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  • The Art of Clairtone: The Making of a Design Icon, 1958-1971
  • Heidi Overhill (bio)
Nina Munk and Rachel Gotlieb. The Art of Clairtone: The Making of a Design Icon, 1958-1971. McClelland and Stewart. 172. $45.00


A beautifully constructed coffee-table book for collectors, The Art of Clairtoneby Clair Monk and Rachel Gotlieb focuses on detailed coverage of the iconic Clairtone Project G stereo. Right from its start, the Project G was the epitome of avant-garde hipness - its design brief was to create 'something "way out" for next year.' By the mid-1960s, it could be found in the homes of Hugh Hefner and Frank Sinatra, and in movies like The Graduate, or Sonny and Cher's Good Times, while at the same time winning coveted high-brow design awards in Canada and Italy. The Project G has never lost its cool: it has remained at once popular and high-brow, exclusive and yet profitable, a thing-of-the-moment that endures as a symbol of that moment.

Like the Project G, The Art of Clairtoneis more than just eye-candy. The Project G played records well, and the book delivers real research. It belongs to the genre of single-subject histories (on coal, salt, or the colour red) in which a narrow topic permits a greater depth of exploration. Thus, the story of Clairtone touches on design and designers, marketing, manufacturing, and regional economic development, only as they affected Clairtone.

Sandra Gotlieb has also introduced a new, simple, and extremely effective didactic device in her handling of the illustrations: reproducing multiple pages of intact original literature at a small scale. Miniaturized brochures, blueprints, and press releases display their trendy graphics and at the same time permit the happy reader, armed with a magnifying glass, to read their original contents, enjoying first-hand the snappish insults dictated to secretaries in a long-forgotten turf war fought via interoffice memo over who should be allowed to walk through the design studio. This marvellous visual device juxtaposes raw archival material with polished conclusions, uniquely allowing primary and secondary research to flow together, side by side.

However, the book falls short of delivering on its full promise. Tellingly, while there are endnotes, there is no index. The Nina Munk essay is freshly written from her perspective as the daughter of partner Peter Munk, but adds little new. In fact, she disingenuously skips the kind of juicy material found in Garth Hopkin's 1978 book on Clairtone, like failing to mention the highly privileged family backgrounds of both partners, which indubitably played a role in their ability to market deluxe goods.

There is also a regrettable vagueness to the chronology, perhaps relating to the fractured structure of the book with its separate essays, designer profiles, and extended photo captions. The release of the Project G is [End Page 456]dated to 1964, without mention of other events of that year, like the Beatles's tour of America, the design of the new Canadian flag, and Ken Kesey's magic bus trip. Yet those events might arguably relate to Clairtone. The times they were a-changin', and the cultural shift from knowing hipster to baby hippie certainly affected consumers' attitudes to music. Clairtone was hip enough to hire its own long-term 'in-house model,' Katyha, to dance at trade shows, and by 1968 had issued a startling 'Sight of Sound' line of light devices, with matching psychedelic posters, but the authors have little to say on this topic, seemingly losing interest in their subject after the 1967 management ouster of Munk and Gillmore.

The figure of model Katyha brings home the fact that this is a history of design limited to tangible goods. Intangibles like dance, fashion, performance, and, above all, music gain scant notice, and Katyha herself is not honoured with the kind of personal profile given to any male designer with even the most fleeting involvement with the firm.

The final collapse of Clairtone in 1971 remains a subject for debate. Nina Munk's conclusion that it was caused by lack of faith in her visionary father is far from being either subtle or...


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pp. 456-457
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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