| Robert Fones
A Spanner in the Works: The Furniture of Russell Spanner, 1950-1953
The Power Plant, Toronto, January 19 - February 25, 1990
From the exhibition catalogue.
[ 4,765 words ]
Seduced and Abandoned, Virginia Wright's 1985 exhibition of Canadian furniture at The Art Gallery at Harbourfront, was an impressive survey of the little-known and rarely seen products of Canadian furniture designers dating from 1930 to 1980. Included in the exhibition were two blonde lounge chairs by Toronto-based designer Russell Spanner, one with arms and the other without. I immediately fell in love with these chairs, feeling that, had I ever designed furniture, it would have looked like this. 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. When I asked Virginia Wright about the designer, all she could tell me was that he had been an amateur wrestler.
In her catalogue essay for Seduced and Abandoned, Virginia Wright observed that 'Modern furniture designers in Canada, seduced by the twentieth-century vision of a machine-made Utopia, have found themselves abandoned on the shores of public indifference.' This observation was quickly borne out by my own experience in researching Russell Spanner's furniture. There was no Canadian design museum to which I could turn for examples of his furniture, and no previously published material appeared to exist. Consequently, my inquiry began with phone calls to all the Spanners in the telephone book, many of whom turned out to be relatives of Russell Spanner. I spent hours at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library poring over old copies of Furniture and Furnishings, conducted numerous interviews with friends and relatives who recounted their recollections of Russell Spanner and Ruspan, the trade name for his own furniture designs, and visited the site of the old family-run factory where the furniture was made in the 1950s.
Fortunately, many Spanner family members and friends of Russell Spanner had pieces of Ruspan furniture in their homes, which I was able to photograph and measure. Russell's daughter, Lindsay, had kept a number of dealers' price-lists and brochures illustrating Ruspan furniture. Through these sources, and through advertisements in various magazines, I was eventually able to identify the major lines of furniture Russell Spanner had designed, and to determine dates for their initial appearance.
This present exhibition, concentrating on the years 1950 to 1953, presents a selection of pieces from the three furniture lines Russell Spanner introduced during this period, as well as a reconstructed display room from the Canadian Furniture Mart of 1950. The limited focus of the exhibition will, I hope, reveal Spanner's design sensibility as it is expressed in the relationship between pieces within each furniture line, and in the gradual evolution from one line to the next. The fact that advertisements for Spanner furniture frequently depict pieces from all three lines in combination suggests that Russell Spanner intended them to be compatible. Some features, such as splayed legs, bent plywood chair backs and ebonized finishes, are common to all the lines produced between 1950 and 1953. After this date, the influence of furniture from Scandinavia (specifically, the use of turned legs, exotic woods, natural wood finishes and sculptured, attenuated forms) caused a radical change in Spanner's furniture designs. For this reason, I decided not to include any furniture designed after 1953 in this exhibition.
History of the Factory
On 24 May 1948 an unknown photographer stood in a tree-lined back alley in downtown Toronto and took a picture of a three-storey brick building. This photographer wandered around the block bordered by Elm, Yonge, Edward and Bay streets, taking shots of the exterior of the building from various vantage points and, once inside the building, of each floor. Most of the photographs are slightly overexposed and, because the camera was hand-held, some of the interior shots are blurry. However, they constitute the only photographic record of a building that played an important role in Russell Spanner's career as a furniture designer.
The photographer had taken advantage of the Victoria Day holiday to return to a temporarily closed factory. The building in the photographs was owned by Spanner Products Ltd., a family-run woodworking and furniture manufacturing company. It fronted on a lane below Elm Street, flanked on the south by an open parking lot and on the west by a mansard-roofed coach house and storage sheds of rough-sawn lumber. In the 1950s the building was incorporated into a bowling alley, and today it forms the back portion of The World's Biggest Bookstore.
The factory was built in the early 1920s by Russell Spanner's father, Albion Herbert ('Bert') Spanner, his uncle, Oliver ('Ollie') Fleming Spanner, and his grandfather, Oliver Herbert ('Herb') Spanner, a renowned taxidermist who had his own business, Oliver & Company, at 24-26 Elm Street. The land on which the factory was built (lots 23-27 inclusive) had been purchased on 1 July 1922 from Caroline and James Fleming, the latter having been the elder Spanner's partner in the taxidermy shop when it was located at 358 Yonge Street.
