of designers: it’s purpose was to train Quebec’s future cabinetmakers to executer furniture of high quality and modern design. In the school’s first decade, the professors and students we’re primarily inspired by French Art Deco models  of the 1920’s and 30’s but gradually shifted their attention to American and Scandinavian Developments. Quebec design sometimes falls in the shadow of European and American design, but there are some significant and interesting designers, buildings, and  pieces that have emerged from Quebec.