The Story of Curl: A Clement Meadmore Sculpture

Clement Meadmore is perhaps the most famous sculptor to originate from Australia, his twisting metal forms can be found in galleries and parks around the world. Starting out as an industrial designer in Melbourne during the early 1950s, Meadmore produced a small range of furniture and lighting that was clearly inspired by his passion for jazz and abstract art.

After a trip to Europe in 1953, Meadmore’s interest in sculpture grew and by the mid 1950s Meadmore was exhibiting metal forms that arguably drew inspiration from international artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Piet Mondrian. In 1959, Clem, with the assistance of friend Max Hutchinson, set up Gallery A in Flinders lane, Melbourne. The gallery, a little Bauhaus in Melbourne, not only provided a space for progressive artists and designers, it also created a community for people looking to breakaway from the oppressive and conservative nature of the 1950s Australian art scene.

After 3 years living in Sydney, in 1963 Meadmore packed his bags and left Australia for the hussle and bustle of New York, a big city with a thriving art scene. In the beginning Meadmore faced many challenges, but by the end of the 1960’s he had found his niche, creating new works that arguably married his background in engineering and his interest in abstract forms.

Curl (1968), as noted by Robert Ferrari, was Meadmore’s first commission for a large scale public monument. The short video below is a fascinating account of the story behind this important work.

 

 

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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.

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
.

Highly Strung Design: Modernist String Chairs

If you have ever wondered about the answer to the question
‘how long is a piece of string’? You might be surprised to
discover that it all depends on the chair.

For me, nothing says post-war design quite like a string
chair. Free of the unnecessary padding and upholstery of
more traditional furnishings, these chairs show off their
construction elements for all the world to see. They may
not be fancy chairs, but they are certainly no ugly ducklings.
Like webbed chairs, or the furniture of early modernists
such as Marcel Breuer and Gerrit Rietveld, the string chair,
sometimes refered to as a corded chair, is an exercise
in honesty and demonstrates that beauty can be found
in simplicity.

String chairs play with light and space as they almost
shimmer like a mirage due to their semi-solid state.
And though they may not appear sturdy, it’s surprising
just how much comfort and support can be produced
using long lengths of flagline or sashcord wrapped
around a steel or timber chair frame. Which begs
yet another question, is it the string that transforms
the frame into a chair?

Being a fan of the corded furniture designed by
Clement Meadmore in Australia during the early 1950’s,
I thought it might be nice to take a look at some of the great
designs produced in other countries, both in the 1950’s and
into the 1960’s. The selection below is made up of some of
my favourite designs. Perhaps 1970’s U.K. comedians The
Goodies were right when they sang ‘everybody loves string’.

If you love string chairs or you have a favourite string chair,
please leave a comment.

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Clement Meadmore corded chair, Australia, circa 1952.

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Poul Kjaerholm, ‘Holscher’ chair, Denmark, circa 1952.

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Unknown designer (possibly Clement Meadmore), most likely Australian, circa 1950’s.

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Alan Gould Lounge Chair, U.S.A. circa 1950’s.

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Carl Koch for Tubbs of Vermont, U.S.A. circa 1950’s.

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Jacques Guillon, Cord Chair, Canada, circa 1953

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Hans Wegner ” Flag Line ” Halyard Lounge Chair, Denmark, circa 1960’s.

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Jorgen Hovelskov, ‘Harp’ Chair 1968.

//

Clement Meadmore: Furniture as Art.

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As I continue to research the output of sculptor/industrial designer Clement Meadmore, the more intrigued I become about the man and his creative practice. After chatting to some of the people who knew Clem, I think it’s fair to say that although Meadmore had developed a keen interest in furniture design, it was his passion for sculpture that was the key driving force in his life. But that’s hardly surprising when you look at his furniture or lighting designs. Take for example Meadmore’s corded recliner (see pic above), it’s lines formed from cold bent steel only take on the form of a chair via the addition of countless metres of sash cord wrapped around it’s angular form. This is no ordinary chair; it is a sculpture that can facilitate the act of sitting.

