Remembering Dr. Claude Gidman, designer of Toronto’s iconic streetcars
The OCAD University community is celebrating the life of industrial designer Dr. Claude Gidman, who passed away on April 21, 2022 at the age of 87.
Dr. Gidman, who retired from his role as a faculty member and Chair of the Industrial Design program in 2000, had a collaborative spirit and dedication that influenced generations of creators and consumers.
Known for his work in product and transportation development, he designed one of Toronto’s most recognizable icons, the classic Red Rocket streetcar for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).
The development process began in 1974 and resulted in the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle (CLRV), which entered the public transit system in 1979. The final design, including the seat positions and signature bright colours, continue to inform the TTC designs that have proceeded it.
“There’s a certain romantic aspect to what a streetcar should be,” he once said. “The question was whether you want the streetcar to blend in with the city or stand out. We decided it should stand out.”
The legendary public transit vehicle is woven into the fabric of the city and can even be spotted in Disney Pixar’s latest animated film Turning Red, which is set in early-2000s Toronto.
More about Dr. Claude Gidman
Born in Claresholm, Alberta in 1934, Dr. Gidman started out as a radio news reporter after graduating high school in the small farming town.
He went on to attend the The Art Center School (now called ArtCenter) in California with a Ford scholarship and, while living in Los Angeles, worked at the Canadian Consulate. After graduation, he moved to the United Kingdom and worked for Ford of Britain, contributing to the style, design and ergonomics of commercial vehicles and automobiles.
He returned to Canada and contributed to the coordination of several Expo 67 exhibitions that were part of the Canadian Federal Pavillion, including the Man and the Community and the Atlantic Provinces displays. After the event, which was held in Montreal in 1967, Dr. Gidman went on to found Gidman Design Associates as Design Director (GDA), which had offices in Calgary, Montreal and Mississauga.
“Claude had a light touch, but this was always underpinned by his deep values. Though he took the stage in many venues, he was most comfortable in one-on-one free-ranging discussions, or enjoying the annual ritual of playing basketball with his graduating class of students,” reflects Sheila Waite-Chuah, former associate professor in the Faculty of Design at OCAD U.
A versatile designer, Dr. Gidman developed products ranging from snowmobiles and Brita water filter carafes to construction machinery, amusement park rides and garbage cans for McDonald’s restaurants.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing heavy equipment or ski boots,” Dr. Gidman proposed in an April 2000 article published by Transit Toronto. “The design process is a process. It should start with a team of people from many different disciplines - engineering, marketing, design and so on.”
His most impactful concept, aside from the streetcar, was perhaps the Orion II low-floor bus, developed in the 1980s specifically to support public transit travel for people with physical disabilities. This kneeling bus design continues to be used across Canada.
In 1987, Dr. Gidman became the first industrial designer to win a Toronto Arts Award. The following year his work was featured in the exhibition, Art in Everyday Life, at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery.
He held the position of Chair in the Industrial Design and Fine Arts departments at OCAD U and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the institution in 2008. Dr. Gidman’s departure from OCAD U was accompanied by an exhibition of his design work at 100 McCaul Street’s atrium which included drawings, paintings, models and photographs documenting a career that spanned almost six decades.
“Claude played a key role in shaping the Industrial Design program [at OCAD U], through student selection, curriculum development and faculty hiring,” noted then Dean of the Faculty of Design Lenore Richards at Dr. Gidman’s retirement in 2000.
He developed and directed the Creative Design Research Unit (CDRU), partnering with the Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) and the University of Toronto, where he also taught product design.
“Daily, Claude carried several leather bags with him to match his several hats – always full of drawing markers and renderings, headlight lenses, nuts and bolts and bits of clay stuck to his shoes,” remembers Barbara Parkinson, who joined GDA in 1983 as the Office Administrator and continues to have a strong relationship with the Gidman family.
“In any given day he could have worked on a mockup in his studio, taught several classes at OCAD U, spent time with the fourth year University of Toronto Mechanical Engineering students at CDRU, returned for client meetings in Mississauga at GDA before heading to a church meeting in the evening,” she comments.
“He poured his ingenuity, understanding, inspiration, compassion, acceptance, kindness, professionalism, and creativity into everyone in his life as well as his brilliant inventions. The world is a much less creative place with Claude not here.”