[Russell Spanner chair from Debbie and Peter's place in Issue 40]
We can’t stop thinking about all of the amazing examples of Canadian-made furniture in Peter and Debbie’s home in our December issue — especially their birch plywood and canvas chair made by Canadian design icon Russell Spanner.
In his essay for the 1990 restrospective A Spanner in the Works: The Furniture of Russell Spanner, 1950-1953 at the Power Plant, artist and writer Robert Fones describes Spanner’s work thusly: “The chairs combined the dynamism of Futurism with a cartoon-like anthropomorphism. And yet they were as solidly built and as straightforward in their simplicity as the public-school furniture I recalled from my childhood.” In short, these mid-century designs have real presence and personality.
[Catalina chair from Inabstracto]
The Spanner story is equally irresistible: At some point young Russell was an amateur wrestler (some say he tested the durability of his pieces by tossing them around). His family owned a Toronto-based woodworking and furniture manufacturing concern called Spanner Products Ltd. (which was built on the site of his grandfather’s old taxidermy business). He started out as a foreman at the factory, taking night courses in furniture design at Ryerson.
In 1945, Spanner became interested in the possibilities of post war design and started making furniture using curved, unadorned forms and thin birch plywood as gifts for friends. When his father passed the reigns of the company over to his sons, Spanner began manufacturing under the name Ruspan originals. The bold angles of his designs caught on with the sophisticated Mad Men set and were picked up by the Eaton’s and Simpson’s department store chains.
[desk from Artmyth Vintage]
As the decade progressed, the furniture became less boxy and more streamlined. Spanner’s work was selling like hot cakes and getting lots of buzz in magazines, so the company took out a bank loan and moved to a new building. This and sibling squabbles led to Spanner Products going into receivership in 1959. In 1961 Russell went to work for Ontario Store Fixtures, designing and building showcases.
Spanner’s dining sets and lounge chairs are highly collectible today for two reasons. Their confident yet simple forms are still exciting to see today and they are solidly built. If you are lucky, you can still pick up examples on Craigslist or Kijiji.