Education and Early Career
In the early 1930s, Hébert attended collège classique (classical college) at the Collège André-Grasset, where his teachers notably included Paul-Émile Borduas, then a professor of design. From 1936 to 1941, he undertook graduate studies at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal (Montréal School of Fine Arts), specializing in sculpture. Hoping to reflect on the social functions of art, he continued his education by studying philosophy at the Université de Montréal; ethical and sociological issues would captivate him throughout his career. When Hébert finished university in 1944, he obtained a teaching position at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal. However, the young designer left this job in 1946 to settle in Europe with his wife and their young son in order to refine his knowledge of art history and sculpture. In Paris, Hébert studied and worked as an assistant to the cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine. Hébert returned to Québec in 1948, at a time when the art scene in the province was being shaken up by the publication of the manifestos Prisme d’yeux and Refus global.
It was as a result of a contest organized by the Conseil national de l’esthétique industrielle (National Council on Industrial Design) in 1951 that Hébert immersed himself in the world of design. With his submission of a chair prototype winning numerous accolades, Hébert was approached by the Montréal manufacturer Sigmund Werner and went to work alongside Werner in designing aluminium folding chairs. This project finally allowed Hébert to combine his talent for sculpture with his fervent desire to marry art and functionalism. His best-known chair, the Contour Lounge Chair, designed in 1953, was a resounding success. It was displayedin international design magazines as it was launched at the Triennale de Milan in 1954.
Building on the Bauhaus movement, which he had become very interested in during his stay in Europe, Hébert developed industrial design courses at the École des beaux-arts, where he continued to work. Then, in 1956, he was hired at the École du meuble (School of cabinet-making), which became the Institut des arts appliqués (School of Applied Arts) in 1958. It is safe to say that Hébert was among the first teachers of industrial design in the country. Also in 1958, Hébert was named president of the Association of Canadian Industrial Designers, an appointment that proved all the more impressive for the young francophone designer because, at that time, the industrial design milieu in Québec was lagging far behind the rest of the country.
The 1960s: World’s Fair and Excitement in Montréal
Beginning in 1963, Hébert threw himself into preparations for Expo 67, whose theme was Man and His World. He designed its official symbol, which is still ubiquitous in the urban fabric of Montréal. The logo, while simple, effectively evoked northern trees or human figures united around the globe, and although it was vehemently rejected — deemed insufficiently “Canadian” — by the Conservative opposition in Ottawa, Hébert received a prize for his Expo 67 logo at the 13th annual Exhibition of Advertising, Editorial and Television Art held in New York in 1964. Still, he received no money for creating the symbol, despite its innumerable reproductions throughout Montréal, where the rights to the logo were acquired in 1968. In addition to working as a graphic artist, Hébert was responsible for designing the exposition areas, the furniture and the accessories for the Québec pavilion at Expo. The “V”-shaped seats he designed for the cafeteria in the Canada pavilion echoed the exposition’s celebrated logo while remaining true to his organic vision of design.
During that same period, Hébert designed an aluminium mural for the hall of the Wilfrid-Pelletier auditorium in Montréal’s Place des Arts. The fluid, linear design of this site-specific work illustrates Hébert’s ability to work with this industrial material — which, as it so happens, is produced in Québec — as well as his interest in creating organic pieces that respect their architectural context. In a similar vein, in the mid 1960s, Hébert created an imposing pyramid-shaped water fountain, made of glass and steel, for the hall of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. He also designed the ceiling of the theatre in the same building, which creates a striking visual effect.
Throughout this period, by means of several reports submitted to the government, Hébert fought to improve the availability of specialized training in design in Québec, which was lagging far behind Europe and the United States. Expo 67 provided an opportunity not only to draw international attention to the talents of the young generation of designers in Montréal but also to celebrate design that was both functional and mindful of its specific urban and cultural context, as advocated by Hébert.
The 1970s: Toward a Humanist and Responsible Design
In a brief entitled “Projet de récupération de travail chez les déshérités” (Project to provide work for the impoverished) that he presented to the federal Minister of Industry and Commerce in 1971, Hébert proposed the creation of a program of “mini-industries.” Hébert believed that this business model, which would be creative as well as socially responsible and revitalizing, would lead to reintegrating countless people into the workforce, thanks to functional objects being manufactured on a very small scale. The project was a wonderful example of Hébert’s socio-economic, humanist and philosophical values; however, it never got off the ground.
In 1979, Hébert designed the Montréal Metro station Place-Saint-Henri (see Montréal Métro). The multidisciplinary designer managed to capture an element of popular Québécois culture, while working within budgetary constraints. He opted for a plain design in which coloured bricks were used to make the words “Bonheur d’occasion” — a reference to the title of the celebrated work by Québécoise author Gabrielle Roy — stand out on an immense brick wall.
Throughout the 1980s, even as he was nearing retirement age, Hébert distinguished himself as, for instance, director of the Jean-Paul-Riopelle Foundation and as a member of the Canada Council for the Arts, all the while continuing to teach at the industrial design school at the Université de Montréal.
Through his progressive teaching and his more or less fruitful development initiatives — such as the project of creating an institute of design in Québec, proposed in 1961, and the founding of groups such as the Association des designers industriels du Québec in 1964 — Hébert made a name for himself as a humanist and as a pioneer of design in Québec. Whether it was tubular steel chairs for the Mirabel airport, a ceramic mural for the facade of the Saint-Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire or logos for Expo 67 and the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, the various works that have been signed by Julien Hébert and integrated into the Québécois and Canadian visual landscape demonstrate special consideration for socio-economic, architectural and cultural contexts, allowing organic, functional and harmonious environments to be created.
Throughout his career, Hébert sat on numerous juries and won many prizes, such as the Paul-Émile-Borduas prize for visual arts in 1979 (see Prix du Québec). Hébert was also formally recognized on a number of occasions, including by the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1968.
In 1996, Liberté magazine dedicated an issue to this Québécois design master. Entitled “Sur le design : Julien Hébert 1917-1994,” this intimate look at Hébert’s life brought together accounts from the artist’s friends and colleagues, excerpts from his personal journal, segments from an interview he gave to author Marcel Bélanger, as well as a thank-you letter written by Gabrielle Roy.