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
.

That obscure object of desire: Steel rod furniture

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B.K.F Chair by Austral Group, Buenos Aires c.1938

I don’t know what it is about steel rod furniture that I find so pleasing,
but it seems that during the 1950’s there was a global design trend that
involved the use of steel to produce countless homewares, lamps and furniture.
Overseas designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Alan Gould,
Harry Bertoia, Ernest Race, Robin Day and the Austral Group had
already made a splash on the design scene and it’s likely that some
Australian designers and members of the public were familiar with
these contemporary designs via the lifestyle/trade magazines of the period
such as Home Beautiful and Architecture and Arts.

Fler_shell chair
Fler Aluminium Shell chair c.1954

Steel furniture was modern, and really fit the design ethos of post-war design
whereby furniture was produced to have a light appearance which gave interior
space a less cluttered look and feel. In Australia, there are some great examples
of furniture made using steel rod, and it is perhaps the furniture of Clement Meadmore which is best known amongst collectors and post-war design enthusiasts. But Meadmore was not the only designer in Australia engaged in working with steel to produce design objects.

Roger Mc Lay’s Kone chair (1948) is an undisputed design icon. A cone of carefully pressed laminated plywood floating on slender steel rod legs.
A marriage of steel and timber resulting in a visually light and elegant design.
Also worth noting is the charming simplicity the steel chairs produced
by Fler during the 1950’s, such as the TVS chair (1957) or the unique construction
material and form of the incredibly rare Aluminium Shell chair (1954).

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Raymond Wallis W-WP100 Lounge chair c.1958

One of my favourite chairs is a rare example of the innovative industrial
design practice of Australian painter Raymond Wallis who produced a
small collection of furniture during the 1950’s. The chair’s oversized
blondewood paddle arms, teamed with its sculptural tubular steel
construction strike the perfect balance, the result is a finely crafted
sitting machine that would be perfectly at home on a beachside verandah.

RamlerContempora
Ramler (1956) and Contempora (1955) advertisments.

Other Australian designers and companies offering interesting designs
in this modern medium include Ramler, Pandar and Contempora. Some
of the Ramler designs, such as the ‘corded magazine holder’ and the
‘standard lamp’, along with the corded chair and metal picture frame by
Contempora, are often mistaken for designs by Clement Meadmore.

Pandarfler_peoples chair
Panda (1956) and Fler (1956) advertisments

Steel rod furniture enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the 1950’s.
Companies keen to jump onto the design trend took inspiration from
overseas and each other. The ‘Calypso’ suite (1956) by Pandar (see above)
shares similarities with the ‘Peoples Chair’ (1956) designed and manufactured
by Fler, Melbourne. It was not uncommon for the home enthusiast to purchase
steel rod and weld his own D.I.Y modernist furniture in the back shed.

The award for the most unusual design would have to go to Gerard Doube for
his incredibly modern ‘Airframe’ lounge chair with air cushion. The strength of steel
juxtaposed with a whimsical lightweight cushion, what more could you want
in a chair.

doube

The beauty of steel rod is that it can be bent to create a wide range
of interesting shapes, thus freeing designers to experiment with
new productions processes and the creation of new design forms.
The B.K.F Chair (1938), otherwise known as the ‘butterfly’ or
‘Hardoy’ chair is a perfect example of how steel can be used to create
fluid lines and a contemporary twist on the hammock. Metal can take
on a soft appearance, it can be visually light and durable, and most
importantly it can look beautiful too.

Lowen Behold: The furniture of Fred Lowen

The story of Fred (Fritz) Lowen has all the mystery and intrigue
of a finely crafted drama. Born in Germany in 1919, Fred later
fled Nazi Germany and found himself aboard the Dunera and bound
for Australia where he was placed in internment camps in Hay and Tatura.

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The humble beginnings of Fred Lowen’s furniture business began with
the production of a series of hand turned wooden bowls. It would appear
that the bowls were a mild success, and this provided the encouragement
to continue exploring the production of crafted timber wares.

Joining forces with Ernest Rodeck, who had also arrived in Australia via
the Dunera, the two men formed the now famous furniture company FLER,
the name created from a combination of the two partners’ initials. Starting in
Melbourne in 1946, the business was well positioned to address the needs of a post war nation which had endured years of rationing. Modernism promised an end to the old ways, and with this came a new aesthetic, a new way of living that
sought to break free from the ‘old ways’ and perhaps the reminders of the war years.

The Fler company are significant in our design history, as it marks a move away from the craft model (Krimper, Rosando, Zoureff) towards a mass production model.
Lowen and Rodeck were able to create furniture that had a handcrafted feel, yet could be produced in large quantities to meet the growing demands of a population seduced by the modernist aesthetic. The success of Fler continued to grow and the
business expanded nationally and led the way in modernised furniture production across the country.

Fler produced a wide range of furniture in the Scandinavian style. Classic chairs include the Executive Desk chair (pictured below), TVS, SC55 and SC58. Simplicity, form and function meet in what I believe is a style that is uniquely Australian.
Slightly austere and practical, yet with a little flourish to make it just a little bit special.

