Heather Cooper has done it all, from crafting iconic logos to launching and shuttering one of Canada’s biggest design firms. We visited her at home in the forest, where she wars with squirrels and continues to work as one of the country’s finest artists, illustrators and designers
Today, Heather Cooper is in a state of relaxation, and she plans to stay that way for a while. She has just completed a series of murals in Cobourg, Ontario, as part of the rural town’s revitalization plans, marking the end of a planning and painting marathon comprised of 10-hour work days. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it in time, but I just finished,” she says. The works capture a cluster of quaint shops that once occupied a space called Henley Arcade, including a shoe repair shop that burned down in 1972, a bicycle repair business, and a skate sharpener.“I think it will work, and I sure as hell hope so,” she says as we weave through the murals, housed in her garage a few weeks before their official unveiling. Will she take time off before tackling another project? “Definitely!” she laughs, as she does often, her whole face lifting with each smile like the opposing masks of the theatre. “I don’t want to think about [painting], I just want to clean up my mess and coast for a couple of weeks.” If anyone has earned the right to coast for a bit, it’s her.
Now an artist living in the woods of Southern Ontario, Cooper was once a principal at perhaps the hottest design firm Canada has known, Burns Cooper. Housed in Toronto’s bustling downtown core, she launched it with business partner and eventual life partner Robert Burns, and its roll call expanded and morphed as prestigious talent came and went. At one point the firm, an incubator of talent, was known as Burns Cooper Donoahue Fleming, impressively combining Burns and Cooper, who designed the ubiquitous Roots logo, with two other Canadian design luminaries, Jim Donoahue, creator of the Canada wordmark, and the late Allan Fleming, designer of the CN logo. It was a powerhouse outfit, and like powerhouses often do in sports and rock music, it burned bright before flaming out in dramatic fashion.
Cooper loved art since childhood, receiving her first set of oil paints for her eighth birthday. Her father was talented as well, but lacked the zeal to pursue art seriously. “He was very good but he never had the hunger,” Cooper says. She, however, demonstrated an early fire and also an emerging entrepreneurial sense, selling her first painting in high school for a couple of bucks and using the proceeds to buy a pair of red t-strap shoes.
Her first job placement was at noted design firm Hathaway-Templeton, where Don Watt—who would go on to do landmark work for President’s Choice, Home Depot and more—was working as a senior designer. This was the early ’60s when men everywhere fancied themselves as James Bond. “There were a lot of young guys with their suits—womanizers,” she says. She walked into Hathaway-Templeton seeking work, brandishing her paintings and drawings but possessing no real knowledge of design. She felt humbled and realized she had more to learn, and she was set to leave empty-handed until one young salesman cajoled her into coming back to visit the studio space upstairs. “It was a challenge for him,” she laughs. “He’s trying to pick up this young chick and get her to come upstairs, she’s saying no and everybody’s watching.”
Upstairs she met a handful of higher-ups and found herself interviewing for a job, but when she called the next day to follow up she mistakenly dialed Don Watt instead of the young 007. “That was probably the best thing I could have done because Don hired me and then he taught me to be a designer,” she says. He proved to be a true mentor, not only helping Cooper develop her chops but also coaching her through job-related conundrums like how to ask for a raise. Her title? “Junior. Junior-Do-Everything,” she says. “Don was great, but I also sewed buttons on sweaters and picked up dog food from the mall. Whatever needed to be done, it was my job.”
She gravitated toward work that combined her skills as a designer and illustrator (her illustrations have beenpublished in Chatelaine, Viva, Weekend and more), and eventually set off on her own, traveling through Europe, leaving her full-time job and establishing herself as a freelancer. One of her clients was a skinny Englishman named Robert Burns, whom she met as the 1960s came to a close and the two were in their early 20s. “He was wearing a couple of brightly-coloured scarves,” Cooper recalls. “He always liked to spend money and it was obvious even then, the very first time I met him.” She describes him as a fount of energy. “He was not the type of person to sit still in one place for very long.” A mutual friend calls him ‘desperately’ driven, a description she finds apt. “It made him good at what he did,” she says. Burns was a consummate idea man—described in articles as possessing real wit, intelligence and creative wizardry—sketching ideas on the back of an envelope but lacking the patience to finish the job himself.
After working on several projects together, Cooper and Burns decided to open a small firm. “Robert and I were a really good mix because I was a real worker, and he was a real talker,” she says, noting his aptitude for selling. Burns Cooper opened shop in the back of a film and video production house. Already, though perhaps they didn’t know it at the time, they were establishing themselves as players on the field of Canadian culture and business—the space was run by Bill Marshall, who would go on to found the Toronto International Film Festival, and was an early example of the ‘in’ crowd Burns Cooper would run with.
Later they moved into a penthouse they couldn’t really afford yet, with the help of Greenwin property management, a client of theirs—but the “Big Move” was their eventual relocation to Toronto’s high-end Yorkville district. The team was growing and its roster of emerging designers included many who went on to establish their own successful careers, like Ann Kay of Ann Ames Design Associates and Carmen Dunjko of Pod 10 Art + Design. At one point, the company became the aforementioned Burns Cooper Donoahue Fleming. At another, with esteemed copywriter Jim Hynes on board, it was known as Burns Cooper Hynes.Throughout, Cooper and Burns found new business by targeting key decision makers at major companies. They were flying high with clients like Union Carbide, City-TV, Northern Telecom, Kimberly-Price, Canada Post and, famously, a new leather and footwear company that would soon be named Roots. The resulting beaver icon and Roots wordmark proved a lasting success, and it’s the graphic Cooper is most often associated with to this day. “Many of the world’s best designed logos are strong in just black and white, [and] the Cooper Roots logo is no different,” explains Stephanie Holden, creative director at Roots Canada. Though the company recently switched ownership and eyes global growth, Holden says the logo will remain. “It has the right mixture of bold simplicity with a subtle quirky style in the leaves and letter shapes that makes it unique. It looks good in every colour, size and execution,” she says.