Initially called the Spanner Battery Separator Company, the factory manufactured battery separators — thin pieces of cedar that went between metal plates in wet-cell car batteries. The square tanks of dissolved caustic soda used to treat the separators were on the ground floor, along with the line-shaft that powered the heavy woodworking machines. The cabinet makers were on the second floor and the finishing department was on the third. Albion's tenacity and perseverance and his brother Oliver's mechanical ingenuity (Oliver had initially made battery separators on a machine of his own invention) proved a winning combination. Soon the company was also making battery boxes (similar to cheese boxes with finger-joint corners) in the 'box shop' on the second floor of the building, and the name was changed to Spanner Battery Box Company.
By the 1930s the firm's list of manufactured items included battery boxes, separators, table-tennis tables, a variety of small wooden items and 'Breakfast Room Furniture'. In 1938 the company name was changed to Spanner Products to reflect this growing manufacturing diversity. With the invention of synthetic separators, the demand for wooden battery separators dried up, but the company continued making battery boxes (including large oak ones for other battery manufacturers such as Exide and Willard) until shortly after the War, when one-piece composition battery boxes replaced the wooden battery box altogether. Since the factory was already geared to woodworking, it was only natural to shift production to other wooden items.
Russell Spanner and Post-War Design
Russell Spanner, the second oldest of Albion Spanner's four children (he was born in 1916) had attended Northern Vocational School where he had studied architectural drafting. He had acquired some woodworking skills from his father, as well as through working at the factory on Saturdays as a youth. In addition, he was an avid wrestler, winning several municipal and provincial awards in the late thirties. Joe Schleimer, an Olympic bronze medallist in the 1936 Berlin Olympics who coached Russell at the Central YMCA, has described him as 'tough competition.'
A desk Russell made for his first wife, Marjorie, sometime around 1941, displays a remarkable simplicity of design and a striking combination of materials: ebonized plywood and bird's-eye maple. Although he apparently took a night course in furniture design at Ryerson Institute of Technology, Marjorie has claimed that he learned nothing there; instead, the students ended up coming to him for advice and criticism.
In a notebook from 1945 Russell recorded his typical routine as foreman of the night shift at Spanner Products, a position he had held since 1941:
At the time of this entry, Russell was taking a course in factory management and was anxious to apply some of his newly acquired knowledge. He made a scale model of the machine shop, with each truck of material represented by a small block of wood, to point out to his father the inefficient use of space. He put up a bulletin board and posted his own hand-lettered (and occasionally misspelled) maxims. He even made children's blocks out of scrap lumber to sell to Kresge's — a venture intended to show his father his enterprising spirit and his concern for plant efficiency. However, Russell and his father were frequently at loggerheads. 'Saw Dad [and] had an arguement [sic] as usual' was a common journal entry.
When Russell was finally switched to superintendent of the day shift in 1945, he was in heaven. In the draught of a letter to his brother, Doug, dated 16 June 1945, he wrote: 'I really get lots of cooperation from everybody and especially from Ollie, which I think is wonderful.' In this new position he was overseeing the production of furniture instead of battery boxes. But mostly he was anxious to introduce new furniture designs. On 9 March 1945 he wrote in his diary:
On 12 March 1945 Russell dropped in to Baton's to look at the furniture and noted in his diary: 'It wasn't so hot.' 'Waterfall-front' buffets and dressers were everywhere. The overstuffed, dark, massive furniture of the forties smacked of a bygone era that people wanted to forget about. Because of his father's resistance to his designs, friends encouraged Russell to consider starting his own business, but for unknown reasons he failed to pursue this idea.
There are some small sketches in Russell's notebook which correspond closely with some of the 'dinettes' being manufactured by the factory in 1948, and it may be that he had a hand in their design. By and large, however, they are run-of-the-mill items showing strong Art Deco influences. Around this time, Russell designed custom furniture as a wedding present for his long-time friends Al and Ruth Vistorino. In these pieces it is obvious that Russell utilized some Art Deco elements from the factory furniture with which he would have been familiar. Their half-round base moulding is almost identical with the same feature on a Spanner dinette cabinet advertised in a January 1950 issue of Furniture and Furnishings magazine. However, in these custom-made pieces Russell Spanner simplified the forms as much as possible, using thin birch plywood to create curved, unadorned surfaces that owe a greater debt to the later phase of Art Deco and early Modernism.
Albion Spanner suffered from a heart condition which gradually forced him to delegate more and more responsibility to his sons. Albion Douglas ('Doug') Spanner, who had joined the company in 1946 to work in administration and sales, was promoted to general manager in 1949. Russell became plant foreman in 1948 and Oliver Herbert Spanner was put in charge of the finishing department. While Albion is still listed in 1949 business directories as president, he had in fact left the factory and was kept informed of developments by the three boys. As plant foreman, Russell finally had free reign to produce his own furniture designs.
