A Canadian School of Design

A little before Christmas, I started to notice that the IPod Touch had become the fetish object of the season. My fellow Ottawa denizens were wandering around lovingly stroking the screens of their Touches. In the winter. In the cold. Outside. Without gloves. Like idiots.

But it isn’t really their fault, is it? The Touch was developed in Cupertino, California, where the average temperature in January bubbles around 4°C and 15°C. Canadian fetish objects are pretty much the same as those in the United States, but we have a reality that our southern cousins don’t: winter.

Winter plays a huge part of our identity. Canadians snowshow, snowboard, ski, skate, and skidoo. We invented hockey. We dominate the sport of curling. We essentially invented the modern ski resort. In the temperate south of the country, we endure subzero temperatures five to six months of the year.

But our consumer goods, our clothing styles, architectural styles, and fetish objects are designed elsewhere. We use stuff designed in climates where zero is considered cold, and a light dusting of snow will close a city.

Imagine what gadgets would look like if they were designed with winter in mind. When it gets below minus five(ish), you don’t want to expose your skin to the elements for more than a minute or two. If MP3 players were designed by Canadians, they would be easy to control inside a pocket or mitten. They would have controls that are easy to manipulate without being seen. Alternatively, they would have buttons large enough that users would be able to control the volume or navigate tracks without having to remove their frostbite preventing gloves.

When you start to consider the realities of winter, more and more of our society seems like a cargo cult. We’ve imported styles that were created for much warmer places. When you see people walking around in winter, how many people do you see wearing long coats? I don’t mean coats that cover their hips, I mean coats that go to their ankles. When you’re wandering around Ottawa in -20°C weather, wearing a coat that goes to your waist is silly. It means your legs freeze, or you have to wear long-johns1. But do Canadians wear long coats? No. Because we’re suckers and we import our ideas of style from the south.

The realities of winter hit architecture hard as well. When six months of the year necessitate heavy clothing and heavy boots, our buildings should respect that and provide somewhere to store our sweaters and jackets when inside. Do they? For the most part, no. Malls, libraries, movie theaters, hospitals, and office buildings require us to carry our surplus duds around with us. The few buildings that do feature a coat check tend to be bars or clubs, where being seen is part of the experience.

It would be wonderful if Canadian designers and architects could reverse our fixation on southern climates. Well made Canadian goods that were attractive and designed for our climate would be wonderful. But they seem unlikely to catch on. Too much of our media comes from southern climes, where gloves are a fashion statement, and open air dining is an option year round.

Note: I didn’t notice our tom-foolery myself. It took the first 60 pages of John Ralston Saul’s Refliections of a Siamese Twin to wake me up to our national fixations on warmer climates. Perhaps a solution to our cargo-cultish behaviour was contained in the rest of the book, but JRS didn’t manage to keep my attention past page 61.