Click images to view gallery [Via coopercompany.com]
“Heather is a really talented girl,” reflects Jim Donoahue, “and we were very successful. We did wonderful posters together and we had some super times.” The addition of Donoahue’s mentor, Fleming, added heft to the already stacked lineup in 1976, with Communication Arts commenting, “they formed a group difficult to compete with.” But it was near the end of Fleming’s career and his short tenure was rife with health problems and personal turmoil. Just over a year later, December 31, 1977, Fleming died of cardiopulmonary collapse.
The move that followed, to Price Street in Toronto, marked the firm’s final chapter. “That whole period was the kiss of death,” Cooper says. By this point, Cooper and Burns were deep into their personal relationship—they never wed but did have a daughter—complicated by Burns’s burgeoning addiction to cocaine. The firm had around 25 employees and Burns was not alone in his predilections. Cooper couldn’t ignore the warning signs, like when Burns would book meetings but fail to show up. Or when Burns’s drug dealer stole his Mercedes. Bills, legit and otherwise, needed paying, but instead of settling debts Burns preferred buying more things. “You can’t operate a business that way. It just doesn’t work,” says Cooper.
Cooper confronted him and requested he sign over full control of the company. “I took the company and basically liquidated it,” she says. The process took two hard years. “It was agonizing because of all the legal rules… They want your money and the employees be damned.” She consulted anyone and everyone she could to help chart the best course of action, contacted freelancers and warned them to get their invoices in. “When we made that decision it was on Valentine’s Day,” she says. She remembers it clearly because photographer Philip Rostron dropped by and deemed it “a Valentine’s Day massacre.”
Concurrent with the long closure process, Cooper was dealing with her relationship and also working to establish her own income. She freelanced from home, feeling envious as she looked on at the more stable local businesses with proper storefronts. Her life with Burns continued its rocky course until he left for another woman. “That was hard, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I wouldn’t have had the heart to [end it] myself,” she says. “He was the father of my child. He was so good all these years, and now he’s bad? What do you do about that?” They kept in touch and she remained a lifeline when he was hard up for cash. The last time she saw him he was staying at a halfway home. In 2005, not long after that meeting, he passed away.
Burns’s demons played a pivotal role in the company’s downfall, but, as Cooper points out, they were a small part of the story of the man. “If you’re going to say anything [about him], it’s not fair to pick on that,” she tells me. “You’d have to know him to understand… If you met him today, even knowing he’s a raging drug addict, you’d leave here thinking, ‘What an amazing person! And so talented’,” she says. “Because he was.”
Although Heather Cooper is facing her mural deadline, she agrees to an interview on one condition—we must visit her home and art gallery in the woods. “A commitment to visit is vital,” she writes in an email. “A writer needs to see what is written about.”
The artist at home [Photos: Blaise Misiek]
When one hears that a city-dwelling, highly cosmopolitan designer/illustrator has moved to the woods to paint, it’s easy to mistake that person for a recluse. But Cooper—immediately warm and hospitable—is not in hiding. She is doing what she wants to do, in the company of people she loves the most, in a fabulous home both rustic and ornate built by her life and business partner, Terry Price, a jaunt away from her daughter, Sarah and her family, including son-in-law and frequent collaborator Eric Graham, on a vast plot of land pinned down by a bevy of staggering trees. She may not be the woman she was, but this is not a rejection of her past life, just a natural and rather inspiring evolution.Her conversation swings easily from the art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti to the ins and outs of tractors and wood chippers, and she name-checks members of the Toronto elite (“…Moses Znaimer…”) and her woodland community (“…the Blairs…”) with equal regard. She leads me down into her gallery space where we become enveloped by her work. You can recognize it not just by her elegant logo, but also by her masterful lines, lush details and surreal visions of nature. Many of her subjects clutch masks. “I like masks because people have so many facets to them,” she says. “What you are to me is completely different from what you are to your wife, and what you are to [your boss]. They’re all you, and I find that fascinating.”
Price knows Cooper more than most. They are high-school sweethearts who reunited after 35 years. “What you see now is just Heather,” he says, when asked if she still puts on masks. “She’s just a girl who can paint, but who is really good at painting.”
Her attention to personas is one of her strengths as a portrait artist—she has been commissioned to capture the visages of Pope John Paul II, Bobby Orr, Siegfried & Roy and more. Her portrait of a post-mustache Alex Trebeck features the Jeopardy host holding an image of him painted on the back of a canvas. Her version of Faye Dunaway is as stunning as the actress, capturing the star glancing off frame, cold but captivating, swathed and preserved in a translucent shawl like a bouquet of flowers.
Click images to view gallery [Via heathercooper.com]
If she’s done one thing right consistently throughout her career, it’s that she never stopped moving forward and never let the scope of her success overshadow the work itself. “I’m competitive. I wanted to keep my own identity, so all through our different companies’ situations I’ve maintained my own name and my own identity as a separate item,” she says. She has worked for herself ever since the end of Burns Cooper. “And I work harder and harder it seems.”
By the end of the interview we are no longer talking about design, art and business. We are zipping across her property on golf carts, meandering through topics and appreciating the forestry. “People have got to get past themselves,” she says. “Sometimes people have a little bit of talent in one area or another and they’re fortunate enough to be able to develop it. But, at the end of the day, we’re all just plain folks.” •
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.