Strategies for identifying Australian post-war design.

The desire to build knowledge around the design of
Australian post-war design objects drives a lot of
my research. When it comes to locating the designer
and/or manufacturer of a design, it can be a simple or
a lengthy process, sometimes resulting in a successful
identification and sometimes a sketchy attribution
with little documentation to support the claim.

The process of correctly identifying post-war design
objects is often time consuming and requires a great deal
of patience, but it’s a great feeling when you manage to
solve the mystery and put a name to the design.
I thought it might be helpful t to share my
experience and strategies for identifying design
objects with readers.

Screenshot 2013-11-16 14.52.14

In march this year I purchased a pair of wall lights on
eBay (see pic above). I had to travel across town on the
train to pick them up and I was pleasantly surprised
that the lights 
were so much better than they had
appeared in the 
eBay listing. The previous owner had
wired up the lamps 
to be used on a table, but it was
clear to me that the 
light fittings were originally
designed as wall lamps.

My first thoughts were that, based on the design
and materials, the light fittings were most likely
designed and manufactured in the 1950’s. So how
do I know this?  When buying vintage pieces you should
look for signs of age. In this case, the heavily 
tarnished
brass sections, bakelite fittings  and design all 
suggested
a pair of wall lights made in the 1950’s. But where 
were
they made?

A clue to the origin of the design was the fact that the
wall lights had bayonet fittings, this meant that it was likely
the lights were made in Australia but it is also possible that
the light fittings had been adapted to Australian standard.
Initially i thought that the wall lamps were a French design,

perhaps something exotic by Mathieu Mategot. I did a google
search for ‘1950’s perforated metal lamps’ and found a lot of 
similar light fittings, which confirmed the age, but an exact
match remained illusive and this just made me more
determined to identify the design.

My next step was to take a photo of the lamps and post them
on the ‘Design Addict’ forum and see if someone else might
be able to identify the wall lamps. No luck there, but plenty
of suggestions which I followed up on. I took apart one of the
wall lights, as suggested, to look for manufacturer details
on the parts. No luck there either, and by this time I was
starting to think I might never solve the mystery.

Screenshot 2013-11-16 14.53.26

On close inspection of the wall lights, I realised that the
base plates had been painted black and the paint was easily
removed using hot water and bi-carbonate soda. Suddenly
I realised that the lamps truly were a class act. These were
not everyday light fittings, but were most likely wall lamps
for a commercial building.

Okay, so where to go from this point. A good source of
information is The State Library of Victoria, who have
extensive collections of 1950’s home and lifestyle magazines.
Many university libraries also feature good collections
of periodicals which can be accessed for research, but
it’s a good idea to talk to one of the library staff about
arranging access, as a lot of periodicals and older
publications are often stored offsite and may take
a few days or more to be delivered to the library.

Another excellent source of information is Trove,
which is a database containing over a century of
newspapers, journal articles, photographs, etc.
Trove is a great resource for finding obscure
articles and is great for dating design trends
and locating stockists across the country.

newton and gray light fitting

So after looking through 1950’s copies of Home Beautiful
magazine and trawling 
through online databases I’m
pleased to 
say that an exact match has been found.
My partner came across an advertisement for the light fittings
(see pic above) whilst looking through a 1959 issue of
Architecture and Arts in a 
university library.

It turns out that the light fittings were manufactured
and sold by Newton and 
Gray Pty Ltd based in Melbourne.
The 
company specialised in commercial fit-outs,  and
a further search 
on Trove revealed that the light fittings
were manufactured
 in government owned  ‘wartime factories’
in St Marys, N.S.W., which had most likely been made 
available
to 
private businesses to promote manufacturing and employment
in Australia after World War II.

It’s not an earth shattering discovery, but I think
identifying these light fittings plays a small, but
important, role in filling in some of the gaps in our
design history. Whether it be an obscure or a popular
design, every piece of the puzzle should be seen as
a part of story that helps us to better understand
the factors that may have influenced many of the
designs of the period that we have come to admire.

Do you have a design mystery you have been trying to solve?
Why not share a pic and your story on the Australian Modern
Facebook page or send a tweet @Australianmod.

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