Concrete Furniture

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Sean Cole:
It’s a big, majestic building on Nathan Phillips Square.

Roman Mars:
And this is my friend Sean Cole in Toronto, Ontario.

Sean Cole:
New City Hall. It’s formed totally of concrete. There are these two towers that sort of curve like hands cupped around a clamshell.

Masha Kelmans:
So this was a big deal.

Roman Mars:
When it opened in 1965-

Masha Kelmans:
The first modern concrete civic building for Toronto inserted very prominently into the victorian fabric.

Sean Cole:
Masha Kelmans used to work in the City Planning Office in the East Tower on floor 19. She’s an architect.

Masha Kelmans:
The building really explored and exploited the possibilities of concrete.

Roman Mars:
Everything was about concrete in Toronto back then.

Masha Kelmans:
The play of opacity vs. transparency-

Sean Cole:
Everything.

Masha Kelmans:
So the furniture really picked up on that

Sean Cole:
Yes, even the office furniture inside city hall was made, in part, of concrete. But let’s back up.

Masha Kelmans:
In the 50s, Toronto decided it needed a new city hall. So there was an international competition and in ’58 there was a design selected by Finnish architect Viljo Revell.

Sean Cole:
But he wasn’t satisfied with simply designing one of the most prominent buildings the city had ever seen. No.

Masha Kelmans:
Revell proposed that he was also going to design the furniture.

Sean Cole:
He wanted to design the furniture. He had a vision. But it wasn’t to be.

Masha Kelmans:
The decision that city hall made was to commission the furniture through a second competition. So Revell was very disappointed. It was very dramatic. He called it the biggest disappointment of his life and he subsequently passed away.

Sean Cole:
City hall felt bad. Or at least-

Masha Kelmans:
They felt the weight of the responsibility to award the competition to somebody who really understood and captured the spirit of the building.

Sean Cole:
So they gave it to a company, Knoll International.

Sean Cole:
And it was the only design that used concrete?

Masha Kelmans:
Correct.

Sean Cole:
Desks, coffee tables, cabinets. They all had concrete legs. The mayor’s desk was this sleek concrete-and-polished-wood statement. And all of this was really expensive.

Masha Kelmans:
And there was immediate public outcry about this furniture.

Sean Cole:
Particularly from the people who were actually using it.

Masha Kelmans:
There were complaints that the desks were wobbly and that when secretaries typed on them, they weren’t sturdy.

Sean Cole:
But the legs are concrete! How could they not be sturdy?

Masha Kelmans:
It’s hard to imagine, yeah?

[Toronto Star: “Furniture Row Is On Again!”]

Masha Kelmans:
And we have, in our research file, many articles from that time, with all kinds of interesting headlines.

[Globe and Mail: “Wobbly Desks at City Hall Spark New Furniture Controversy!”]

Masha Kelmans:
Various officials in city hall were fighting over it. There was even one that talked about somebody quitting.

[“Rusty George Bell Went Out As Coordinator Today, After A Blazing Row With The Board of Control Over Secretary’s Desks”]

Masha Kelmans:
This was the 60s and hemlines were starting to get shorter.

Sean Cole:
And there was nothing to shield the secretary’s knees. And the new desks had no drawers. And they weren’t big enough. But Masha Kelmans has sat at that furniture. She used to work at one of those desks. And it didn’t wobble. When she said-

Masha Kelmans:
“It’s hard to imagine, yeah?”

Sean Cole:
It’s because some of the complaints make no sense to her. And she has a theory.

Masha Kelmans:
Once city hall was up, perhaps it was quite uncomfortable for people to internalize that this was really what they had chosen, and perhaps there was a kind of anxiety about this new modernism and this new concrete that we were inserting into our traditional city. So perhaps the furniture, which was kind of mimetic of the building

Sean Cole:
Mimetic – relating to, characteristic of, or exhibiting mimicry. Ok, so perhaps the furniture which was mimetic of the building-

Masha Kelmans:
Really served as an outlet for that anxiety. And perhaps this is why the controversy didn’t seem to make so much sense. Later the complaint was that it was difficult to move and so on. So, of course, as city hall began to update itself over the years, the furniture, since it was not valued, it was lost. Just simple through replacements. It was actually thrown away.

Sean Cole:
But not all of it.

Masha Kelmans:
“It’s kind of like a hunt in here, a treasure hunt looking for them. But they are here.”

Sean Cole:
In the late 80s, the city’s director of urban design at the time saw what was happening-

Sean Cole:
“This is a very subtle one.”

Sean Cole:
And put the word out to the rest of city hall, “If you’re replacing your concrete furniture,” he said, “send it up to floor 19. We like it.”

Masha Kelmans:
Which is why, today, whatever does remain is still housed in the Urban Design offices, which are in the City Planning Department.

Sean Cole:
There’s a bit of it scattered elsewhere too. The Mayor still sits at a concrete desk. But mostly floor 19 is the Florida of retired concrete furniture.

Sean Cole:
“You wouldn’t notice the concrete unless you really squat down on the floor.”

Sean Cole:
The concrete legs are curved and smooth. The cabinetry is a little worse for the wear. It’s kind of furniture only an urban designer could love. People like-

Robert Friedman:
Robert Friedman

Sean Cole:
Who runs the Urban Planning Office now.

Robert Friedman:
There are certain aspects of it that aren’t that practical. It’s really heavy. If you want to rearrange your office, you need to call in a team of people to help you do it. And I think most of the planners and urban designers on 19, it’s part of your training, right? You are exposed to the different eras of design. So I think there’s an appreciation among our staff that may not exist among other divisions in the city.

Sean Cole:
“This bench. Look at this bench.”

Masha Kelmans:
“Yep.”

Sean Cole: Though I have to say, the furniture really grew on me.

Sean Cole:
“Wow. That is actually very pretty.”

Sean Cole:
And I found myself sort of rooting for its survival. Which is exactly what Masha Kelmans wants me to do.

Masha Kelmans:
So the hope is that its actual value as a rather important piece of uniquely Canadian furniture design will be recognized and that it will receive the restoration and the protection that it deserves.

Sean Cole:
“Do you miss it?”

Masha Kelmans:
“Um… no.” (laughs)

Roman Mars:
This episode was produced by Sean Cole and me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity.

Masha Kelmans:
“I think life is much bigger than my old office desk, to be honest!”

Roman Mars:
It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center For Architecture and Design.

Sean Cole:
“It’s a nice desk though.”

Masha Kelmans:
“Agreed.”

Roman Mars:
To find out more, go to 99percentinvisible.org.

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