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.

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