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.

String Theory: A Mid-Century Modern Chair Mystery.

As you probably know by now, gathering information about our design history often involves hours, and sometimes years, of meticulous research in order to make a positive identification of a design. In the case of the string chair pictured below (left), I have spent the past 5 years searching for the maker without a single clue, but a few days ago my research partner came across an advertisement (see below) in a 1950’s issue of Home Beautiful that might help narrow down the search for this unusual chair design.

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Australian corded armchair, c.1950’s (left) and Anthony Hordens advertisement in Australian Home Beautiful, 1954 (right).

As you can see, the corded chair in the advertisement is very similar in style. Sure, it’s not an exact match, but the construction of the seat looks to be the same. Both chairs appear to have been inspired by American designer Alan Gould’s 1950’s corded dining chair (see below). But why would someone copy Gould’s design?

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Alan Gould corded dining chair (left) and Contempora corded dining chair c. 1955 (right).

A combination of restrictions on imported goods during the early 1950’s and often expensive licensing agreements with overseas furniture companies (Knoll, Herman Miller, Race Furniture, etc) arguably made access to furniture by international designers difficult and prohibitively expensive. For some local manufacturers, the solution was to copy and/or appropriate designs
by leading international furniture designers. I suspect that the corded chair sold by the Anthony Hordern’s, part of their own in-house range, was most likely inspired by Gould’s design, but was perhaps different enough to avoid any  unwanted and/or protracted legal dispute over a perceived copyright infringement. On the other hand, local furniture company Contempora, who produced a wide range of steel rod furniture, manufactured a corded chair that is so similar to Gould’s now famous design (see above) that it could only be described as a copy.

So who made the yellow corded armchair? Was it originally available for sale at Anthony Hordern’s department store or was it made by a backyard enthusiast?  I think it’s highly unlikely that it’s a Gould design, and fortunately we are well beyond the days of attributing every corded chair to Clement Meadmore. Until I am able to find more information, the designer of this chair will remain a mystery. What are your thoughts?

Identifying Australian mid-century furniture designs can be time consuming, so to make this task a little easier I have put together an online archive of Australian and International mid/century design on Pinterest. The Australian Modern Pinterest site is a great tool for identifying your mid-century treasures and includes photos of iconic mid-century furniture sourced from post-war magazines and online resources. You can also share your passion for #AustralianModern design on Twitter. Our Twitter feed is a great place to share stories, pics or ask questions about mid-century design.

UPDATE: The mystery has been solved.
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The corded chair above was designed by Carl Nielsen, c.1955. And available at Marion Best, Sydney. It would appear that Neilsen may have designed the corded chair sold at Anthony Hordens and the corded armchair sold at Marion Hall Best in Sydney. Based on these advertisements I would say that my yellow corded chairs can be attributed to Carl Nielsen. Many thanks to Chris at Australian Modern Design for his help with the identification.

Gentle Modernist: The Nine Lives of Anatol Kagan.

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It’s not often that a book comes along that captures both your interests and imagination. Anatol Kagan is in my opinion one of the most important architects of the Australian post-war period. Kagan’s homes embody a personal vision of modernism that manifests itself in an architecture that is often exhilarating and dynamic. For years I had walked past a home designed by Kagan on Dandenong Rd in North Caulfield, and every time I felt a sense of excitement every time I looked at the vertical boards and the expanse of floor to ceiling windows. it is a stunning home that embraces many of the visual cues of modernism, and yet embodies a sense of the innovation and optimism so often associated with the post-war period in Australia. Kagan’s buildings are important for so many reasons, and Simon Reeves’ new book offers a chance to see behind theses iconic structures and into the world of an extraordinary man.

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House on Dandenong Rd, North Caulfield, designed by Anatol  Kagan.

Five years in the writing, architectural historian Simon Reeves’ book  Gentle Modernist: The Nine Lives of Anatol Kagan is a major contribution to the body of knowledge associated with design research in post-war Australia. Reeves, a member of the well known architectural heritage consultancy firm Built Heritage, is not only well placed to write such a book, he also brings a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the many factors that shaped the practices of architects working in Australia during the post-war period. In this book Reeve’s shines a light on the life and architectural practice of one of Australia’s most visionary architects.