Meadmore’s early designs are unique in that they adopt craft traditions and processes to aid their production. Infact, Meadmore’s earliest furniture was reportedly made with the assistance of a local blacksmith, but unfortunately I am yet to see any documentation of these works. So in a time of mass-production, we have Clem hand building furniture from steel rod and sash cord in his backyard shed. But luckily others also recognized Meadmore’s potential, leading to Clem winning a host of good design awards and gathering praise amongst architects and national lifestyle magazines. Even when Meadmore sold his business (Meadmore Originals) including the rights to his designs, to fund an overseas trip, on his return to Australia he continued to hand build furniture from his backyard on a commission basis.
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Meadmore may not have been a great businessman, but what he lacked in business acumen, he more than made up for in creativity. Meadmore’s Calyx lamp (pictured above) is a prime example of his ability to reinterpret the modernist style. The lamp’s appearance looks sleek at first glance, but as you look closer the evidence of the hand is visible in the welds and the handpainted spun aluminum shades. In the late 1950’s, as Meadmore began to gain recognition in art circles for his sculptures, the production of his furniture designs was outsourced to Michael Hirst and/or Gallery A Contract Furniture of which Meadmore was a partner at the time.

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Meadmore’s DC601A chair (pictured above) produced by Michael Hirst Pty Ltd was originally designed for the swanky jazz hangout ‘The Embers Nigthclub’, located in Toorak, Melbourne. The design of the DC601A is often considered to be more resolved than Clem’s earlier furniture, but its difficult to ignore the chair’s similarities with the furniture designs of American Harry Bertoia, who also went on to enjoy a successful career as a sculptor. 
But these later designs, reminiscent of the wireframes used in 3D software, are perhaps also an extension of Meadmore’s ongoing love affair with abstract expressionism and his determination to render the form virtually invisible. He had succeeded in transforming his furniture into mere outlines constructed in fine rods of steel. Or Perhaps Clem had taken his furniture designs as far as he could, for the transition from industrial designer to sculptor was arguably now complete. If you don’t believe me, take a look at one of Clem’s bespoke designs, a steel and glass coffee table in the NGV Melbourne collection. There is no doubt in my mind that this is an example of Meadmore at his finest.

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By 1960 Clem had truly begun his metamorphosis into an international artist, and in 1963 moved to New York to concentrate on his art career. Perhaps as a parting gift, the same year he arrived in New York he designed what would be the last of his chairs. The ‘Sling Chair’ (pictured below), now in the MOMA collection, was made by Leiff Wessman Associates of New York in 1963. It looks and behaves just like a chair, but the more I look at this most polished of chairs, the more I long for the raw qualities that made his early furniture so distinct and somewhat unique.

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I guess the best thing about Meadmore’s design ourve is that there is generally something for everybody, as long as you like metal furniture. But collecting Australian post-war furniture and objects isn’t just about constructing an interior, its also about preserving and conserving these treasures so that others can enjoy them in the future.

If you want to know more about Meadmore, I recently wrote an article about identifying and authenticating Meadmore furniture which appeared in Australian Modern magazine. I would also like to thank Geoff from Shamrock Furniture (specialists in Australian Modern) in Melbourne for kindly allowing me to use some of his studio photographs of Meadmore furniture for the magazine article. If you haven’t had a chance to check out Australian Modern magazine, it’s produced by the same great team who brought you ‘Brisbane Modern’ magazine and it’s full of great articles about the modernist movement in Australia.

If you would like to see more examples of Clement Meadmore’s furniture and lighting designs, then check out my Meadmore photo set on Flickr or this excellent video produced by a Melbourne collector.

If you have any information and/or questions about Clement Meadmore’s furniture from the 1950’s, or know anyone who bought or commissioned furniture by Clem, please email me at australianmodern@yahoo.com.au

Thanks for reading the blog and join Australian Modern on Facebook.

A Matter of Looking: Clement Meadmore film


If you are a regular reader of the Australian Modern blog, you will already
be familiar with the name Clement Meadmore. Whether you are a fan of
his furniture or his iconic twisting metal sculptures, it’s hard to ignore the
unique talent of Clement Meadmore, nor his important place in our art history.
Although Meadmore achieved international success and is represented in
galleries across the world, it would appear that he has received very little
acknowledgement in his country of birth, Australia.

Luckily for us, Sydney based filmmakers Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini of
Frontyard Films are about to put that all right. A Matter of Looking  is currently
in production and will focus on Meadmore’s work as a sculptor. News is that
they are currently conducting interviews and documenting Meadmore works.

The film is an important project, but like all independent films, it is heavily reliant
on funding.  So get behind the film and lend your support with a donation and help
to turn this fantastic project into a reality.

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.