A Pattern for Design: DIY Culture and Pre-Fab furniture in postwar Australia

Recently I bought a little 3 legged timber stool with a detachable leather seat. The whole thing folds down so it can fit into a tube for easy postage and/or storage. The Pak-Saddle Seat, made by the David Engineering Co in Melbourne, is a reminder of the design ingenuity that was taking place in postwar Australia.

Australian Home Beautiful, October 1957.

During the the postwar years there was an increased demand for low cost housing and furniture. To address this problem, in the late 1940’s designer Fred Ward set up Pattercraft furniture and produced a series of furniture patterns that could be ordered through the Australian Hone Beautiful magazine. The patterns, which required a basic level of woodworking skills, could be used by individuals as a template for constructing simple timber furniture. Ward’s business iniative proved successful and Pattercraft furniture went on to include many designs which were later made available as part of Ward’s Timber-Packs range of furniture.

Timber-Packs (see above) consisted of pre-cut, shaped and sanded kiln dried Australian timber pieces that were ready to assemble. Like the Pattercraft range, Timber-Packs were also advertised in the Australian Home Beautiful. For buyers in country towns, the opportunity to have these contemporary designs delivered to their homes arguably enabled people living outside of major cities to engage in modernist design trends.

94/203/3 Stool, wood, Karen Ingeborg & Associates, Swedish-Craft packaged Furniture, Australia, 1953-1960

As the demand for modern furniture increased, other companies got in on the act. In the early 1950’s, Sydney based company Karen Ingeborg and Associates launched Swedish-Craft Packaged Furniture (see above). The designs, in the popular ‘Swedish look’, were made from Australian timber, ready to assemble, and packaged in cardboard boxes ready for delivery to customers across Australia. According to Nanette Carter in her article ‘ BLUEPRINT TO PATTERNCRAFT: DIY FURNITURE PATTERNS AND PACKS IN POST- WAR AUSTRALIA’, after moving to Canberra in 1950 Fred Ward replaced Patterncraft with a new series of updated patterns he called Blueprint furniture. As noted by Carter (2011, p.8): “Australian Home Beautiful replaced Blueprint in 1954 with Plycraft patterns. These were designed for use with more affordable plywood, by architect Walter Gherardin, and Ron Rosenberg who had trained with Ward in the Myer workshop. But this venture appears to have been unsuccessful, lasting only a few months”.

Advertisement for Plycraft furniture, Sdyney Morning Herald, 1954.

As time moved on and materials became more available and affordable, it would appear that there was a shift away from furniture patterns and pre-fab furniture towards readymade mass-produced furniture by manufacturers such as Fler, Summertone and Parker. But DIY and pre-fab furniture by Australian designers are now being recognised as important mid-century design artefacts and are slowly becoming more collectable. Whereas selected handcrafted designs by Fred Ward might sell for thousands of dollars in auctions, Patterncraft, Blueprint and Timber-Pack furniture presents many collectors of Australian postwar furniture with an opportunity to obtain interesting and inexpensive pieces by celebrated designer Fred Ward.

Timber-Pack Furniture design No:27, ottoman designed by Fred Ward c.1952.

If your willing to search online auctions you can often find Fred Ward designs for less than $100, such as this lovely Timber-Pack ottoman made from Australian hardwood. Top it off with a cushion or put a piece of glass on top and transform it into an occasional table, either way it’s excellent value for a spectacular piece of Australian Mid-Century Modern design. Unlike other pre-fab furniture, you won’t need instructions or tools, all you need to do is sit back and dream of the past.

Emigré Houses in Kew: Open Day Sunday 22, March 2015

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The Lyall House 1955-56. Architect: Anatol Kagan

It’s not very often that you get an opportunity to look inside some of the best examples of Australian mid-century architecture, but this Sunday 22 March, 2015 (between 10am-4pm), The Boyd Foundation are holding an open day where you will be able to view homes designed by iconic emigre architects Ernest Milston (Czechoslovakia), Ernest Fooks (Austria-Hungary) and Architect: Anatol Kagan (Russia). The selected homes are outstanding examples of the creativity and innovation exhibited by emigre architects in Melbourne and reflect the influence of European Modernism in Australia.

The homes, all within walking distance of each other, are located in the Studley Park area of Kew, a suburb well known for its large numbers of architect designed mid-century homes. Tickets are limited for this event so be quick to secure a chance to see some of the most inspiring and unique mid-century homes in Melbourne.

For more details about the Boyd Foundation Emigré Houses in Kew Open Day visit the link below:
https://robinboyd.org.au/category-events/75-open-house-program/181-emigre-houses

Take A Seat: Australian Mid-Century Chair Exhibition

IMG_2863If you like a good Australian mid-century chair then I suggest you head on down to Penrith Regional Gallery who are currently hosting the Take a Seat: Australian Modernist Seating exhibition.

