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.
http://peteratkins.com.au/

Dana Harris: spoolworks 2010 – 12, yarn spools bound with cotton thread, variable dimensions.
http://danaharris.com.au/home

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

 

Kenji Uranishi: Momentary, a collection of ceramic works exhibited
at Brisbane Museum.
http://www.kenjiuranishi.com.au/

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

 

Jane Brown: Outback netball, White Cliffs, New South Wales, 2014/16.  http://www.janebrownphotography.com/

 

Bryan Spier Multiplicity, 2011 Synthetic polymer on canvas board 30 x 40cm.
http://bryanspier.com

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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.

A Powerhouse of Post-War Design.

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The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has one of the most diverse collections
of poat-war design, including examples of furniture, lighting, textiles and graphic design from the period. The collection features Australian and international designers, including many rare pieces by Grant Featherston, Gordon Andrews, Clement Meadmore, Fred Lowen and Francis Burke. The Powerhouse is an excellent resource for researchers or anyone interested in social history.

Due to the enormous scale of the collection, many of the pieces are stored offsite at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre in Castle Hill. Although the collection is generally closed to the public, the Powerhouse Museum have a range of initiatives to promote the collection, which includes holding open days and tours of the facility so that members of the public can enjoy viewing the designer treasures.

The Powerhouse Museum also commissioned the production of an interactive video tour titled ‘Please Be Seated’ which is hosted by museum curator Dr. Paul Donnelly.

The video tour presents a rare opportunity to take a glimpse inside one of the best collections of post-war design in the country. So please be seated, put your feet up, sit back and prepare yourself for some serious eye candy and enjoy your interactive video tour.

To be or not to be: Identification vs. Attribution

When it comes to identifying mid century Australian furniture, a little knowledge
can go a long way. So often we rely on reference materials, original manufacturer
labels, or provenance to correctly identify post-war designs.  But in lieu of such
important information, it may not be possible to make a clear identification,
and it is in these cases that the term ‘attribution’ may be used.

The word ‘attribution’ carries with it a range of concerns. It’s a
word that tells me immediately that there is no solid documentation
that identifies the designer of a particular design. According to the
Ruby Lane Antiques website:

“Attribution is a term often misunderstood and/or misused. The
meaning is sometimes confused with, or intended to be a substitute
for the word
 identification. An attribution remains only the subjective
declaration or opinion of the researcher(s), even after careful research
of a unique unmarked item is conducted and documented, with an
aim toward arriving at a credible conclusion.

Further, this opinion remains subject to change, if or when additional
scholarly information becomes available and dictates a change should
be made. An attribution will always retain a reasonable element of doubt,
either due to the rarity of the item, atypical physical characteristics, or
other factors. If not, it could be said the item has been
 identified as
being by such and such a maker, artist, etc., rather than
 attributed to.
Identification
, on the other hand, will determine the exact nature of the
item and its origins. It is measurable, scientific and objective”.

So the differences between identification and attribution may seem quite
clear, but that doesn’t mean that what you see is always what you get.
An attribution can sometimes be made on the flimsiest of evidence to
raise the status of an item or secure a sale, especially when it comes
to attributing mid-century pieces to iconic Australian designers. The
status and price tag of an unknown post-war lamp or chair can be
catapulted from junk to classic by attaching the right designers name
to an object.

Although there may be a few dodgy individuals out there, its important
to note that not all attributions and identifications are based on deception,
as there is often a lot of time consuming and detailed research that goes
into attaching a designer’s name to an object. But even with the best
intentions we are all capable of making mistakes, so It’s important to
remember that just because a design may appear similar to the work
of a particular designer, that does not necessarily translate as proof
of an identification or attribution. In absence of relevant documentation
and/or provenance, a solid case needs to be built in order to make an
accurate attribution or identification. In building that case, it important
to identify design characteristics such as materials, style, age, and
techniques, that may be particular to a designer.

The task of making an identification or attribution can sometimes be
easy, and other times extremely difficult. I recently spent months trying
to identify a pair of vintage light fittings which I thought was possibly
by the great French designer Mathieu Mategot, but turned out to be a rare
example of a design by Australian lighting company Newton & Gray,
based in Melbourne in the 1950’s. Thanks here must go to my partner
who spotted the lamp in a 1950’s magazine, but without that knowledge,
those splendid wall lamps would remain a mystery, like the designs
of so many Australian mid-century designers.

Image
Figure 1: Korody Chair and footstool (Powerhouse Museum) and Bernard Jones
‘Tropical Chair’ (The Courier-Mail, 14 September 1953, page 16).