Spanner's first line was named Ruspan Originals, perhaps after the local bar. The Originals Club, located in the lane south of Elm Street opposite Old Angelo's, was a favourite watering hole, much frequented by Russell, Al Vistorino and some of the Spanner employees. The line was boxy and geometric, but most of all it was simple, functional and modern, all qualities that appealed to young post-war couples buying furniture for their new houses or apartments. Many of the pieces were sectional: that is, they were of a standard height, width and depth, so new pieces could be added at any time. Typical of 50s styling, most legs were splayed and tapered, giving the furniture an insect-like or 'Space Age' look. This line — including buffets, chairs, bookcases and desks — consisted of thirteen pieces (expanded to twenty-eight the following year), which were available in 'white sand,' 'honey,' 'mist grey,' 'Autumn' or 'ebony' finishes.
Many novel techniques for eliminating glued joints were introduced with the Originals line. Legs were attached by carriage bolts or screws for quick assembly, interchangeability, and efficient storage. Chair-backs were of curved plywood, a late-nineteenth-century invention developed by the aviation industry and used by Alvar Aalto in the 1930s and by both Thonet and Eames in the late forties. Chair seats were of interwoven canvas webbing in red, green, black, blue, yellow or grey. Solid wood table-tops were replaced with lumber-core plywood. Plywood corners were glued with metal splines allowing open, backless construction in units like the open coffee-table and lamp-table. All the drawers were fitted with top-of-the-line brass or chromed hardware.
In 1940 Jens Risom, a Swedish furniture designer, produced a chair that must certainly have inspired the chairs in the Originals line. It had a similar frame seat, with canvas webbing and slightly splayed legs. Ruspan Originals were also probably influenced by Paul McCobb's Planner Group, a modular, geometric line of furniture marked by a Shaker-style simplicity. McCobb, a prominent American designer, first popularized the 'modular' system. Russell's name appears on a registration list for a lecture given by McCobb at the Art Gallery of Toronto in April 1958. In the lecture, McCobb said of the Planner Group, 'We search for the beautiful in the very right proportion of things. What I attempt to do in design is not obvious. People have to look for it, they have to know the difference, and I guess to some degree it must be working because there are an awful lot of people copying it.'
Spanner would undoubtedly have seen McCobb's furniture — manufactured in Canada by Rockland Furniture Company Limited of Quebec — at the 1952 Canadian Furniture Mart in Toronto. This huge exhibition of Canadian-manufactured furniture was held every January at the Canadian National Exhibition and encouraged the introduction of new furniture lines.
The basic module of the Originals line was a box, measuring sixteen inches high, eighteen inches wide and sixteen inches deep. Doubled in width, it became a two-door or two-drawer buffet; halved in depth, it became an open bookcase. In the Originals line, the combination of units was accomplished by means of an ingenious system of concealed metal brackets as well as quarter-inch-thick cork discs on the underside of each box to allow stacking.
Charles Eames's modular system used a unit measuring twenty-one inches high, sixteen inches wide and sixteen inches deep. These units could be placed side-by-side on low benches, up to five modules in width. The advantage of a modular system in furniture manufacture is that a limited number of elements can be combined to form many different pieces. Once the module is established, material, especially sheets of plywood, can be cut with little or no waste. The advantage for the buyer is that new pieces can be added at any time.
The National Industrial Design Council included Spanner's Lounge Chair with Arms in the Design Index for 1953 and exhibited it and three other Ruspan items in a summer exhibition. The inspiration for the seat-frame of this chair (which was also produced in an earlier armless version) could easily have been the Spanner battery box with finger-joint corners, although in the chair the corners are further reinforced with inserted dowels, making a joint that does not rely solely on glue for its strength. The lounge chair's jaunty, turn-back arms — reminiscent of the 50s' obsession with fins — gives it an anthropomorphic dynamism. Spanner has sensitively aligned the upper line of the arm with the bottom line of the seat-frame, while the bottom line of the arm is parallel to the floor.
