Simply the Best: The Colourful Life of Marion Hall Best

The Museum of Sydney have recently confirmed the dates for an upcoming exhibition (Aug 5- Nov 12) about Sydneysider and style guru Marion Hall Best. 

Marion Hall Best (1905-1988) was a champion of Australian and International mid-century design. Best’s two Sydney store’s Queen St, Woollahra ( 1939-1974) and Rowe St, Sydney (1949-1961) were destinations for those who sought out the latest in modern design. 

Interior of Queen St, Woollahra shop, c.1960s.

Best was highly influential in establishing a demand for the modern style in Australia, and in 1951 helped found The Society of Interior Designers of Australia. Best had a strong sense of personal style which came through in the many commissions she received to transform the interiors of public and private spaces. 

Known for her bold use of colour and dramatic patterns, Best was not a member of the beige brigade, her vibrant wall and ceiling glazes were a glossy celebration of colour. Best was a trailblazer, importing the latest in international contemporary design to be sold in her shops, including furniture from the U.S and Italy, and fabrics by Marimekko of Finland. She was also a big supporter of Australian designers Clem Meadmore, Grant Featherston, Carl Nielsen and Gordon Andrews, stocking their furniture alongside cutting edge designs from around the world. 

The Marion Hall Best Collection located at the Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection  provides a fascinating insight into the world of one of Australia’s first interior designers. Best was a trendsetter whose vision for domestic living was sometimes challenging and other times transformative. Best clearly had a vision that centred around the role of design in the home, she even designed the occasional piece of furniture. 

Lounge chair designed by Marion Hall Best, c.1960s. 

With so many contemporary homes slavishly adopting safe neutral tones, more than 60 years later Best’s riot of colour is still a breath of fresh air.

To find out more about Marion Hall Best get yourself a copy of Michaela Richard’s ‘The Best Style : Marion Hall Best and Australian Interior Design 1935-1975’.  The book is now out of print, but can often be found in public libraries. If it’s a personal copy you’re looking for, you will need to check eBay or secondhand bookstores. 

Don’t miss the upcoming exhibition MARION HALL BEST: INTERIORS at the Museum of Sydney from Sat 5 Aug – Sun 12 Nov, 2017.  

The Story of Curl: A Clement Meadmore Sculpture

Clement Meadmore is perhaps the most famous sculptor to originate from Australia, his twisting metal forms can be found in galleries and parks around the world. Starting out as an industrial designer in Melbourne during the early 1950s, Meadmore produced a small range of furniture and lighting that was clearly inspired by his passion for jazz and abstract art.

After a trip to Europe in 1953, Meadmore’s interest in sculpture grew and by the mid 1950s Meadmore was exhibiting metal forms that arguably drew inspiration from international artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Piet Mondrian. In 1959, Clem, with the assistance of friend Max Hutchinson, set up Gallery A in Flinders lane, Melbourne. The gallery, a little Bauhaus in Melbourne, not only provided a space for progressive artists and designers, it also created a community for people looking to breakaway from the oppressive and conservative nature of the 1950s Australian art scene.

After 3 years living in Sydney, in 1963 Meadmore packed his bags and left Australia for the hussle and bustle of New York, a big city with a thriving art scene. In the beginning Meadmore faced many challenges, but by the end of the 1960’s he had found his niche, creating new works that arguably married his background in engineering and his interest in abstract forms.

Curl (1968), as noted by Robert Ferrari, was Meadmore’s first commission for a large scale public monument. The short video below is a fascinating account of the story behind this important work.



Australian Mid-Century Modern: Buying, Collecting and Restoration

A few years ago I wrote a post ‘Australian Modern on a Budget’ about buying Australian Mid-Century Modern Furniture. A reader recently asked me to update the post, so I decided to write an update that includes a few tips on getting a bargain and taking care of your treasured mid-century pieces.

When it comes to buying Australian mid-century design there are a few things you need to know about yourself. Are you a serious collector, a fan of good design, or simply want a vintage piece to compliment a room in your home. Is the piece going to be used everyday or do you have space for a rare piece that will only be used on special occasions? Understanding what you want and how it fits into the way you live will help you to find the right vintage pieces.

Buying Mid-Century

Sideboard manufactured by Summertone, Sydney, c.1950s. 

Knowledge is the key to getting a bargain, so it’s essential that you to do some research before you buy anything.  Do a google search, check eBay or auction websites to get an idea of what prices you can expect to pay. Trove is an online database set up by the National Gallery of Australia and is a great place to search through newspapers and magazines of the post-war period. Searching through old articles and advertisements is a great way to build knowledge and learn more about the post-war period.

