Creative Thinker Claude Gidman Designed a Classic Toronto Red Rocket Streetcar


Claude Gidman died April 21 of natural causes.Courtesy of the family

Claude Gidman, a designer whose work shaped such ubiquitous objects as the streetcar used in Toronto for decades, a Brita filter jug ​​and a fast food chain’s trash can, has died. He was 87 years old.

According to his family, he died on April 21 of natural causes.

A former chair of industrial design at what is now OCAD University, he was an old-school practitioner who enjoyed rendering and the tactile experience of shaping and fine-tuning models. A former colleague recalls that he and his students built a life-size model of a transport truck cab in the school atrium.

An inveterate handyman, he was also a lateral thinker capable of approaching problems from an unexpected direction. Although he might be a little too creative, he once tried to make his canoe easier to transport by cutting it in half and installing a hinge. Other paddlers were alarmed by his sight on the water and regularly offered help, assuming he would sink.

While much of his work focused on everyday things, things that could easily become backgrounds, Mr. Gidman thought the very design of the most common item deserved care and attention. appropriate.

And when it came to the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcar – the towering Canadian light rail vehicle (CLRV) that roamed the city’s streets from 1979 to 2019 – he wanted his looks 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 tram to blend into the city or stand out. We decided he had to stand out.

But the design was rooted in practicality. Mr. Gidman later recalled that his work began with the experience of people riding the streetcar. “I put the driver and passengers where they should be, then I put the mechanics around them,” he said.

If he later worried that this commission would become too much a part of his reputation – “I don’t want to be identified only with streetcars”, he told a journalist in 1987 – it also allowed his work to stand out, helping to relaunch his business. .

Her son, Greg, says the streetcar job came at a pivotal time. His father’s business was struggling and had closed its offices in Montreal and Calgary. Some of the earliest work on the CLRV was done by Mr. Gidman working solo in a small apartment in Toronto.

Industrial designer Claude Gidman in Toronto, October 14, 1987.John Wood/The Globe and Mail

Greg Gidman says a feature of his childhood during this time was that his father would bring renderings home and ask his family what they liked best. But their choices still had to survive the engineering process.

All the first ideas did not make the final cut. A concept of reclined seats near the front was soon abandoned. But when streetcars were introduced, they quickly became a familiar sight on Toronto’s roads. Countless waiting straps peered into the darkness, seeking the distinctive trio of headlights that would signal the approach of a CLRV.

During the day, the presence Mr. Gidman sought was aided by coating the streetcars in a striking red, continuing a Toronto tradition that had given rise to the local transit moniker as the Red Rocket. The current generation of streetcars, again painted red, were dubbed the “Crimson Beauties” a few years ago by a senior TTC executive.

Coincidentally, the same color features in Mr. Gidman’s origin story as a designer. As he said, he was four years old and visiting a relative when he spotted something that marked the course of his life.

“He turned the corner and he saw this beautiful red car,” says Greg Gidman. “And of course he knew the cars existed, but he said, ‘I had never seen this car before, I didn’t know it existed, and at that moment I knew that I wanted to create things that other people don’t know about. ‘.”

Mr. Gidman was born on October 17, 1934 in Claresholme, Alberta. He grew up in poverty and attended a dozen schools as his family moved wherever opportunity presented itself.

He became, if not a loner, someone willing to go his own way. Greg remembers family vacations in popular off-season spots when the others weren’t around, or the time his dad brought home a birch tree to decorate for Christmas.

A TTC streetcar traveling along Broadview Avenue in Toronto on May 30, 2006.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Gidman enjoyed meandering camping trips with his wife or students and was active in the church. He showed no fear, happy to embark in the Atlantic a small boat he had received from a client who could not pay for it.

As a young adult, Mr. Gidman studied art in California and later moved to the UK, where he married Monica Joan Parsons and worked on cars and aircraft for Britain’s Ford. He returned to Canada in time for Expo 67 and founded Gidman Design Associates, as design director. He chaired the industrial design program at OCAD University until his retirement in 2000.

A pair of newspaper articles from 1987, a year in which Mr. Gidman also won one of the first Toronto Arts Awards, offer self-deprecating but revealing commentary on how he viewed his work.

Claude Gidman with his family.Courtesy of the family

“A lot of good design goes into products that go unnoticed,” he said. “I recently designed a new McDonald’s trash can, which may not be saying much, but it’s a much better trash can than they had before.”

Sheila Waite-Chuah, a former colleague at OCAD University, said Gidman recognized that many people only really think about design when it doesn’t work.

“I think for Claude it wasn’t so much an art as it was a science,” she said. “He was happy to share these ideas with people and, you know, I hope he found a positive way to help people understand the importance of good design.”

Many of the things Mr. Gidman worked on were practical objects: the garbage can, carpet cleaning equipment, a type of wheelchair-accessible low-floor bus. Other ideas did not translate into reality. His vision of a “shuttle pod” of transit vehicles that could hover above traffic never took off.

Perhaps his most successful project was his square design for a Brita water filter, for years a mainstay in middle-class kitchens.

Greg Gidman thinks his father’s default aesthetic was subtle, but the need to generate business during the lean years led him to create more showy designs. Although what seemed most important was the process. He would often spend hours on weekends toying with a project, looking for ways to improve it.

This instinct never left him.

“In the hospital, in the last days of his life, he was talking about how they could redesign this hospital better and it could be a much more efficient room,” recalls Greg Gidman. “He was telling everyone, anyone, anyone listening.”

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.

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