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.

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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.

Post-war design in New Zealand

When it comes to modernist design, it’s well worth casting an eye
across the Tasman Sea to our neighbors in New Zealand, where
you will find outstanding examples of post-war furniture and objects to
rival those produced in Australia, and for that matter, anywhere else in
the world. For my money, it’s hard to go past many of the stylish pieces
by iconic kiwi designer Garth Chester (1916-1968), who is regarded
as one of New Zealand’s most important furniture designers.
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One of Chester’s most sought after designs is the ‘Curvesse Chair’ (pictured above)
which was designed in 1944, and is considered by some design experts to be the
world’s first cantilevered plywood chair. At first glance this chair conjures up the
plywood designs of Alvar Aalto or Marcel Breuer, but Chester’s design perhaps
has more in common with the armchair (pictured below) designed in the early
1930’s by iconic British furniture designer Gerald Summers.

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Look out for classic chairs by Bob Roukema (Edzer Duije Roukema) who, according to Carter’s Price Guide, designed most of the furniture for the Jon Jansen store in Auckland between 1951 and 1959. Roukema’s designs are highly sought after, in particular his range of contour chairs such as the beautiful example pictured below.
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Search for chairs by Ernst Plischke (pictured below), or ceramics and lamps by John Crichton. Bargain buys can still be found, check out vintage ceramics by Crown Lynn and Temuka Pottery, cool 1950’s table lamps and ceiling lights can also be purchased at good prices.

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And If it’s architecture you desire, you will find plenty of information and archival photographs at Lost Property, which offers a brilliant showcase of the modernist movement in New Zealand. Look out for buildings and furniture by top architects such as Brenner Associates, Lillian Chrystall, Maurice K. Smith and the ground breaking work of Group Architects.

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It’s also worth noting that designs by Fred Lowen (Fler) and Grant Featherston were made under license in New Zealand, and are notable for their superior craftsmanship and use of quality local timbers, thus making these pieces highly desirable and very collectable. You can find out more about Garth Chester and other New Zealand designers and architects at the excellent blog Mr. Bigglesworthy:For the love of design’. The site is crammed full of information and they also sell classic post-war designs. You can also find out more about Garth Chester and other kiwi artists at Lost Property. If you want to find out more about The Group architects, get yourself a copy of Julia Gatley’s book, Group Architects: Towards a New Zealand Architecture (Auckland University Press, 2010, RRP $75.)  You may also like to check out copies of the original New Zealand Design Review Magazine which features lots of interesting articles and photographs of New Zealand mid-century architecture and industrial design. So now you have yet another reason to visit New Zealand, and just think of all
those op shops, markets and second hand stores. If you have any favorite kiwi
designs or further info on the modernist movement in New Zealand, please leave
a comment. In the meantime, check out these little Kiwi beauties.   20120610-133942.jpg

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Clement Meadmore: Authentication and Identification of his furniture

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Corded Recliner, designed by Clement Meadmore, c. 1952.

As a collector and researcher of Australian post-war furniture I have been thinking a lot lately about the attribution, and in particular the identification and authentication, of the furniture made and designed by Clement Meadmore. Not much is known about the official output of furniture by Meadmore and in a market driven by the dollar and status, it becomes too easy to call almost anything made from steel rod a Meadmore masterpiece.

After researching Meadmore for sometime, I feel that it’s fair to say that many questions surrounding the authentication of his furniture designs, in particular the Calyx lamp and some pieces manufactured by Meadmore Originals. It is my intention to work through these indiscrepencies towards gaining a better understanding of his practice and a deeper knowledge of his creative output in regards to post-war furniture design.

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Corded chair and stools, designed by Clement Meadmore, c.1952.