Price all depends on the condition, popularity of the designer and the provenance. Knowing the market will help you to find the right piece at the right price. If you are really passionate about mid-century design I suggest you never waste money on cheap replica pieces. Always buy what you love, but if you can’t afford that expensive Featherston chair, don’t be fooled into thinking an ugly overstuffed replica will give you the same look or feel as the original. At the end of the day, you could have spent that money on one of the many high quality and affordable vintage pieces produced by lesser known designers and furniture manufacturers.

Modernist coffee table with marble top by Framac, Sydney, c.1960s.

There were many furniture and lighting companies operating in the post-war period in Australia. Companies such as Moderntone, Summertone, Decro, Doube and Framac may not be household names but they made some great furniture which you can pick-up at a bargain price. And if it’s a low cost Grant Featherston chair you yearn for, then it’s hard to go past one of his many chairs and tables manufactured by Aristoc industries, Melbourne.

Mitzi Chair designed by Grant Featherston for Aristoc Industries, c. 1957.

Emigre designers and/or crafts people such as Zoureff, Rosando Bros, and Rudowski present excellent value for those looking for quality pieces that reflect a European mid-century style.

Lounge chairs designed by Dario Zoureff, c.1950s.

When buying a mid-century piece it’s a good idea to ask the seller what he/she knows about the item’s history. Where did the item come from, who owned it, etc. The provenance can not only help you to identify a piece, it can also add considerable value. The stories behind your favourite chair, table or lamp are a wonderful way to engage with the history of your pieces.

If you are paying big bucks for a mid-century piece you need to know what your getting for your money and if it’s the genuine article. Some sellers, including auction houses, may make incorrect claims and it’s up to you to insist on proof of those claims. I have been caught out a few times by unscrupulous sellers who have told me stories about an items provenance that later turned out to be false. On one occasion, when I contacted the seller to explain my concerns, I got a completely different story and was refused a full refund. I learnt a lot from that encounter and now I always ask for evidence that an item is authentic.

Always insist on proof, you need to see documentation in the form of period advertising, an old receipt with the designer’s name/company, or a description of the item in a respected publication or public gallery collection. A good mid-century dealer will work through any of your concerns and support their attribution with evidence.

Let there be lights

Mandarin lamp designed by Joyce and Selwyn Coffey for Kempthorne Lighting,
c. 1959.

If it’s Australian Mid-Century lighting that you desire, then check out maufacturers like Rite-Lite, Kempthorne, Daydream, Arrow, Newton and Gray, Beecher and Beco. Australian mid-century lighting is a fraction of the cost of European designs, and even though prices are on the rise, there are still plenty of bargains out there.

It’s important to consider the condition of the piece and factor in any additional restoration costs. Most lighting can be repaired, and though hiring a professional to do the job can be expensive, the results are well worth the expenditure. Never try DIY with electricals, always get  rewiring done by a qualified electrician. If you’re unsure how to find a  restorer, ask a mid-century store if they can put you in touch with a  restoration expert.

Caring for your mid-century furniture

Collecting vintage pieces comes with responsibility, and that means taking good care of your treasured pieces. Whether it’s timber furniture  or lighting, always research the best method of preserving the original finish. If restoration is required, do your homework first and don’t attempt any repairs unless you know exactly what to do.

There are many online video tutorials on basic restoration, polishing and re-upholstery of vintage furniture. If the piece you’re restoring is mass produced, then perhaps a DIY challenge may be suitable for such an item. Never use cheap spray polishes, always seek professional restoration products. The name of the game is gentle restoration, not making the piece look brand new, so always try to maintain the original character of your treasured vintage pieces.

If you have a rare and valuable piece requiring restoration always seek a specialist. A good place to start is speaking to the conservation team at The Grinwade Centre for Cultural Materials at Melbourne University. Professional restoration is expensive, but amateur repairs can result in costly mistakes that may require extensive restoration.

Mid-Century Trends

Unit Range Lounge chair, designed by Fred Ward for Myer Emporium Ltd, c.1932. 

Design trends come and go, but there is one mid-century Australian designer who’s name is on everybody’s lips at auction houses in Melbourne and Sydney.  Don’t be surprised to see prices for early pieces designed by Fred Ward go through the roof as collectors scurry to get their hands on beautifully crafted pieces designed by Ward in the 1930’s. Pieces such as Ward’s ‘Unit Range’ armchair (1932) are amongst the earliest modern furniture designed and manufactured in Australia, so it’s no surprise that public galleries across Australia are building collections of furniture designed by Fred Ward.

