Breaking the sound barrier

It’s not too often that we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a company that barely lasted a decade. But this year the Canadian design community is marking the Clairtone Sound Corporation’s 50th, 37 years after the company went bust. The Art of Clairtone: The Making of a Design Icon, 1958-1971 is a new book that tells the story of the ill-fated yet iconic company.

Founded in 1958, Clairtone enjoyed great success through its ’60s heyday. The company became known for its remarkably well-designed products, particularly the Project G stereo system. Designed by Hugh Spencer, a former CBC set designer,the G was born when co-founder Peter Munk asked Spencer to “design something ‘way out’ for next year.”

Spencer came back with the first model -a small box with tennis balls attached to either end -and Munk knew they had something special. The tennis balls soon evolved into the 18-inch aluminum “sound globes” that grace the sides of Project G’s rosewood console. “We had no doubt we had the new shape of sound,” Munk later said.

The G debuted at the National Furniture Show in Chicago, in January of 1964. The revolutionary model became a bona-fide star, appearing in such films The Graduate, which earned Dustin Hoffman an Oscar nomination; I’ll Take Sweden, with Tuesday Weld and Frankie Avalon; Good Times, Sonny and Cher’s bid for big-screen success; and Marriage on the Rocks, with Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra. Ol’ Blue Eyes also endorsed the G, as did Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson. And if that wasn’t enough cool points, Hugh Hefner was known to have acquired a Project G for the Playboy Mansion and he featured it in the June 1964 issue of Playboy.

The Art of Clairtone tells the story of the company, its success with Project G, and its eventual demise. The volume offers a unique perspective through its authors, Canadian design expert Rachel Gotlieb, and Nina Munk, daughter of Peter, who cofounded the company with David Gilmour.

The book is packed with images of the revolutionary stereo system alongside the aforementioned celebs, as well as many example of Clairtone’s marketing material. The company had invested heavily in photography to sell the G and there are dozens of striking images. The design was further played up by often depicting the G alongside modern furniture, such as Arne Jacobsen’s iconic Egg chair. Also included are some of Spencer’s sketches of the original Project G, which ran in the March 1964 issue of Canadian Interiors.

The illustrations are accompanied by quotes from Canadian design icons of today -including Karim Rashid, Bruce Mau and Tyler Brl -speaking about the importance of the G’s design and its influence on the design of high-end audio equipment. Another quote comes from a 1964 issue of Canadian Interiors. Of the log cabin-esque Canadian exhibit at that Milan triennial, we reported that “Clairtone’s Project G looks a little citified and expensive for a cottage. But it is good Canadian design, and, as such, belongs in a design exposition.”

And now, over 40 years later, this good Canadian design will have its own exhibition. In conjunction with the book, released on April 26, Toronto’s Design Exchange is launching a show of the same name, curated by the authors, on May 9. cI