Claude Gidman, a designer whose work shaped items as ubiquitous as the streetcar used in Toronto for decades, a Brita water-filter jug and the garbage can for a fast-food chain, has died. He was 87.
According to his family, he died on April 21 of natural causes.
The former chair of industrial design at what is now OCAD University, he was an old-school practitioner who loved doing renderings and the tactile experience of shaping and fine-tuning models. One former colleague remembers him and his students building a full-scale model of a transport truck cab in the school’s atrium.
An inveterate tinkerer, he was also a lateral thinker able to tackle problems from an unexpected direction. Though he could be a bit too creative, once trying to make it easier to transport his canoe by cutting it in half and installing a hinge. Other paddlers were alarmed by the sight of it on the water and regularly offered assistance, assuming it would sink.
While much of his work was on the stuff of daily life, things that could easily become background, Mr. Gidman believed that the design of even the most routine item deserved proper care and attention.
And when it came to the Toronto Transit Commission streetcar – the hulking Canadian Light Rail Vehicle (CLRV) that plied the city’s streets from 1979 through 2019 – he wanted its appearance to make a statement.
“There’s a certain romantic aspect to what a streetcar should be,” he once told the Toronto Star. “The question was whether you want the streetcar to blend in with the city or stand out. We decided it should stand out.”
But the design was rooted in practicality. Mr. Gidman later remembered that his work began with the experience of the people who would ride the streetcar. “I put the driver and passengers where they should be, and then I put the mechanicals around them,” he said.
While he worried later that this commission was too dominant a part of his reputation – ‘’I don’t want to be identified with streetcars only,” he told a reporter in 1987 – it also made his work stand out, helping revive his business.
His son, Greg, explains that the streetcar job came at a pivotal time. His father’s company was struggling and had closed its offices in both Montreal and Calgary. Some early work on the CLRV was done by Mr. Gidman working solo out of a small apartment in Toronto.
Greg Gidman says a feature of his childhood during this period was his father bringing home renderings and asking his family what they preferred. But their choices still had to survive the engineering process.
Not all of the early ideas made the final cut. One concept for angled seats near the front was soon jettisoned. But when the streetcars launched they quickly became a familiar sight on Toronto roads. Untold waiting straphangers peered into the dark distance, straining for the distinctive trio of headlights that would signal an approaching CLRV.
In the daytime, the presence Mr. Gidman sought was helped by daubing the streetcars in a striking red, continuing a Toronto tradition that had spawned the local nickname for transit as the Red Rocket. The current generation of streetcars, again painted red, were dubbed “crimson beauties” a few years ago by a senior TTC executive.
By coincidence, the same colour features in Mr. Gidman’s origin story as a designer. As he told it, he was four years old and visiting a relative when he spotted something that set the course of his life.
“He came around the corner and he saw this beautiful red car,” Greg Gidman relates. “And of course he knew cars existed, but he said ‘I’d never seen that car before, I didn’t know it had existed, and at that moment I knew I wanted to create things that other people don’t know exist’.”
Mr. Gidman was born Oct. 17, 1934 in Claresholme, Alta. He grew up poor and attended a dozen schools as his family moved to where opportunity took them.
He became, if not a loner, someone keen to take his own path. Greg remembers family vacations to popular spots during the off-season, when others wouldn’t be there, or the time his father brought home a birch tree to decorate for Christmas.
Mr. Gidman liked meandering camping trips with his wife or his students and was active in the church. He didn’t show fear, happy to take into the Atlantic a small boat he had received from a client who couldn’t pay him.
As a young adult, Mr. Gidman studied art in California and later moved to the United Kingdom, where he married Monica Joan Parsons and worked on cars and planes for Ford of Britain. He returned to Canada in time for Expo 67 and founded Gidman Design Associates, serving as design director. He chaired the industrial design program at OCAD University until retiring in 2000.
A pair of newspaper articles in 1987, a year in which Mr. Gidman also won one of the inaugural Toronto Arts Awards, offer self-deprecating but revealing comments about how he viewed his work.
‘’A lot of good design goes into products that aren’t noticed,” he said. “I recently designed a new McDonald’s garbage can, which may not mean much, but it’s a much nicer can than the one they had before.”
Sheila Waite-Chuah, a former colleague at OCAD University, said that Mr. Gidman recognized that many people really think about design only when it doesn’t work.
“I think for Claude it really wasn’t so much an art as a science,” she said. “He was happy to share these ideas with people and, you know, hopefully find a positive way to help people understand the importance of good design.”
Many of the things Mr. Gidman worked on were practical items: the garbage can, carpet-cleaning equipment, a type of low-floor bus that was wheelchair-accessible. Other ideas didn’t translate into reality. His vision for a “pod shuttle” of transit vehicles that could float above traffic never got off the ground.
His most successful project may have been his boxy design for a Brita water filter, for years a mainstay of middle-class kitchens.
Greg Gidman believes that his father’s default aesthetic was subtle, but that the need to generate business in the lean years made him create showier designs. Though what seemed to matter most was the process. He would often spend weekend hours fiddling with a project, looking for ways to improve it.
That instinct never left him.
“In the hospital, in the last few days of his life, he was explaining how they could redesign this hospital much better and it could be a much more efficient room,” Greg Gidman remembered. “He’d tell everybody, anybody, anybody that would listen.”
Mr. Gidman leaves his wife, Monica; sister, Janelle Thomas; children, Julia Garratt, Deborah Bergman and Gregory Gidman; as well as 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.