Fred Ward was highly innovative and his designs for ‘Timber Pack Furniture’, a company he set up to manufacture pre-fabricated timber furniture in the post-war period, are steadily increasing in demand and price. To learn more about Fred Ward get yourself a copy of Derek Wrigley’s limited release book ‘Fred Ward – Australian Pioneer Designer 1900 – 1990’. You can also check out my earlier post about the Fred Ward: A Life in Design exhibition, held 4 years ago at the Gallery of Australian Design in Canberra.

The Australian post-war period was a time of innovation and social change. Modernism transformed our culture and created new creative industries. Collecting Australian mid-century design is a great way to fill your home with beautiful recycled pieces and connect with our design history.

Happy bargain hunting.

The Boyd Collection

The architect Robin Boyd (1919-1971) is well known for his iconic modernist buildings. The Walsh Street house in South Yarra, Melbourne, now the home of the Boyd Foundation, was built by Boyd for his family in 1957 and illustrates  Boyd’s ability to create light filled and harmonious domestic spaces.

Boyd was a man of many talents, he worked with the glazing company Stegbar in the 1950’s to develop his Window Wall design which consisted of pre-fabricated timber and glass components. Now considered an iconic architectural feature of Boyd’s buildings, the Window Wall proved successful and is an enduring motif of post-war modernist design in Australia.

The Boyd Family Home, Walsh St, Melbourne.

Boyd was also an author of many books on the subject of architecture, his book The Australian Ugliness (1960) is still in print and as relevant as the day it was published. Boyd was a big supporter of Australian industrial designers, and furniture by Grant Featherston and Clement Meadmore was often recommended to clients.

The Domain Park Apartments, Melbourne.

But alongside Boyd’s long list of achievements is something not known by many people. Boyd designed a small range of furniture to compliment his Walsh Street house and the Domain Park Apartments (pictured above). Simple in design and honest in materials, these pieces were designed to compliment Boyd’s unique architectural vision.

To celebrate Boyd’s furniture designs, the Boyd Foundation have just announced The Boyd Collection. Now you too can enjoy a little touch of Boyd design in your own home.

Australian Art for Mid-Century Spaces

Tim Ross on ABC Televion program Streets Of Your Town, 2016.

When we look closely at classic mid-century homes, we often see carefully curated spaces that convey the tastes, values, and aspirations of their owners. But there is much more to these interiors than furniture and lighting.  Whether it be paintings, ceramics, glass, textiles or sculptures, such art works play a major role in turning a room of vintage pieces into a dynamic interior that invites relaxation and/or contemplation.
So how do you go about choosing art for a mid-century inspired interior? Well that depends on a number of factors, such as room size, budget and personal taste. Everyone is different, therefore it’s important that you embrace your individuality and select artworks that are meaningful to you. Avoid making choices based on colour schemes or matching your furniture. Be bold and trust your judgement.

Sydney Ball, Canto IX, 2002-2003.

Whereas some people like to buy only mid-century artworks, I think it’s good to mix it up. As much as I admire mid-century design, I don’t want to feel like I’m living in a museum. Contemporary art is a great way to add visual interest and at the same time support the creative economy.

Rather than buying prints, always buy original artworks. If you would never buy a copy of a vintage chair, why would you buy a cheap print?Auction houses and artist run spaces are great sources of affordable original artworks.

Buying art is an adventure, be open minded and take the time to learn about art history. The more you learn about art, the more you will appreciate the art in your space. It’s also a good idea to read up on particular artists you like. It’s good to get a sense of the way their work has evolved over the years and what their work is all about. You may find that you only like work from a certain period, or you may just think everything by that artist is simply brilliant. But when it comes to buying that original artwork, only buy what you like, not what you think others might like. Remember, the main thing is that you feel a connection to the work.

David Aspden, Window IV, 1968.

There is original art to fit all tastes and budgets. If you like to collect, then small works on paper are often good value, and are also a great way to build your art collection. If size matters, then look for large works that will compliment your space. Sometimes a collection of small art works on one wall can be just as engaging, and have as much impact as a single large scale work.

If all this talk has got you thinking about art, then check out the fantastic Re-Purpose exhibition at Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra. Re-Purpose runs from Fri 11 November — Sun 18 December 2016 and features work by 3 generations of international and Australian artists. You can also read a review of the exhibition.