Meadmore first starting designing and making furniture around 1951, and story has it that he employed the local blacksmith to do the welding in his workshop. A few years later the Meadmore Orignals shop opened in 1953 and was located at 86 Collins St (in 1954 moved to 62 Collins St), Melbourne. The Meadmore Originals’ catalogue issued in 1953, featured 13 designs including 3 lamps, and the company went on to produce many more furniture designs, but it is unknown what was Meadmore’s exact involvement with the company. Stories abound about an unsuccessful court case in which Meadmore lost an attempt to retrieve outstanding payment for the sale of his award winning corded chair, and if this story is indeed true, then it would come as no surprise if Meadmore had ended his relationship with McDonald and Meadmore Originals. The last page of the 1953 Meadmore Originals catalogue clearly states that all the designs are the exclusive property of Kenneth W. McDonald. Michael Bogle[1] suggests that:

“From the mid-1950s, until a move to Sydney in 1960, Meadmore put into production nine innovative works for the domestic market: a standard lamp; a three-legged table lamp; corded nesting stools; a three-legged moulded plywood chair; upholstered parfait chairs and table; a wire chair (manufactured by Michael Hirst); a black lino-top table (manufactured by Michael Hirst); and the DC 601A wire chair (manufactured by Michael Hirst)”.

There is much to support Bogle’s claim, but the sticking point for me is the choice of items in Bogle’s above-mentioned list. One thing that stands out about the furniture designed by Meadmore is the design itself, and although I could be wrong in my estimation, I find it unlikely that Meadmore ever designed the aesthetically challenged parfait chair, telephone table, or any other furniture that was not featured in the original 1953 Meadmore Originals catalogue. The most likely scenario here is that Kenneth W. McDonald (the new proprietor of Meadmore Originals) had designed additional pieces to add to the range, as is the case with the ‘New Corded Chair’ designed by McDonald and also released in 1953 as a part of the Meadmore Originals range. It’s worth noting here that Clement Meadmore’s early furniture designs are also documented in a 1953 issue of Domus magazine.

In 1953 Meadmore Originals released a ‘new corded stacking chair’ designed by Kenneth W. McDonald. And although the chair is similar to Meadmore’s award winning corded chair, McDonald’s chair with it’s rounded edges, obvious stretches and joins clearly misses the point of Meadmore’s “design interest in the linear possibilities of steel rod and suspended planes in space”. But with McDonald making furniture for the company, of which he was the proprietor, it raises questions around the design origins of some of the furniture which bares the ‘Meadmore Originals’ stamp. In my opinion it is highly unlikely that Meadmore had designed any of these later pieces, as one need only to compare the documented designs of Meadmore (see Domus) to see that many of the later designs attributed to him do not fit within the ouvre of Meadmore’s design aesthetic.


Original newspaper article for Calyx lighting range, c.1954.

From 1953 onwards, Meadmore made an impact on the industrial design scene and his furniture and lighting designs populated the top selling home and lifestyle magazines and trade publications of the time. He also continued to design interior lighting and developed the now highly sought after Calyx lighting range.  I have been told by an old mate of Meadmore’s that he baked the enamel shades himself in the oven of his Melbourne flat, and in a photo shoot of the same flat, a Calyx lamp can be seen in the background. Another of friend recalls Meadmore baking the enamel painted shades in an old oven in the backyard of the shop his shop/studio on Burwood Road in Auburn, Melbourne. It’s worth noting here that Calyx is the name of the lighting company and not the actual lamp design. It was only recently that I came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 2nd September, 1954 (see picture above) that I have been able to confirm that Meadmore did indeed design a range of lamps for Calyx and that he had also received a Good Design Award from the Society of Interior Designers.

The use of steel rod in furniture making was not exclusive to Clement Meadmore, as many designers both local and international were exploring the design possibilities of steel rod in the early 1950’s. One need only look at the furniture designs of Alan Gould (U.S.), Robin Day and Ernest Race (U.K.) to see that Meadmore’s designs were very much a part of a wave of modernism driven by a desire to escape the bulkiness of traditional furniture whilst exploring the possibilities of new materials and manufacturing processes. And although the Meadmore cord dining chairs were produced in large quantities and by a number of different companies (Meadmore Originals and Descon, etc), it’s interesting to note that his prototypes were forged in the fires of a blacksmith, an ages old occupation associated with craft rather than industrialization.

