Born in Penticton, British Columbia, Thom served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and studied painting at the Vancouver School of Art, graduating in 1947. In 1949, he began an apprenticeship with the Vancouver architectural firm of Thompson, Berwick & Pratt, where he designed several award-winning houses and, after passing examinations (without formal training) to become a registered architect, was made a partner in 1958. In the early 1960s, Thom established his firm’s branch office in Toronto and won the design competition for the University of Toronto’s Massey College. He later established his own practice, R.J. Thom Architects, and continued a career with numerous high-profile commissions, many in Ontario, including the campus and several buildings for Trent University in Peterborough; the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake; and two pavilions for the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo.
In keeping with his artistic background, Thom’s work was rooted in the Bauhaus-inspired philosophy of the architectural Gesamtkunstwerk: the building as a ‘total work of art’ emerging from the synthesis of landscape, materials, furnishings, textures, and colors. At Trent University, for example, he planned the roads and footpaths, harmonizing materials in the natural and built environments, and at Massey College, his painstakingly detailed design specified the pavers in the courtyard as well as the cutlery. A member of multiple professional academies and institutes, Thom was granted two honorary degrees and, in 1980, was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Plagued by alcoholism, he died at his desk in his Toronto offices at the age of 63.