The Fler company was later sold and in the 1960’s Lowen started Twen, which
changed it’s name to Tessa and became a household name for quality
contemporary furniture and is still in operation today. Classic Tessa designs
include the T8 chaise , the T4 lounge chair and the Wegner-like T5 lounge
(pictured below).

An excellent documentary on Fred Lowen produced by the ABC can be found at:

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/hindsight/stories/2011/3144474.htm

I can also highly recommend Fred’s biography
‘Fred Lowen: Dunera Boy, Furniture Designer, Artist’.
It’s a fascinating account of Fred’s life and features loads of information
and photographs of his furniture designs for Fler and Tessa.
This book is a must have for fans of Australian post-war design.

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.

Is the Featherston chair over-rated?

There is a lot of hype surrounding Featherston’s now iconic contour chairs but is the hype deserved? It’s a well known fact that many of these 50’s classics are prone to leg damage in the form of splits and breaks, and when your paying anywhere between $2,000-10,000 for a chair you really do want something you can actually sit on.

The contour range (pictured left) produced by Featherston in the 1950’s is perhaps unique for a number of reasons. His sheer ingenuity in developing a cheap means of moulding plywood to create his organic shapes put Featherston at the forefront of contemporary furniture design and arguably paved the way for other designers. His reinterpretation of the classic wingback chair, saw a transformation of its once bulky frame into a lighter form that hugs the body whilst appearing to float upon its slender splayed legs. The popularity of these chairs continues to grow and it,s difficult to open an Australian interiors magazine without seeing a featherston chair sitting casually amongst the ubiquitous Eames, Saarinen and Hans Wegner chairs. So what’s not to like here?

The allure of the Featherston chair is undeniable but it’s not the only great chair made in Australia during the fifties. For my money, when it comes to post-war furniture design in Australia it’s hard to go past Gordon Andrews, whether it be one of his gazelle’ or ‘rondo’ chairs, both are sure to please. Not only did Andrews design original and innovative furniture, he also designed our first decimal currency.

The first Rondo chair (pictured left) is a thing of beauty and was originally made from sections of marine ply attached to a wooden spine that sat on aluminum legs. It is said that Andrews built all of these early versions of the Rondo before changing the design to something that could be more readily manufactured. The later versions of the Rondo chair saw the removal of the timber spine and the introduction of a star shaped or wine glass base. Interior designer Marion Best was a great supporter of Andrews’ designs and regularly stocked a range of his furniture in her popular interiors shop in Sydney. The Rondo was re-issued under license by Fy2k  in 2001 and is available in a choice of fabrics and bases. Retailing at around $2,000 plus cost of fabric, it’s a much cheaper option than vintage pieces which can sell from anywhere between $3,000-7,000 depending onIf you buy at auction or retail from a dealer. Whatever choice you make, you will be sitting pretty in any one of Andrews’ Rondo chairs.

So if you have a passion for post-war furniture design, don’t just follow the pack. Choose your own adventure and look out for interesting and unique pieces that can take pride of place in your home. You can still pick up bargains by Douglas Snelling, Clement Meadmore and Fred Lowen if you hunt about junk shops or trawl the Internet. A chair is more than just something to sit on, it’s a design for living that rewards the owner with comfort and pleasure.

Remember, life is too short for ugly furniture.

A chair is not just a chair!

I know it may sound a little odd or a tad obsessive but I have
to confess that I have a bit of a thing for chairs. At one point I
had 27 chairs nestled and squeezed into every available space
in the apartment, including 5 stacked in the wardrobe in the
spare (read storage) room.

A chair is a thing of great beauty, and comfort too if that’s
important to you. Chairs come in all sorts of shapes and
sizes, they are also made out of a plethora of materials.
It’s hard to beat a well designed seat, and when it comes
to great Australian designs it’s hard to go past household
names such as Grant Featherston, Clement Meadmore,
Gordon Andrews and Douglas Snelling.


Cord chair (steel, cotton cord and timber) by
Clement Meadmore (1952)

It’s worth noting that  outside of the mainstream were another
group of cabinetmakers producing modernist furniture, but with
a strong European flavour. The furniture of Schulim Krimper,
a craftsman who arrived in Melbourne, Australia in 1939,
is well represented in public galleries and private collections.
Although Krimper’s furniture is highly prized and outside
of the price range of many collectors, his Melbourne
contempories such as Gerrard and Isobel Doube,
Rosando Bros, and Dario Zoureff present real opportunities
for lovers of Australian post-war furniture.

Look out for the characteristic wishbone legs on Rosando
lounge suites, or the beautiful hardwood timbers favoured
by Zoureff. My partner and I recently picked up a Zoureff
1950’s nest of tables for far less than what you would pay
at a department store for an inferior particle board product.

Apart from the above mentioned designers there were loads
of  furniture makers and small factories who operated
throughout the post-war period. Infact, some of my favorite
pieces have been made by unknown designers.


Cord Chair (steel, synthetic cord and timber)
by unknown designer

Australian post-war Furniture may not be as popular as the
the American and Scandinavian furniture designs, but it
does offer something quite unique, and that’s a chance to
enjoy modernist designs, help the environment by
recycling existing pieces, and preserve our design heritage
from the comfort of a beautiful chair.