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Three legged plywood chair, designed by Clement Meadmore, c.1955.

On a visit to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, shortly before his death, Meadmore denounced a table and chairs attributed to him, apparently declaring that he had never made a table. After seeing the table in question at the Powerhouse Museum, it is more likely to be a design manufactured by Meadmore Originals after Meadmore sold the business to Kenneth W. McDonald.  It should be  noted that Meadmore won a Good Design Award in 1953 for the dining table and corded dining chairs which appeared in the Meadmore Originals catalogue. Or was Clement Meadmore simply being difficult in his old age and no longer wish to acknowledge his industrial design work now that he was an established and highly successful American artist? Or had he simply wanted to put the past behind him and forget his experiences of designing modern furniture for an Australian market who were arguably resistant to change and addicted to what Boyd famously called the “Australian Ugliness”? It seems so uniquely Australian that we should want to question an ex-pat artist with an international profile about a few pieces of furniture he made early in his career, rather than discuss his mature art practice. But Australia, it would appear, had never really understood Meadmore and perhaps vice versa, for the few Meadmore sculptures that populate our cities often go unnoticed as they turn to rust and slowly vanish from our landscape.

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The Legend Espresso Bar, Melbourne c.1957.

Meadmore is known to have custom designed furniture, and amongst his better known commissions were the interiors for the Legend milk bar and the Tea House in Melbourne. The furniture designed by Meadmore for these interiors clearly illustrates Meadmore’s ability to produce pieces that function as a part of a cohesive interior design scheme.

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The Teahouse, Melbourne, c.1956

In describing the Teahouse chair, Nannette Carter[2] observes that:

“The top of the orange-coloured chair back is scooped out, echoing the curve of the wall panels and suggesting a tealeaf out of which the tip has been plucked. In the view from the street, the café’s assembled chairs imply a tea garden bed over which the ghostly coolie hat lampshades float”.

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Three legged tractor stools, designed by Clement Meadmore, c.1958.

Other commissioned furniture attributed to Meadmore include a series of 3 legged stools with tractor seats which I was once told were designed for a café in N.S.W, but I have also been told by some Clem’s friends that he designed the tractor stools for the Embers Nightclub in Melbourne.  His designs were also popular with Modernist architects such as Boyd and McIntyre who it would seem also shared an understanding of the design principles at play in Meadmore’s furniture.

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DC601A Chair, designed by Clement Meadmore and Michael Hirst, c.1957.

By the late 1950’s, Meadmore was exhibiting his sculptures and had moved on from his furniture designing practice, some saying that he made very little money from the experience. Michael Hirst produced a small range of furniture for Meadmore. These items included a series of coffee tables and plastic coated wire and steel rod chairs. Not much is known about Meadmore’s dealings with Hirst, but it’s interesting that his designs for Hirst are often the most sought after and fetch the highest prices at auction. Hirst also designed a wide range of furniture, and with little documentation available to assist correct attribution, it is difficult to pinpoint the design origins of much of the Hirst furniture. Magazine advertisments for Hirst’s furniture range neglect to mention any the designer, let alone Meadmore, yet it is considered common knowledge that Meadmore had designed pieces for Hirst between 1957- 1962.

The furniture of Clement Meadmore presents many challenges for collectors and dealers, as identification may often rely on documentation and stories that may now, 50 years later, prove difficult to confirm. But I believe that if you take the time to carefully look at his furniture, to actually sit down in one his chairs, makes the language of his design ethos a lot easier to understand. I, for one, am thankful for Meadmore’s creative output. His furniture was for me, an introduction to sculpture. When I look at Meadmore’s early steel rod furniture I see simple lines of steel, which play with notions of space, light and function. I see his playfulness and the skill in his designs. So are Meadmore’s chairs intended as seating or are they sculptures that invite repose?

UPDATE: Please note that the information in this post was revised on 5.2.2015 to take into account new research. For more information on Clement Meadmore and Michael Hirst, please see the informative essays written by artist Peter Atkins in the Mid_Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design catalogue, 2014.