former imperial building

Imperial Furniture Manufacturing Company: From Rattan to Modern

Stratford’s furniture industry, begun in the mid-nineteenth century, was producing nearly one-sixth of all furniture made in Canada by the 1920s. 

Harry W Strudley (1870 – 1961) moved his Imperial Rattan furniture business from Detroit to Walkervile in 1905, and then to Stratford in 1910. When, in 1949, his son Donald took over as president of the company, now known as Imperial Furniture Manufacturing, they moved to new premises at Douro and Trinity Streets while also transitioning the business away from rattan and traditional design to a more streamlined modern style. 

An engineering graduate from the University of Toronto, Donald Strudley “was a modernist of many parts, socially conscious, technologically sophisticated … concerned from the early years of the war to plan for the peace.” 1 Donald Strudley believed that well-designed Canadian could find a market in the United States. To compete there, Strudley set up Imperial’s first design department and in 1951 hired 26-year-old Dutchman Jan Kuypers to head it as chief designer. 2

Jan Kuypers at Imperial Furniture

Jan Kuypers, Nipigon Armchair (1957), solid yellow birch and plywood, Imperial Manufacturing Company (originally sold for $40)

Jan Kuypers (1925 – 1997) studied at the Academy of Arts and Architecture in The Hague. 

Once joining Imperial Furniture, “Kuypers transformed the company. His designs, all executed in birch, introduced a precise, efficient minimalism previously absent from Canadian furniture and manufacturing.” 3  His legacy to Canadian furniture design was the “introduction of modular construction and the use of standard components,” which led to superior mass-production capacities that were adopted by other Canadian furniture companies.  4

Between 1953 and 1955 Kuypers won twenty-five National Industrial Design Council awards. His designs for Imperial Furniture were displayed at the first government-sponsored Design Centre in Ottawa (1953) and in the Canadian pavilion at the 1954 Milan Triennale. His Nipigon armchair of 1956 was featured in the Canadian pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. 5 Kuypers left Imperial Furniture, and Stratford, in 1958 to study industrial design at MIT before forming his own firm industrial design firm, DKR, in Toronto.

1 Joy Parr. Domestic Goods: The Material, The Moral, and the Economic in the Postwar Years (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 143.

2 Joy Parr. Domestic Goods, p. 149.

3 Virginia Wright Modern Furniture in Canada 1920 to 1970 (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1997), p. 142.

4 Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden Design in Canada Since 1945 (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2004), p. 60-63, as quoted in, Margaret Hodges. “Nationalism and Modernism: Rethinking Scandinavian Design in Canada, 1950–1970,” RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne Canadian Art Review 40 (2015) 2: 57–71.

5 Virginia Wright Modern Furniture in Canada, p. 152, 154-55, 172-173.