The parents of Australian modern design
George Nelson (1908-1986) is credited as being instrumental in bringing European modernism to the United States of America, but Australia's connections to the European modern movement also emerged in the pre- and post-WWII period.
The 7 Australian Designers Display is a small display presented at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in conjunction with the George Nelson exhibition. It profiles 7 Australian Designers who brought modern design to Australian living.
Gordon Andrews (1914-2001) was born in the Sydney suburb of Ashfield. His career was extensive, embracing industrial design, graphic design and development of exhibition concepts and design, as well as photography. Trained at the Sydney Technical College, Ultimo and the East Sydney Technical College, Andrews gained his formative experience in graphic design with the advertising agencies Samson Clark Price Berry in Sydney and Stuart, London in the 1930s.Andrews is probably best known for designing the $1, $2, $5, $10, $20 and $50 paper notes for the Reserve Bank of Australia. Released in February 1966, they were the first decimal currency bank notes to be issued in Australia and the designs won almost universal applause and acclaim. He also designed the interior for the NSW Government Tourist Bureau in Sydney in 1961, and the New Zealand Government Tourist Bureau in 1965; the Australian coat of arms; the logo for the Reserve Bank; several sets of postage stamps; furniture, including the iconic Rondo chair, which was first on show in the Olivetti showroom in Sydney in 1956; lighting; and even saucepans. In the introduction to his pictorial autobiography, A Designers Life (no apostrophe), Jennifer Blain wrote: 'Gordon Andrews is a pioneer in industrial and graphic design, a cultural hero who merits a place alongside those depicted on his banknotes. A quiet revolutionary, visionary and eccentric, he has both enhanced and radicalised Australian design standards. Thanks to him, Australia ceased to be represented at world trade fairs by a pyramid of IXL jam tins and a huddle of moth-eaten, stuffed koalas.'
Frances Burke (1907-1944) was born into a Melbourne family involved in the textile trade in Flinders Lane, Burke initially trained at Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) and studied painting at the National Gallery School. Burke founded Australia's first textile screen-printing business, Burway Prints, in Melbourne in 1937, and gained excellent reviews when she exhibited her designs the following year.
In 1942 she was commissioned to create designs for the Australian Embassy in Washington, but she is best known as a fabric designer and an adventuresome retailer of modernist furnishings through her shop, New Design P/L, which was opened in 1948. Her designs were often showcased in the houses designed by modern architects such as Robin Boyd and Roy Grounds. Her textile designs feature abstract appropriations of Aboriginal designs and Australian flora and fauna.
Alistair Morrison (1911-1988) was a pioneering typographer, graphic designer, industrial designer and author. He was born in Melbourne and educated at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School before enjoying a short but illustrious design career in London from 1936 to 1939, during which he provided military aviation design for de Havilland and created branding for the Dorchester Hotel, Whitney Straight Airlines and Gaumonet British Films, amongst other clients. Morrison returned to Australia before the Second World War and worked for the Reserve Bank of Australia, designing their first five annual reports and their first seven Currency magazines; he also designed for P&O, Rhine Castle Wines and the National Trust of Australia.
He designed many catalogues for Sydney's Contemporary Art Society (he later became president) and has been described as 'the most advanced typographer of the period'. He was also a highly productive painter, with exhibitions in Sydney and Perth - his works are represented in the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of NSW, Powerhouse Museum, City of Fremantle Art Collection and the V&A Museum in London.
Grant Featherston (1922-1995) was born in Geelong in Victoria and began his career as a designer in glass and lighting without the benefit of formal training. He was one of the pioneers of industrial design in Australia and was a foundation member of the Society of Designers for Industry (now the Design Institute of Australia) in Melbourne in 1948.
After service in the Second World War, he developed the range of furniture that became his signature product: the Relaxation range (1947-49) and the famous plywood shell Contour Chairs (1951-55 and re-released in the 1990s). This furniture was initially made by Featherston but later licensed to other manufacturers.
Featherston's design partnership with his wife Mary was formed in 1966 and for thirty years they collaborated on major projects together, including the Numero range for Uniroyal and the famed Talking Chair, commissioned by architect and design critic Robin Boyd for the Australian Pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal. When sat upon, these chairs delivered a tape-recorded message on Australian topics in French and English.
Steven Kalmar (1909-1989) was born in Budapest and trained as an architect before immigrating to Australia in 1939. He worked in optical munitions at Sydney University during the Second World War and in the second half of the 1940s established a career designing commissioned furniture and interiors. In 1949 he opened Kalmar Interiors in Sydney - it was a tiny studio and showroom measuring barely four by six metres, but Kalmar managed to run a highly successful interior design and furniture business here until 1955, when he moved to larger premises. In 1957 he closed the retail business altogether and applied himself to design commissions for interiors.
Kalmar's unpretentious seagrass-seated dining chairs and his chunky bentwood-armed easy chairs, both from the early 1950s, are distinctive records of his role in introducing a modern aesthetic to post-war Sydney. His furniture was functional, compact and light, and it appealed to young homeowners who were able to create entire room suites.
In 1964 Kalmar published 'You and Your Home', which was intended as a sort of 'how to' advice manual for the modern homemaker. Today it is recognised as an important record of some of the more adventurous domestic architecture and interiors created in and around Sydney in the early 1960s.
During the 1960s and '70s Kalmar became something of a design authority in Sydney. He was commissioned to write a weekly page on interior decoration for the Sunday Telegraph and he regularly wrote on design matters for Woman's Day from 1971 to 1986.
Clement Meadmore (1929-2005) was born in Melbourne and originally studied aeronautical engineering before enrolling in industrial design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, from where he graduated in 1949. Although Meadmore achieved international fame for his sculpture and hosted a number of one-man exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney, in the mid-20th century his Australian reputation centred on his furniture design.
Meadmore introduced his corded black steel dining chair in 1952. It featured in magazines throughout the 1950s and in 1953 was awarded the Good Design Award from the Good Design Society in Sydney. The chair, which was wrapped with synthetic fibre cord, was available in a range of colours and a corded recliner and related dining table were soon added to the range. His furniture was sold at Marion Hall Best's showrooms and his lighting design was shown at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics Arts Festival. From 1960 Meadmore expanded his sculpture career, moving to Sydney and then to New York in 1963.
Douglas Snelling (1917-1985) English-born Snelling immigrated to Australia in 1942 following design work in the United States and New Zealand, where he was raised. He was a popular cartoonist, writer and commentator on the culture of Hollywood during the 1930s and he returned to the United States during the Second World War to work with the US Navy and the Kriesler Radio Company. In 1947 he formed a partnership in Sydney to manufacture furniture to his designs. This became Functional Products Pty Ltd and the furniture was called The Snelling Line.
One of the first Australian designers to explore laminated timber for commercial furniture, Snelling also encouraged the use of synthetic fibre webbing to replace padded upholstery. In the 1950s he began to practice architecture and interior design, completing more than 70 buildings and interiors mainly in Sydney and Noumea. Besides building Sydney's largest organic modernist houses of the 1950s and '60s, Snelling was also a notable graphic artist, exhibition designer and journalist.
All images shown courtesy The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.
Visit www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/ for more information.
Anne Watson, "Kafka and Kalmar: two European furniture designers in post-war Sydney." Furniture History Society (Australasia) Journal, No 2, 2004, pp 10-14
This information first appeared in a previous issue of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.