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Red Rocket man reflects on 40 years as designing mind

Exhibit honours the man behind TTC streetcars

By Christopher Hume
Toronto Star Design Critic

Few Torontonians know Claude Gidman’s name, but most know his work.

The 65-year-old industrial designer ranks among the most respected Canadian practitioners of this ubiquitous yet invisible art.

Though Gidman’s credits include everything from front-end loaders to vacuum cleaners, his best-known design is the Toronto streetcar.

It qualifies as a genuine civic icon, one of the things that makes this city unique. But for Gidman, it is only one of hundreds of projects he has completed to date.

“I don’t want to be known just for the streetcar,” insists Gidman, who recently retired as head of Ontario College of Art and Design’s industrial design department. “I’ve done so many different things.”

Just how many can be seen in a small tribute exhibition on display in the Atrium at the college, 100 McCaul St., until Friday. The drawings, paintings, models and photographs in this wide-ranging survey document a career that dates back more than four decades.

The earliest works are a series of small futuristic scenarios done in the late 1950s. They illustrate Gidman’s vision of transparent workplaces decorated with sleek furniture, streamlined greenery and ocean-liner cars outside.

Gidman smiles at these youthful imaginings. “Back in those days,” he recalls, “small meant cheap.”

How things have changed; now, neither big nor small means cheap.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing heavy equipment or ski boots,” Gidman argues. “The design process is a process. It should start with a team of people from many different disciplines - engineering, marketing, design and so on.

“Canada is so well-placed. We’ve got such bright, educated people with lots of experience. But we need to start working together.”

Gidman has fought to bring a team approach to design. A highlight came in the 1980s when he persuaded the presidents of the art college, the University of Toronto and Ryerson to sign an agreement committing their institutions to teaching product design.

“All along Claude has emphasized teamwork,” says Lenore Richards, dean of the art college’s design faculty. “He also focuses on the pragmatics of mass production, such as materials and processes. Ultimately, though, it’s about developing meaningful designs for users.”

So far, his dream of a multi-disciplinary product-design centre remains unrealized. And although Gidman continues to teach at U of T and run his own studio in the Albion Hills, he has abandoned the fight to bring light into the ivory tower.

“I don’t think I’ll miss it,” he confesses. “I’ve made my contribution.”

That has been recognized many times, most publicly in 1987 when Gidman became the first industrial designer to win a Toronto Arts Award. Gidman oversaw the production of the Brita water filter and a second TTC vehicle, the “kneeling” Orion bus for disabled passengers. But Gidman’s most enduring legacy is his streetcar. Each time one rumbles by, he’s reminded of how well it turned out. You don’t have to be a Red Rocket scientist to figure out why.

“There’s a certain romantic aspect to what a streetcar should be,” he notes. “The question was whether you want the streetcar to blend in with the city or stand out. We decided it should stand out.”

The design process, which began in 1974, lasted several years and was steeped in controversy. It turned out that Torontonians were deeply attached to the original Red Rockets, which had travelled city streets since the 1930s.

“We had delegations of people who tried to stop the development of the new streetcar,” Gidman remembers. “The question was how futuristic it should be, or how traditional. Had we followed the style trend of the time, we would have produced a less-successful result.”

But as he loves to point out, design must address function above all.

“I thought we should get the driver up high enough so that he was at eye-level with passengers,” says Gidman. “Before, it was quite demeaning, drivers were down at belt-buckle level.”

Then there’s the impressive front window, curved to reflect interior glare away from the driver. A few minor modifications and a quarter of a century later, Gidman’s streetcar is an urban fixture, with 196 in service in Toronto along with 52 articulated vehicles.

“I knew the streetcar had been accepted years ago,” Gidman laughs. “Back when it started to appear in cartoons.”

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