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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The Teahouse, Melbourne, c.1956
In describing the Teahouse chair, Nannette Carter 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”.
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.
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.