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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George Doukoff: The man behind the ‘Volkschair’.

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George Doukoff and his ‘Volkschair’. (image: National Library of Australia).

A chair can be many things to many people, but can a chair actually improve
your wellbeing? According to Bulgarian born designer George Doukoff,
who in 1958 designed the “Volkschair”, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
Doukoff had learnt his furniture making skills as a youth living in Sofia,
Bulgaria before moving to Hungary where he practiced his trade between
1936-1945. He then moved to Belguim and later migrated to Australia in
1951, taking with him his wife, a Hungarian chemist whom he had met
in Germany.

Doukoff spent four years working as a tram driver in Brisbane before
opening a small furniture manufacturing business specialising in the design
and production of chairs. By 1956, Doukoff’s moved his growing business,
along with his nine employees, to a newly established store and workshops
in Brisbane, where he developed new designs for easy chairs, dining chairs,
kitchen chairs, and bedroom chairs. But according to Doukoff, he was
“always searching for THE chair. It had to be
 comfortable and
adaptable for use in schools, hospitals 
and public transport
as well as in homes…
 And its price had to be right”.

Image
The ‘Volkschair’ also known as the ‘Health line chair’.

After dozens of experiments, the ‘Volkschair’ (also referred to by
Doukoff as the ‘Health line chair’) was designed and produced to
meet the requirements of both government institutions and the
everyday home. Like Australian designer Grant Featherston who
had considered the nexus between the comfort and the human
form when he designed his ‘contour’ range of chairs, it may be
said that Doukoff also strived to design a chair that would reduce
stress and strain on the user whilst providing high levels of comfort.

The chair features a single piece of upholstered moulded plywood
to form the back and seat, set off by timber armrests. Produced in
two models, customers could choose from timber or steel legs.
A feature of the chair is the ability to unscrew the entire frame,
arms, legs and base, making it easy to remove the seat from the
solid maple frame for cleaning or recovering. The one-piece
plywood back, made from gluing and pressing three pieces
of 3/16 inch plywood, is covered with a half inch foam rubber
which is then upholstered in ‘plastic hide’, or fabric.

The chair, designed for use in hospitals, schools, and domestic
dwellings received high praise from both Commonwealth and
Queensland State health authorities. According to an article
published in The Cumberland Argus in 1958, ‘Doukoff and Co’,
the Brisbane based manufacturer, were producing one hundred
Volkschairs a week but planned to mass-produce the chair for
use in schools and hospitals. Doukoff’s use of “new methods” to
inform the development and production of a chair design that
was comfortable, affordable and easily dismantled for cleaning
and/or recovering is a great example of the innovation and creativity
exhibited by so many émigré designers, artists and craftspeople who
found themselves producing furniture during the post-war period in
Australia. People like Fred Lowen, Schulim Krimper, Steven Kalmar,
George Korody and Dario Zoureff to name but a few.

Today you can still find examples of George Doukoff’s beautiful ‘Volkschair’,
and I think its fair to say that the chair still continues to deliver comfort
and a feeling of wellbeing. Thank you George.

References:

  1. The Cumberland Argus (Parramatta, NSW : 1950 – 1962), Wednesday 5 February 1958, page 6
  2. The Cumberland Argus (Parramatta, NSW : 1950 – 1962), Wednesday 17 September 1958, page 5
  3. Destination Australia: Sharing our Post-war Migrant Stories

Modernist Australia: Building a Modernist Community.

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The Kelly House 1, Bellevue Hill, 1956. Photo Max Dupain.

After a long hiatus it’s great to see those tireless supporters of modernist architecture, and all round good guys, Modernist Australia
back on the mid-century scene with a new website and even more fantastic listings of modernist homes for sale across Australia.

For those not familiar with Modernist Australia, the site has played an important role in building awareness of modernist architecture, whilst featuring profiles of modernist homes currently for sale across Australia. From beach shacks to iconic architect designed homes, the Modernist Australia team are dedicated to preserving mid-century Australian architecture.

The new site also features an archive where you can check out some of the incredible homes that have been and gone; some thankfully saved by enthusiasts whilst others are unfortunately too often demolished to make way for new builds.

I am reminded of a 1950’s wall lamp for sale on eBay last year. On contacting the seller I was informed that the lamp would need to be removed from the wall of a home in Brighton designed by iconic architect Robin Boyd that was soon to be demolished. These stories are perhaps not uncommon, and as our modernist buildings continue to vanish from our urban spaces, it’s good to know that there are people out there that still believe in good design and preserving our post-war design history. The MA crew bring a wealth of knowledge and passion that makes their website one of the best mid-century Australian architecture resources on the web.

So check out the Modernist Australia site and lose yourself in the world of modernist architecture. Who knows, perhaps you might find your dream home.

Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design Exhibition.

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Contour chairs c.1953. Grant FEATHERSTON (designer); EMERSON BROS PTY LTD, Melbourne (manufacturer).

The National Gallery of Victoria will be hosting an exhibition of original Mid-Century furniture. Featuring works by some of Australia’s top designers of the period (Featherston, Meadmore, Fred Ward) and many more, the exhibition will showcase over 100 iconic pieces from the post-war period.

“Mid-Century Modern is the first major Australian survey to provide an in-depth look at this period, revealing how Australian furniture designers moved away from traditional, conservative pre-war styles and forged a new language of design that was innovative in its use of materials, functional and often imbued with a good dose of style.”

This is a great chance to see iconic pieces by some of Australia’s best post-war furniture designers. Curator Kirsty Grant has searched through Australia’s best public and private collections to source original pieces, many to be displayed for the first time.
There will also be a stunning exhibition catalogue featuring designer biographies, articles and loads of beautiful photographs of mid-century Australian furniture.

Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design will be on display at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from 30 May to 19 October 2014. Open 10am–5pm, closed Mondays. Admission fees apply: Adult $10 | Concession $7 | Children (16 and under) Free.

If you would like to know more please check out the NGV media release.

Please note that some of the text and the Grant Featherston furniture photograph (see above) was sourced from the NGV website
.

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.

Image
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!

California Design: 1930-1965 Living in a Modern Way.

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If you have a passion for Modern Design, then be
sure to check out the California Design exhibition
currently showing at the Queensland Art Gallery.
The exhibition features “a broad spectrum of industrial,
architectural, commercial, fashion and craft design from
California”. Highlights include a great selection of iconic
furniture and an aluminium 1936 Airstream ‘Clipper’ trailer.

The catalogue, a beautiful hardcover book, is a comprehensive
study of the California Design movement and includes a wealth
of information and images of furniture, ceramics, graphic and
industrial design, architecture, metalwork, textiles and fashion
of the period.

Why not make a weekend of it and check out the Gallery
of Modern Art (GOMA). The exhibition runs from
2 November 2013 – 9 February 2014, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG).

For a sneak preview of the exhibition see the Share Design blog.

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.