Spanner Products distributed the line through the Simpson's and Eaton's department stores and through small, independent dealers in Toronto, and, occasionally, elsewhere in the province. Once the public became aware of Ruspan, the factory could not keep up with demand. Russell Spanner's habit of jumping up onto his furniture may have stemmed from his early experience as an amateur wrestler. A Globe and Mail article from 12 January 1954 reproduces a photograph of Russell standing on an Originals coffee table at the Canadian Furniture Mart. The article describes part of Russell's design process as follows: 'He will take the design to his uncle, Oliver Spanner, and the two will retire to the woodworking shops and manufacture a prototype. Then, for several hours the chair will be kicked, dropped and thrown. Russell Spanner will stand, jump and bounce on it. If it survives, it will be deemed worthy of further consideration.' An article on Russell Spanner in the 4 May 1953 edition of the Winnipeg Tribune notes, 'He's not a formally trained industrial designer. But he feels that ingenuity and trial and error help to evolve models of goods that are attractive as well as useful.'
In 1952 Russell introduced his Catalina line, which consisted of two different buffets, a server, two sizes of dining tables with elaborate flip-top extensions, side-chairs and a three-drawer chest. This line was advertised by Pierce-Caldwell Limited, a store at 94 Bloor Street West, and appears in photographs of the store interior taken in April 1952. These pieces were available in several finishes, although the black-and-white combination best suited their California-inspired look. The elegant and eminently comfortable side-chairs are classics, harking back to the ancient Greek klismos. Their novel curved plywood seat-frame harmonizes well with the 'butterfly' back and twin splats. In the side-chair with arms, Spanner recycled — not terribly successfully — the arms of the Originals lounge chair. The padded vinyl seats of the Catalina chairs incorporated foam rubber, then a relatively new cushioning material.
While the splayed legs of the Originals continued here, some new design modifications were introduced. The bottom panel of the box that made up many of the pieces in the Catalina line was reduced in depth so that the sides and top formed an overhanging hood. Drawers were stepped back with concealed fingerpulls on the bottom front edge, eliminating the need for hardware. The sides of the buffet followed the angle of the stepped drawers and were consequently narrower at the bottom. Legs were more rounded than in the Originals line, resulting in a sculptural look. The splayed legs of Catalina buffet No. 521 now seem an awkward and inappropriate concession to current style. As if to improve on this, Russell used tapered vertical legs on his Catalina buffet No. 527, which won a National Industrial Design Council award in 1954.
Russell Spanner's prominence in the Canadian furniture-manufacturing community is reflected in his participation in a number of conferences and his position — held from 1951 to 1956 — on the Advisory Committee for Furniture and Interior Design at Ryerson Institute of Technology. He attended an N.I.D.C. Furniture Conference in Toronto in 1954, having participated in N.I.D.C. design seminars at the University of Manitoba the previous year. A contemporary newspaper article voices Russell's disappointment at the lack of encouragement for Canadian designers by manufacturers: 'I know it is impossible for every manufacturer to have original [Canadian] designs, but at least some should give it a chance.' Also in 1953, Russell introduced his Pasadena line, another design that reflects the 'tropical influence' fashionable at the time. This line combined 'ebony and cork' (actually black lacquer and cork) in pieces that were more rounded and heavier-looking than previous Spanner lines, but still quite elegant. The tables in particular are stunning, with their combination of black-lacquered wood, natural wood edging and cork tops.
Albion Spanner died in March 1953 and Douglas Spanner was elected president by the directors. Control of the factory was now in the hands of Russell, his two brothers and his Uncle 'Ollie'. Douglas Spanner has written of the financial problems that had to be dealt with during this period of transition:
With the opening of such stores as De Boer's in 1952, Shelagh's of Canada in 1954, Scandia House in 1956, and Georg Jensen in 1957, the Toronto public was exposed to a new wave of modern Scandinavian imports. The popularity of, and demand for, this style of furniture is reflected in several new lines of Spanner furniture, such as Swedish Modern, Danish Modern and Norteak. A coffee table from this period was included in the N.I.D.C. Design Index. Well-made though this furniture was, with quality materials and impeccable finishes, it displays an understandable mimicry of Scandinavian design.
Dufflaw Road Plant and Contract Furniture
In 1955 Spanner Products moved from the downtown Elm Street location to a new, 30,000-square-foot rented building at 27 Dufflaw Road, near Dufferin and Lawrence, at that time the city's industrial fringe. The main advantage of the new location was that all production was on one floor instead of two, as it had been on Elm Street, allowing for a more efficient assembly-line. The new one-storey plant allowed Russell to apply the ideas and skills he had acquired about factory production but had been able to implement only nominally at the old factory.