Here are just a few of my favourite Australian contemporary artists.

Peter Atkins: EP PROJECT, 2016.

Dana Harris: spoolworks 2010 – 12, yarn spools bound with cotton thread, variable dimensions.

Emma Langridge: Except, 2016 enamel / acrylic on wood
approx 30 x 20cm.


Kenji Uranishi: Momentary, a collection of ceramic works exhibited
at Brisbane Museum.

Momentary, a collection of ceramic works exhibited at Brisbane Museum.


Jane Brown: Outback netball, White Cliffs, New South Wales, 2014/16.


Bryan Spier Multiplicity, 2011 Synthetic polymer on canvas board 30 x 40cm.

Clement Meadmore: Man of Steel

If you’re a regular reader of the Australian Modern blog then it will come as no surprise that we are big fans of Clement Meadmore. Arguably the greatest of the Australian Mid-Century industrial designers, Meadmore’s furniture and lighting is in a class of its own.

In the early 1950s Meadmore set up an independent design practice in Hawthorn that became the talk of the town. He was a creative force, designing shop interiors, record covers, and a small range of innovative furniture and lighting designs popular with young homemakers and modernist architects of the period.

Clement Meadmore: Man of Steel is a comprehensive survey of Meadmore’s design practice in Australia and features rare examples of Meadmore’s furniture and lighting, including newly discovered designs exhibited for the first time.

The exhibition will run from Sat, 2 Sep 2017 – Sun, 22 Oct 2017 at the Hawthorn Town Hall Gallery, Melbourne.

Modernist Streets of your Town

After much anticipation the moment has finally arrived when we can all sit down and enjoy the new 2 part series Streets Of Your Town featuring Australian comedian and lover of all things modernist Tim ‘Rosso’ Ross.
It’s not often that you get to visit so many iconic Aussie modernist homes, let alone have a chat with important architects such as Peter McIntyre who designed the small but incredible River House nestled in bushland and floating above the Yarra river in the leafy suburb of Kew, Melbourne.

The River House , Kew (1955), designed by Peter McIntyre.

The Australian love affair with modernism can be seen in the design of homes, public buildings and of course, our furniture. The great thing about this series is that it provides an Australian perspective on modernist design. Tim not only travels from state to state, including modernist treasure trove Canberra, he also looks at the ways our relationship with design has changed since the post-war era up until the present day. From iconic homes designed by Robin Boyd through to more obscure delights such as homes by Pettit + Sevitt or Merchant Builders.

The McMansions that are populating new and existing suburbs are a far cry from the 12 square homes of the post-war era when building restrictions required that Australian homemakers did more with less.

The Marriott House, Flinders (1954), designed by Robin Boyd

What also emerges in this series is a real sense of how Australian designers re-imagined international design trends to create unique designs that respond to our environment. Established and run by Melbourne architect Robin Boyd in 1947, then later directed by architect Neil Clerehan in the 1950’s, The Age Small Homes Service offered house plans by top architects for the reasonable sum of 5 quid. The idea behind this clever scheme was to make good design available to the masses. For those on a budget but adventure in their hearts, such as my parents, these plans provided a real opportunity to build a modern home and live the Australian dream.

In the case of my Mum and Dad, they built their small home (see above) in 2 stages over 3 years. The house was designed to accomodate their growing family, with a separate dining room that would later be converted into another bedroom. Dad built his own window wall that wrapped around the lounge room, flooding the home in glorious light and blurring the distinction between indoors and outdoors.

Flash forward to 2016 and you’ll see that what  Robin Boyd called the ‘Australian Ugliness’ is still very much part of the Australian landscape. Whereas once builders may have worked towards meeting the needs of their clients, it now seems that many home buyers choices are driven by the needs of large building firms who arguably put profit margins ahead of the needs of the client or our environment. Or is it simply that the Australian obsession with enormous homes outweighs the need for good design?

At a time when Australia is in the grip of a housing affordability crisis and untamed urban sprawl, Streets Of Your Town raises important issues about the ways that good design can enhance everyday life. I think that’s a very worthwhile premise for a documentary and an important discussion we need to have now. Perhaps we can learn much from the lessons of the past. Good design can change your relationship with space, it can also enhance your life.

You can watch episode 1 of Streets Of Your Town on ABC iView or check out episode 2 next Tuesday at 8:30pm on our ABC or pre-order the DVD and watch it whenever you feel like it.