The ‘Take A Seat’ exhibition showcases Australian chair designs between 1940-1975 and includes a selection of artworks from the period to provide some additional context. Expect to see chairs by Grant Featherston, Gordon Andrews, George Korody, Fred Lowen, Clement Meadmore, and Fred Ward, as well as a number of chairs by lesser known and/or unknown designers.

The exhibition is hot on the heels of the outstanding Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design held at NGV: Ian Potter Gallery, Melbourne in 2014. And although there are many familiar names included in this offering at Penrith, there are also some interesting designs by Douglas Snelling, Gayla Soos, Steven Kalmar, Paul Kafka and Derek Wrigkey. And for those with a passion for Parker Furniture, there are also a number of chairs designed by thus much loved Australian furniture company.

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Margo Lewers, Composition in Orangec. 1952 oil on canvas on cardboard.
Image property of Penrith Regional Gallery.

The exhibition also features work by Australian modernist artists of the period including Ralph Balson, Margo Lewers, Robert Klippel, Inge King and many more. There is also a small selection of photographs by renowned photographer Max Dupain. Unfortunately there isn’t a printed catalogue for the exhibition but you can download a PDF catalogue at the Penrith Regional Gallery website. The exhibition runs from 22 NOVEMBER 2014 – 22 FEBRUARY 2015, so there is still time to get down to the gallery and take a look at these rare and wonderful Australian chairs.

I haven’t had a chance to see the exhibition as yet, but it sounds well worth a visit. If you have seen the exhibition, please leave a comment. What was your favourite chair?

Myth Busting and Mid-Century Design Research

At Australian Modern we believe that auction houses and dealers should make every effort to know what they are selling to the public. It’s important to avoid making assumptions when trying to make an attribution or identification of a mid-century design or designer. The research needs to be thorough and based on evidence, such as the impeccable research on Michael Hirst carried out by artist Peter Atkins who, with the assistance of Michael Hirst’s widow Joy, has ended much of the speculation over the Hirst/Meadmore collaborations. You can read Peter Atkins’ essay on Meadmore and Hirst in the ‘Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design’ catalogue.

It’s fair to say that it’s easy to make mistakes when trying to make an attribution, but I believe that there is much more at stake here. An incorrect attribution does more than disappoint, it also denies the original designer their rightful place in our design history.
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Dining table, designed by Clement Meadmore, c.1952.        Dining table, designed by Woods Williams Pty Ltd, c.1955.

A good case in point is the 1950’s kitchen table (see above) originally listed as a Clement Meadmore design at a prominent Melbourne Auction house in 2014. At first glance you might think you have discovered a new Meadmore design. It has similar features to a dining table designed by Clement Meadmore in 1952. But after a bit of research it turns out that it’s not a Meadmore design but part of ‘The Summit Group’ designed and manufactured by Wood Williams Pty Ltd in Melbourne.

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Original advertising flyer, Woods Williams Pty Ltd, c.1955-60.

The company, which started out as Woods Williams & Associates in 1952, offered a ‘made to order’ service and manufactured a version of Meadmore’s basic corded chair in 1953/54, so you can see how easy it would be to assume the table was a Meadmore design. But Woods Williams & Associates also had an in-house designer and produced designs for other companies such as Sydney based furniture company Summertone. What’s important to note here is that Woods Williams & Associates company was dissolved in June 1954, and Lawrence Woods continued to operate the business under the name of Woods Williams Pty Ltd. This information also helps in dating the ‘Summit Group’ table. The business later moved to bigger premises and produced a wide range of steel rod furniture including a variation of the Butterfly/Hardoy chair and a diverse range of kitchen/dining settings in the popular styles of the period.

So how is that there are Meadmore corded chairs and stools that carry Woods Williams and Associates? My guess is that when Meadmore sold his ‘Meadmore Originals’ business to Kenneth W. McDonald to fund an overseas trip in 1953, it was perhaps McDonald who initially had the Meadmore designs manufactured by Woods Williams and Associates. In around 1955 McDonald set up a ‘Meadmore Originals’ factory in South Melbourne and continued to add new designs, most likely designed by himself.

It would appear that many auction houses simply rely on information supplied by the vendor and their in-house expert, but mistakes do happen and I was pleased to see that the auction house in question, after being presented with the evidence, amended their listing of the mis-attributed Meadmore table before the auction date.

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Console designed by Peter Hayton and manufactured by Hayson furniture, Melbourne. C. 1960’s.

Another good example of mis-attribution is Hans Hayson. After having a chat with Melanie and Peggy Hayton, we discovered that Hayson furniture was actually designed and co-owned by Peter Hayton in Melbourne. And yet, auction houses, dealers and eBay sellers continue to make the common mistake of attributing Peter Hayton’s Danish inspired designs to ‘Hans Hayson’, a designer whom little is known about. I recently saw a Danish inspired timber bedhead on ebay with a label reading ‘a Hans Hayson original’, so it would appear that there is a Hans Hayson. So with two Hayson companies making Danish style furniture in Australia, it’s easy to see the source of the confusion.