A case in point is this George Korody chair and footstool (see Figure 1)
featured on the Powerhouse Museum website. At first glance the chair
shares some of the design properties associated with Korody, such as
the cane seat and back; and there is also provenance in the form of a
purchase receipt from the original owners. All sounds pretty convincing,
but I believe that the chair in question is actually the ‘Tropical Chair’
designed in 1953 by Bernard Jones and I have found 3 publications
from the period that provide good evidence that Jones was the designer
of this chair.

Interestingly, Jones’ ‘Tropical Chair’ was also sold with a footstool, which
as you can see in the photograph above, has a gentle curve, making it
different to the footstool in the Powerhouse Museum photograph. So
what do we have here? I would say that the Powerhouse Museum
have a fantastic example of a genuine Bernard Jones’ ‘Tropical Chair’
and stunning George Korody footstool. Of course, I may be wrong but
I believe that after comparing the two chairs there is definitely enough
evidence to suggest that this scenario is highly probable.

Okay, so I hear you say that it’s possible that the Courier Mail newspaper
got it wrong and put an incorrect caption with the photograph of the
‘Tropical Chair’, and you would be right in making such a suggestion.
In my opinion, the more evidence you gather, the stronger the case, and
an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly (1963) shows Jones relaxing
at home in his ‘Tropical Chair’ helps to bolster the argument. It’s also
good having an additional photograph of the chair from a different angle
in order to compare the Jones’ chair with Korody chair and footstool in
the Powerhouse Museum.

This is not to say that the Powerhouse Museum are not acting in good
faith, on the contrary, they are simply working with the information at
their disposal. I suggest that over the passage of time, whoever
donated the chair and stool to the Powerhouse Museum may have
simply mistaken the ‘Tropical Chair’ for the original Korody chair which
they purchased back in the 1950’s from Artes Studio in Sydney.
Whatever the result, it just goes to show how difficult identification of
mid-century design can be.

Image
Figure 2: Jones relaxing in his ‘Tropical Chair’ (The Australian Women’s Weekly, 1963).

On the subject of George Korody (1890-1957), there have been a
number of Korody pieces sold through auction houses in Melbourne
in 2013 that require further investigation. The first item in question is
an auto-trolley ‘attributed’ to Korody, and the second item a pair
of armchairs sold as a Korody design.

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Figure 3: Auto-trolley attributed to Korody (left) and Summer tone ‘tea trolley’ advertisment (right) in Architecture and Arts magazine in 1954.

At first glance the auto-trolley (see figure 3) has some design
features that are often attributed to Korody, such as the black
glass (vitrolite) shelves and the compass style legs. To my
eye, this auto-trolley doesn’t fit the Korody design ouvre, rather
this design appears to have more in common with a timber
tea trolley produced by Sydney based furniture manufacturer
Summertone in 1954

Image
Figure 4: Korody armchair c.1940 (left) and advertisment for The “Viking” Unit Lounge Suite.

In March 2013, “a pair of rare armchairs c.1940” (figure 4) were sold
as a George Korody design at an auction house in Melbourne, but as
you can see in the photograph above, the ‘Korody armchair’ bears a
strong resemblance to the “Viking” Unit Lounge Suite sold in the 1950’s
through Mark Foys department store in Sydney. It’s fair to say that
the Korody chair (pictured above) does embody some of the
chunky qualities associated with Korody chair designs, but it
is also reasonable to suggest that both designs share what
appears to be the same timber arms and leg construction.
I think the jury is out in regards to the true designer of these
beautiful armchairs.

Some furniture designs are extremely difficult to indentify
due to a lack of information regarding particular designers,
and with some designs now over 60 years old, finding documented
evidence of a particular furniture design can prove extremely difficult.
A good place to start is the Trove website where you can
search through a database of archival newspapers,
magazines and photographs. State libraries often have
extensive design archives where you can access period
magazines such as Australian Home Beautiful and Better Homes
and Garden.

To me, it’s all a bit like solving a mystery, there are clues and leads
that need to be followed up, but there also red herrings that may
lead you down the wrong track. Solid evidence must be gathered
before making an attribution, simply wanting it to be a Featherston
chair won’t transform it into one. Overall, what’s most important
to me is that the person responsible for the design gets the
kudos that he/she deserves.

Happy researching!

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.

New Zealand Modern: A Different Angle

The modern movement in New Zealand, like Australia, is arguably
one of the design world’s best kept secrets. I have featured NZ modernist designs
before on the blog and the more I research the NZ Modernist Movement, the more
examples I find of innovative design objects and architecture.

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Whether it’s the exceedingly beautiful and innovative furniture by
Architect group Brenner and Associates (see above), who offered a full design
service, or the stunning simplicity of lamps and tables (see below) by John Crichton,
NZ Modern is continuing to garnish a lot of interest amongst collectors
and enthusiasts of post-war design.

