Remembering Expo 67
Montreal’s international exposition helped articulate an emerging discipline called environmental graphic design. And it left indelible marks on the lives of up-and-coming designers. Two of them share their memories.
My journey began in Montreal, in a conventional Canadian middle class Anglo-Saxon family. We lived in the comfortable English precincts of what was then the leading city in Canada. Montreal was first settled by Europeans in the early 1600s, and tangible physical evidence of each of the centuries since then remains a part of the city's fabric. I love the city streets, the public infrastructure, the neighborhoods, the images, and the layers that history has painted on the urban canvas. Montreal was and is a beautiful example of that rich artistry.
I was in the tenth grade, near the end of high school, when Expo 67 opened on a series of islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. At high schools in the 1960s, design was certainly not in the curriculum and the topic was never discussed. So when I visited Expo 67 for the first time, a whole new world opened up to me. I saw how type and color, form and scale, image and motion could be used to create a grand public experience. This late-60s cultural and media bazaar interrupted my nearly inevitable trajectory to the corporate executive suite (the typical fate of young Canadians of my ilk) and laid the groundwork for my professional career.
This international design extravaganza was a textbook of the SEGD story: architecture, signs, spaces, places, images, ideas, the medium AND the message. It was optimistic and dazzling. My friends and I traveled to the fair 30 or 40 times on Montreal’s brand new subway, riding the gorgeous blue Metro cars gliding on rubber wheels over sturdy concrete rails, and arriving with an unforgettable delicious whoosh at the Expo stop. We disembarked, showed our passports, and then boarded the monorail to travel the world. My experience of this new infrastructure—with its associated logos, maps, and station architecture—helped to inspire my fascination with the design of public systems.
Moshe Safdie's remarkable Habitat building blocks, Buckminster Fuller's beautiful geodesic dome filled with Chermayeff & Geismar's dramatic exhibit, the Russian pavilion, the Czech pavilion, the Brits, the Thais, the French. On and on it went. We saw movies and images and artifacts that we stay-at-home central Canadians had never before imagined.
Just four months after the fair closed, I left Montreal when my father's job took us to New York. Expo quickly receded as I embarked on the next stage of my journey. I had a new city to explore and a career in design to launch.
After graduating from Parson's Industrial Design Department and summer jobs in the design offices of George Nelson Associates and Albrecht Goertz, I was thrilled to be invited to Montreal to work on Expo 67. My destination was Gagnon-Valkus, a partnership of Louis Gagnon and Jim Valkus, one of those bi-cultural amalgams required to work on the Canadian government pavilions (some of which, in light of the French separatist tensions of the time, were close to shotgun design weddings).
Upon arriving in Montreal I was excited to see the office occupied a beautiful old stone house near the waterfront in the old city. A gut renovation had created a thoroughly modern interior in the ancient building. The reception area said it all: two pairs of Mies chairs on either side of a white flokati rug. The loft studio had lovely dormer windows that looked out over Rue St. Catherine, winding through the old city. I had never experienced urban renewal with this level of sensitivity—beautiful but derelict old buildings brought back to life, a mixture of working buildings, wholesalers, and galleries. (Adaptive re-use as hadn’t yet made it to New York!)
The week I arrived, the office was abuzz, excited at the launch of their new logo for Hydro-Quebec, the government power company. Their illuminated neon logo high atop the corporate headquarters lit up the city sky. It was a fertile period for Canadian graphic design. A host of distinctive and iconic logos debuted in those years, for CN (the Canadian National Railway), Air Canada, the Canadian Centennial, and Expo 67 itself.
Our Expo team was sequestered in a loft building down the block from the main office to accommodate our huge models of the multi-acre “Man the Provider” site (remember, this was the pre-feminist mid-1960s). The central Sun Acre, which demonstrated all of the crops that could be grown on a single acre of land, was surrounded by a lagoon and pavilions that explained the water cycle, the roles of different crops, and the mechanization of agriculture in Canada. I fell in love with the huge Massey-Ferguson combines and studied ways we could create artificial planted hills with the huge machines pitched up at an angle. A big part of the job was research—including a memorable visit to the government experimental farm in Ottawa to study different crops and their pests.
While in Montreal I met designers from all over the world. It was exciting, and the camaraderie was the best part of the job. One of the key players was Lois Sherr, a landscape architect who came to work on the fair along with Habitat architect Moshe Safdie. As alumni of Lou Kahn’s Philadelphia office, they brought fresh systems thinking to their efforts.
In designing the Expo landscape, Lois pioneered the concept of a consistent and uniform site furniture system with Norman Hayes, who was in charge of the site industrial design. She established the visual image for the site, bringing SEGD pioneer Paul Arthur into the mix, who in turn brought Fritz Gottschalk and Harry Boller to work with him on signage standards for both the Expo site and the new monorail system that traversed the fair.
Ironically, I never got to visit Expo after it opened. However, my experiences as a working designer and the ideas that I was exposed to while in Montreal changed my life forever. More than anything, it gave me professional insights and friendships for which I am deeply grateful.
Before Expo 67 closed on October 29, 1967, some 50 million people visited the pavilions, toured the exhibits, tasted the food, saw the films. The experience of Expo was a cultural awakening for Canada, but perhaps a bittersweet moment for Montreal. Pierre Trudeau, our glamorous French Canadian prime minister, helped usher in the new Canadian century. Canada debuted a new flag and a new cultural, social, and political confidence. But the 1970s and the 1980s were difficult decades for Montreal. As tensions grew between the English and French communities, the economy changed and a shift began. Toronto asserted its role as the leading Canadian city of business and commerce.
Montreal has emerged from that period a confident and vibrant city, a gorgeous mix of old and new with historic neighborhoods and modern developments, museums and markets, and great food and a particular sense of style. Montreal is a medical, academic, and high-tech center, and also home to a great tradition of festivals—jazz, comedy, fireworks, and arts. And yes, Montreal has explicitly embraced design: the legacy of Expo 67 endures. The promotion and support of design is now part of the public policy of the City of Montreal.
Six years after that glorious Expo summer, SEGD was founded in the United States by a group of designers who embraced the spirit of the world's fair. They envisioned an organization that was dedicated to the design of public spaces and places. They helped create the discipline of environmental graphic design that was explored so remarkably at Expo 67. Design systems, media installations, public signage, dramatic exhibits—these were the elements of Expo and these are the tools of the contemporary professional design practice that SEGD has nurtured and developed. It is fitting that our first international conference be held in a city that has been a cradle of international design.
--By Sue Gould and David Gibson, segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011
Editor's note: Sue Gould is president of Lebowitz | Gould | Design (New York). David Gibson is managing principal of Two Twelve (New York) and author of The Wayfinding Handbook.