Although Russell continued to design furniture into the early 1960s, his love of design gradually shifted to an interest in production. While continuing to produce 'Ruspan Contemporary Furniture,' Spanner Products began taking on contract jobs to build 'Spanner Hotel and Motel Furniture' and 'Spanner Laboratory Furniture.' They built laboratory furniture for the Ashbridge's Bay Sewage Treatment Plant in Toronto, Canadian Oil Refineries in Sarnia, Canadian Steel Improvement Limited in Long Branch, St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and other such clients. These large contract jobs meant the factory could be assured of no returns on merchandise, a problem Russell had mentioned in his talk at the N.I.D.C. Furniture Conference in Toronto on 30 October 1954.
Examples of Spanner furniture featured on the cover of the May 1956 issue of Furniture and Furnishings provide a link between the previous Catalina and the forthcoming Danish Modern: the resilient bent plywood splat of the chair back remains, but the legs have succumbed to the spindly, vertical forms of Modern Scandinavian designs. A chair with a slatted back from another line appears in newspaper advertisements from 1959 as well as in the background of a photograph taken inside the Dufflaw Road plant. To the annoyance of their retailers, Spanner Products occasionally had furniture sales in their factory showroom which allowed customers to buy direct from the manufacturer.
Despite the factory sales and big contract jobs, Spanner Products was in financial trouble for a number of reasons: the company had received very little for the sale of the old factory on Elm Street; the move to the new building — financed by a bank loan — had been incredibly expensive; the rent at 27 Dufflaw was very high; and the demand for furniture had dwindled. Furthermore, there was disagreement among the three brothers about the direction in which Spanner Products should be heading. In 1959 the company went into receivership and the bank to which it was in debt appointed Robert J. Loveless as president and general manager of Spanner Products.
The company continued in operation under the new management, producing lab furniture for St. Joseph's Hospital Extension in Port Arthur, Ontario, which was installed under Russell Spanner's supervision during the summer of 1960. In the same year, Spanner Products introduced the Waldorf Executive Group, a new line of office furniture bearing some affinity to the previous Pasadena buffet in the use of recessed fingerpulls on the drawers.
In 1961 Russell left Spanner Products to work for Ontario Store Fixtures, for whom Spanner had often designed and built showcases. His brother Herb and his Uncle Ollie also left to work for other woodworking companies. Douglas Spanner, as had been agreed upon with the new management, remained with Spanner Products as general sales manager until December 1962. On 18 June 1963 the assets of Spanner Products were auctioned off by Danbury Sales and the company was dissolved as a going concern.
After Spanner Products
Russell Spanner's position as plant manager at Ontario Store Fixtures provided him with a perfect opportunity to exercise his interest in production and factory management. Ontario Store Fixtures was in the process of adding a second storey to its Lakeshore Boulevard West plant and Russell was given the task of laying out the new, expanded facilities. Many years later, in 1972, when the company moved to a new building at Dixie Road and Steeles Avenue, Russell again coordinated the new layout. He built a huge wooden model of the plant in his two-car garage at 89 Norgrove Avenue. With the aid of small blocks of wood to represent machinery — a technique he had once used at the Elm Street factory — he worked out the most efficient flow of production. Milton Shier, manager of Ontario Store Fixtures, has claimed that Russell 'knew how to get the most out of his employees, and yet he was also very kind.'
Russell Spanner moved Spanner Products into the modern era, responding in his first furniture line to the market demand for clean lines and practical functionality. While his furniture is characteristic of 1950s styling, with its splayed legs and boomerang arms, it also has a distinctive geometric simplicity, matter-of-fact joinery, and comfort and durability. Part of the charm of his furniture is in its use of materials, colours and construction techniques that had precedents in earlier Spanner Products production items. Indeed, the humble battery box may have been partly responsible for the box-like character of many items in the Originals line. Of all his designs, the Originals lounge chair with arms, the Catalina side-chair, and the Pasadena cork-topped table are his most successful.
The north façade of the old Spanner factory is still visible if you walk along the alley behind the World's Biggest Bookstore, although most of the windows have been bricked in and part of the third storey has been removed. Inside the store, there is a noticeable series of steps up to the floor-levels of the old factory. It is hard to stand in these aisles of books and imagine the hum of woodworking machinery, the sawdust and shavings and stacks of half-finished furniture that once would have occupied this space. However, in countless Toronto homes, the furniture that was produced at this factory survives and is used and appreciated by succeeding generations. One can picture Russell Spanner standing on it again — as he did in 1954 — to demonstrate its undeniable material strength and practical durability.
From the exhibition catalogue.
Text: © Robert Fones. All rights reserved.
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