There is still a great deal of research to be done. Everyone has a part to play, and when you know a dealer, auction house or gallery has got it wrong, it’s important to tell them and set the record straight. We owe it to the original designers to make sure that their work is documented and included in our design history.

String Theory: A Mid-Century Modern Chair Mystery.

As you probably know by now, gathering information about our design history often involves hours, and sometimes years, of meticulous research in order to make a positive identification of a design. In the case of the string chair pictured below (left), I have spent the past 5 years searching for the maker without a single clue, but a few days ago my research partner came across an advertisement (see below) in a 1950’s issue of Home Beautiful that might help narrow down the search for this unusual chair design.

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Australian corded armchair, c.1950’s (left) and Anthony Hordens advertisement in Australian Home Beautiful, 1954 (right).

As you can see, the corded chair in the advertisement is very similar in style. Sure, it’s not an exact match, but the construction of the seat looks to be the same. Both chairs appear to have been inspired by American designer Alan Gould’s 1950’s corded dining chair (see below). But why would someone copy Gould’s design?

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Alan Gould corded dining chair (left) and Contempora corded dining chair c. 1955 (right).

A combination of restrictions on imported goods during the early 1950’s and often expensive licensing agreements with overseas furniture companies (Knoll, Herman Miller, Race Furniture, etc) arguably made access to furniture by international designers difficult and prohibitively expensive. For some local manufacturers, the solution was to copy and/or appropriate designs
by leading international furniture designers. I suspect that the corded chair sold by the Anthony Hordern’s, part of their own in-house range, was most likely inspired by Gould’s design, but was perhaps different enough to avoid any  unwanted and/or protracted legal dispute over a perceived copyright infringement. On the other hand, local furniture company Contempora, who produced a wide range of steel rod furniture, manufactured a corded chair that is so similar to Gould’s now famous design (see above) that it could only be described as a copy.

So who made the yellow corded armchair? Was it originally available for sale at Anthony Hordern’s department store or was it made by a backyard enthusiast?  I think it’s highly unlikely that it’s a Gould design, and fortunately we are well beyond the days of attributing every corded chair to Clement Meadmore. Until I am able to find more information, the designer of this chair will remain a mystery. What are your thoughts?

Identifying Australian mid-century furniture designs can be time consuming, so to make this task a little easier I have put together an online archive of Australian and International mid/century design on Pinterest. The Australian Modern Pinterest site is a great tool for identifying your mid-century treasures and includes photos of iconic mid-century furniture sourced from post-war magazines and online resources. You can also share your passion for #AustralianModern design on Twitter. Our Twitter feed is a great place to share stories, pics or ask questions about mid-century design.

UPDATE: The mystery has been solved.
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The corded chair above was designed by Carl Nielsen, c.1955. And available at Marion Best, Sydney. It would appear that Neilsen may have designed the corded chair sold at Anthony Hordens and the corded armchair sold at Marion Hall Best in Sydney. Based on these advertisements I would say that my yellow corded chairs can be attributed to Carl Nielsen. Many thanks to Chris at Australian Modern Design for his help with the identification.

Gentle Modernist: The Nine Lives of Anatol Kagan.

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It’s not often that a book comes along that captures both your interests and imagination. Anatol Kagan is in my opinion one of the most important architects of the Australian post-war period. Kagan’s homes embody a personal vision of modernism that manifests itself in an architecture that is often exhilarating and dynamic. For years I had walked past a home designed by Kagan on Dandenong Rd in North Caulfield, and every time I felt a sense of excitement every time I looked at the vertical boards and the expanse of floor to ceiling windows. it is a stunning home that embraces many of the visual cues of modernism, and yet embodies a sense of the innovation and optimism so often associated with the post-war period in Australia. Kagan’s buildings are important for so many reasons, and Simon Reeves’ new book offers a chance to see behind theses iconic structures and into the world of an extraordinary man.

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House on Dandenong Rd, North Caulfield, designed by Anatol  Kagan.

Five years in the writing, architectural historian Simon Reeves’ book  Gentle Modernist: The Nine Lives of Anatol Kagan is a major contribution to the body of knowledge associated with design research in post-war Australia. Reeves, a member of the well known architectural heritage consultancy firm Built Heritage, is not only well placed to write such a book, he also brings a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the many factors that shaped the practices of architects working in Australia during the post-war period. In this book Reeve’s shines a light on the life and architectural practice of one of Australia’s most visionary architects.