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Holiday house at Mount Eliza by Anatol Kagan (1953

According to Reeves, by the time Kagan had arrived in Melbourne in 1939, he had:

“already crowded the experience of three lifetimes into his first 25 years.  Jewish by race, agnostic by faith and Socialist by politics, this distinctive New Australian spent a decade establishing himself in his adopted homeland, working for leading architects and government departments before starting his own practice in 1949.  While Kagan rose to become the pre-eminent architect to Melbourne’s thriving post-war migrant community, well-known for luxurious modernist houses for rich Jewish businessmen, his sudden withdrawal from private practice in 1961 was a mystery to many”. 

So what made Anatol Kagan suddenly walk away from a successful architectural practice and how did one of Australia’s most talented architects’ of the post-war period almost vanish from our cultural memory and design history? Thanks to Reeves’ new book, the first book on Anatol Kagan, many of these questions can now be answered and Kagan’s place in Australian Architectural History is perhaps now assured. Reeves’ experience and knowledge in the field makes him perfectly placed to write this essential text on Kagan, a view further supported by internationally known architectural researcher Professor Philip Goad who has states in the foreword to the book that:

“Reeves brings Kagan’s remarkable story to life with fondness but also with critical balance. Reeves is to be congratulated for recognizing the worth of Kagan’s contribution . . .  and for bringing Kagan out of the shadows.” 

I have been waiting a long time for this book and I’m sure anyone who has a passion for Australian post-war design will thoroughly enjoy it. A perfect book to curl up with on your mid-century modern chair and read all about one of the most interesting and exciting architects of the Australian post-war era.

Gentle Modernist: The Nine Lives of Anatol Kagan by Simon Reeves is available as an A4 paperback (226 pages) and retails at $59.95 + $13.40 P&P and can be purchased online at the Vivid Publishing Website.

For more information on Anatol Kagan see:

Dictionary of Unsung Architects: Anatol Kagan (1913-2009)
Anatol Kagan: Modernist Architect
A Comrade to the End
Beaumaris Modern Community

Please note that reviews of books on the Australian Modern Blog are always unsolicited
and no payment is sought or received.

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.

Australian Mid-Century Modern Exhibition closes Sunday Oct 19

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If you have a passion for mid-century design and haven’t seen the Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design exhibition at NGV Australia Ian Potter Gallery then you will need to get down to NGV today, October 19, for the last day of the exhibition.

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I dropped into the gallery recently for a last look at the show and I still can’t believe how many rare and beautiful pieces curator Kirsty Grant has managed to get under one roof. From Melbourne based designers and craftsmen Feathetston, Fred Lowen and Krimper through to Sydney designers Gordon Andrews’ and George Korody. The highlight for me is the incredible collection of lighting and furniture designed by Clement Meadmore in the 1950’s.

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The gallery shop had some very cool Home Beautiful fridge magnets, and I was surprised to hear that the exhibition catalogue has almost completely sold out. There are only about 20 catalogues left for sale, so be quick to get yourself a copy of what can only be described as the best illustrated reference on Australian Mid-Century Modern furniture design. The exhibition was a long time in the making and I would like to say a big thank you to all involved for what has truly been a fantastic and memorable exhibition.

Post-war Design: Stories of Innovation and Creativity.

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Image: Clement Meadmore and George Kral
Photographer unknown, RMIT Design Archives, Melbourne

Now that the Mid-century Modern: Australian Furniture Design exhibition at Ian Potter Gallery in Melbourne is in full swing its a good time to catch up on some of the stories that set the scene for this exciting period in our design history. A great way to find out more about the post-war era in Australia is to check out fantastic offerings at  the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.

There are plenty of free talks on offer as part of the Mid-century Modern exhibition program and the  NGV Blog has a fantastic collection of short essays on Australian mid-century design written by a diverse group of writers and researchers. From articles on Hayson Furniture, Michael Hirst and Beverley Ednie and Frances Burke Fabrics through to George Kral and concerns with mid-century foam upholstery, there is something of interest here for everybody.

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And on the subject of mid-century, I highly recommend Chris Osborne’s ‘Australian Modern Design: Mid-20th Century Architecture & Design’ which is crammed full of archival photographs and fascinating stories about Australian mid-century design. The strength of this publication lies in its diverse range of articles about iconic Australian mid-century architects and designers, including Hayes and Scott, Fred Ward and Douglas Snellling. From the design of mid-century Gold Coast Motels, Modernist Churches and even an article on Vintage Caravan Love, the book presents a wonderful array of mid-century related subject matter. This hard back book, which comes in a slip case and is a limited edition of 1000 copies, makes a valuable contribution to our design history and is an excellent reference, as well as a great read.