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One of my favourite designs is the ‘Cloud’ Coffee Table (see below)
produced for  the Jon Jansen furniture Store.

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If you are interested in NZ Modernist architecture, then check out the range
of outstanding publications by researcher by Dr. Julia Gately.

llm-470

Long Live the Modern: New Zealand’s New Architecture, 1904-1984.
Edited by Julia Gately

cp-group-architects

Group Architects: Towards a New Zealand Architecture.
Edited by Julia Gately

cl-athfield-architects

Athfield Architects
by Julia Gately

For more NZ Modern check out  

Mr. Bigglesworthy: For The Love of Design

Christchurch Modern

Docomomo New Zealand

Why you shouldn’t buy replica vintage furniture.

The interest In post-war design, especially furniture, continues to
grow and with this comes demand, and with that demand comes
higher prices as buyers haggle over rare and original pieces.
In a market where vintage pieces have become status symbols for
‘designer couples’ and savvy urbanites who want to show off their
design literacy, the replica has emerged as a sure sign that many
people are perhaps more engaged with the LOOK rather than the
ongoing preservation of post-war design.

But as offensive as I find the idea of a replica vintage chair in all it’s
diluted glory, It’s the act of buying a replica that is far worse than the cheap
ubiquitous copies of iconic designer pieces which litter homes, offices
and renovation tv programs.

So what is it that makes a replica so attractive? I get the cheap price factor
and I too love a bargain, which is why I shop on eBay, and go to Sunday Markets,
Op shops and auction houses. But I certainly don’t feel comfortable about
contributing to an idustry which is stealing the intellectual property of a designer
just to make a quick buck. To me, It’s like making a bad copy of a classic painting
and leaving out all the subtle nuances and details that made the work great in the
first place. But worse than that, who would want such a thing?

Some may argue that replicas make designer objects more accessible to everyone,
but that simply isn’t true as you are not getting an original, you are often paying
good money for an inferior quality reproduction that doesn’t deliver the quality,
comfort, craftsmanship or history that comes with buying an original vintage
piece of furniture.

On a more serious note, fake designer furniture is also a part of a global
counterfeiting trade that is often run by crime gangs who use child labour
in dingy sweatshops to make your designer knock-off. The money raised
is then channelled into more lucrative businesses such as human trafficking,
drugs, weapons, organ harvesting, etc. I urge you to read the following article
Fight against fake designer goods isn’t frivolous by Dana Thomas before
you buy a counterfeit designer chair or product.

Price is an issue for most of us, unless you’re rolling in cash, but price is not a good
enough reason to support a replica market that is in the business of stealing other
peoples creative ideas. For those who dont feel like they need to be a slave to the
lifestyle magazines, you will be pleased to know that you can buy top quality furnishings
and pay far less than a replica piece that you will end up throwing out in a year or two.
You just need to take a risk and be confident about what you like. Afterall, it’s
unlikely that your friends will call the design police because you don’t have a
replica Eames lounge chair. And if they did, the likelihood is that they will be
the ones who will be charged with bad taste.

There are loads of excellent buys to be had and it all starts with a bit of homework.
You need to be prepared to do a bit of research and in some cases a little bit of
restoration. Great pieces by Australian designers Fred Lowen (Fler) and Fred Ward
can be bought for under $100 on a regular basis, and they are much more
interesting than your everyday classics. Buy a lounge by Danish deluxe, Parker,
etc and have it covered in a contemporary fabric for far less than a lounge from
a popular furniture chain store. Why ikea wnen you can recover and reinvent?
Your friends will be so envious when they discover that they can’t just pick it up
at the local store, so you may have to give them a little guidance on how
to trust their inner designer.

What’s really nice about buying REAL vintage pieces is that you are recycling
and thus having a far less negative impact on gobal emissions, etc. Also, you
get to be a part of the story that comes with each piece. All the wrinkles and
blemishes tell the story of your furniture’s life, buying a replica piece is like
giving your granny botox. Yes, not a nice image, but fortunately it is avoidable
by simply crossing the road or averting your gaze whenever you are near
one of those awful replica furniture stores.

Also, if you are buying Australian designs, you get to be apart of a great bunch
of people who are out there preserving our design heritage. Forget about the
cultural cringe, some great furniture was made in Australia throughout the
post-war years and there is something to suit every taste and budget.
From Krimper, Featherston, Meadmore, Fler, Danish Deluxe, and a host
of small manufacturers, it’s not that hard to rescue a piece of our design
history and build an interior that reflects your originality and shows
your appreciation of post-war design.