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Holiday house at Mount Eliza by Anatol Kagan (1953

According to Reeves, by the time Kagan had arrived in Melbourne in 1939, he had:

“already crowded the experience of three lifetimes into his first 25 years.  Jewish by race, agnostic by faith and Socialist by politics, this distinctive New Australian spent a decade establishing himself in his adopted homeland, working for leading architects and government departments before starting his own practice in 1949.  While Kagan rose to become the pre-eminent architect to Melbourne’s thriving post-war migrant community, well-known for luxurious modernist houses for rich Jewish businessmen, his sudden withdrawal from private practice in 1961 was a mystery to many”. 

So what made Anatol Kagan suddenly walk away from a successful architectural practice and how did one of Australia’s most talented architects’ of the post-war period almost vanish from our cultural memory and design history? Thanks to Reeves’ new book, the first book on Anatol Kagan, many of these questions can now be answered and Kagan’s place in Australian Architectural History is perhaps now assured. Reeves’ experience and knowledge in the field makes him perfectly placed to write this essential text on Kagan, a view further supported by internationally known architectural researcher Professor Philip Goad who has states in the foreword to the book that:

“Reeves brings Kagan’s remarkable story to life with fondness but also with critical balance. Reeves is to be congratulated for recognizing the worth of Kagan’s contribution . . .  and for bringing Kagan out of the shadows.” 

I have been waiting a long time for this book and I’m sure anyone who has a passion for Australian post-war design will thoroughly enjoy it. A perfect book to curl up with on your mid-century modern chair and read all about one of the most interesting and exciting architects of the Australian post-war era.

Gentle Modernist: The Nine Lives of Anatol Kagan by Simon Reeves is available as an A4 paperback (226 pages) and retails at $59.95 + $13.40 P&P and can be purchased online at the Vivid Publishing Website.

For more information on Anatol Kagan see:

Dictionary of Unsung Architects: Anatol Kagan (1913-2009)
Anatol Kagan: Modernist Architect
A Comrade to the End
Beaumaris Modern Community

Please note that reviews of books on the Australian Modern Blog are always unsolicited
and no payment is sought or received.

The Kalmar Chair Affair

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The Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design exhibition at NGV Australia has come to an end. But in its final weeks an interesting event occurred. One of the chairs (see above) in the exhibition was found to have been incorrectly attributed to prominent Australian mid-century furniture designer Stephen Kalmar, who owned and operated Kalmar Interiors in Sydney during the 1950’s. As it turns out, the chair, now titled ‘ ‘Rear Guard’ (see below), was designed by Brian Wood and manufactured in 1979.

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So how can this happen I hear you ask? Well, the answer is quite simple. The identification of Australian mid-century furniture and lighting can be difficult for a number of reasons. Many designers and their associates from the period are now elderly or have passed away, making it hard to get the information needed to make a positive identification of a design. A lack of documentation in newspapers and magazines of the period may also present challenges for researchers and curators.

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Australian House and Garden, October 1951 p.71

In some cases a public institution such as the NGV or Powerhouse Museum may rely on independent experts in the field to assist with their research. In the case of the Kalmar/Brian Wood chair, I suspect that the attribution was based on Kalmar Interiors advertisements (see above) which feature a very similar Kalmar chair design. Of course, it’s possible to be wrong, and it’s even more important that when mistakes occur every effort is made to be transparent and honest.

The NGV’s handling of the ‘Kalmar Chair Affair’ hasn’t made me lose faith in the gallery or its team of highly knowledgable and skilled professionals. For me, it’s quite the opposite, I think it takes great courage for someone to admit they were wrong, especially the NGV. This incident clearly demonstrates the difficulty in identifying Australian mid-century furniture design, but more importantly, it tells us that the NGV is doing its job, it’s expert staff are being inclusive and responding to new information and research in a positive way, and where necessary making the appropriate changes. This is what I expect from our public institutions and it illustrates the need to support our major galleries in continuing the important work they do in documenting both our art and design history.

As a researcher of Australian mid-century furniture, I often have to spend many hours trawling through archives looking for information about a designer or design. Sometimes I might need to interview people who had a connection to the designer so that I can piece together stories in order to get a better understanding of a designer’s practice.

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A good case in point is Hayson furniture, which is often incorrectly attributed to ‘Hans Hayson’. It was by sheer chance that Melanie Hayton read this blog and then contacted me, telling me her late father Cliff Hayton was the designer behind Hayson furniture.  After interviewing Melanie and her mother Peggy, it was possible to get an insight into the many factors that shaped the Australian furniture industry during the post-war period. It was also great finding out more about Cliff Hayton, because it’s important to never lose sight that behind every design is a person.

Special thanks to Melanie and Peggy Hayton for your generosity in sharing your story and the wonderful homemade scones. Thanks also to Kirsty Grant (Senior Curator) and the crew at NGV, for their commitment and tireless dedication to bringing together the most important survey of Australian mid-century furniture design.