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Another great book is Fred Ward: Australian pioneer designer 1900-1990 by Derek F. Wrigley which is an excellent biography on  Australian designer Fred Ward, who played a major role in developing and promoting the modernist aesthetic in Australia. Ward is perhaps best known for his design work for the Myer Emporium in Melbourne and the Australian National University in Canberra. He also designed a range of low-cost furniture patterns called Patterncraft  and self-assemble ‘Timber-pack’ furniture in order to help returned service-men and women furnish their homes in the modern style. Wrigley had worked closely with Ward, making this book a highly informed and thoroughly engaging read. When you consider that Ward went to art school and was a self-taught designer, this is a truly inspiring story.

If you would like to see more photos of Australian mid-century furniture please visit the Australian Modern pinterest.
Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design at Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia ends October 19, so don’t miss out on your chance to see what is arguably the best exhibition of Australian mid-century furniture design in Australia.

Step Back in Style: Mid-Century Modern in Melbourne

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The moment we have all been waiting for has arrived. Of course I’m talking about the opening of the Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia in Melbourne. I had a chance to preview the exhibition and it’s every bit as good as I hoped it would be. Curated by Kirsty Grant, the exhibition is a wonderful blend of mid-century furniture, lighting and textiles designed by some of our most iconic designers. A clever touch is the inclusion of a selection of corded chairs produced by ‘unknown’ designers of the period to illustrate the active appropriation and interpretation of dominant design trends. Walking through the gallery space, you sometimes feel like you’re attending a 1950’s furniture trade show. The walls are flanked with enormous images taken from the front covers of 1950’s Home Beautiful magaznes.
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A highlight is the recreation of the interior of the living room featured in The Age Small Homes Service display house deigned by Neil Clerehan in 1955. A nice detail was the inclusion of a knotted pine panel at the back if the room and a Stegbar style ‘window wall’. It instantly brought back memories of my parents 1950’s modernist home in bayside Aspendale.There are little nooks where you can relax and pick up a portable touchscreen to flick through digitised copies of Home Beautiful magazines from the post-war period. There is also a wonderful display of archival photographs and trade catalogues.
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The furniture and lighting is the star of the show. Chairs float on plinths at various heights on the wall and ground level. Expect to see rare pieces by Grant Featherston, Clement Meadmore, Douglas Snelling, Roger McLay, Fred Lowen, Fred Ward and Schulim Krimper and many more. There is a interesting archival film that takes a playful look at the making of a Featherston contour chair. There is also a wide range of Featherston chairs on display, including a rare prototype an ‘Eleanor’ chair from his popular contour range.
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For me, a personal highlight is a rare collection of lighting designed by Clement Meadmore in the mid-fifties for the Legend Cafe and the Teahouse in Bourke St, Melbourne. Another favourite thing is a short video documenting the process of re-cording a Meadmore chair.

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A collection of pieces by emigre designers George Korody and Schulim Krimper brings a distinctly European flavour to the exhibition. One glance at Krimper’s beautifully crafted furniture and you instantly understand why he has long been acknowledged as a master craftsman in this country.
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It was also nice to see the inclusion of printed fabrics by textile artists such as Frances Burke. Simply pinned to the walls, the bold abstract patterns compliment the furniture whilst providing an insight into the emergent trends in textile design. The design of the exhibition space is brilliantly conceived as you effortlessly navigate your way in a linear fashion through the furniture of the 1940’s up until the 1970’s. There is so much to enjoy in this exhibition. I liked it so much I went back this afternoon for another viewing, but mostly I wanted to experience that feeling of being in a space that is energised by the optimism, innovation and creativity of these great Australian post-war designers and artists.

I have been waiting a long time for this exhibition and it was everything I hoped for and more. If you have a passion for Australian post-war furniture design, you will savour every moment. Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design will run from 30 May – 19 Oct 2014, Open 10am–5pm. Tickets Adult (16 years and above) $10 Child (up to and including 15) Free Concession $7 NGV Member Adult $6 P.S. If your planning on going a number of times it’s worth considering an unlimited ticket. It doesn’t cost a lot more and you can go as many times as you like. For more details ask at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia ticket counter.