Modern Baroque: The designs of George Surtees

George Surtees in 2012. Photo: Rita Bila

When the Boulevard Hotel opened in Sydney in May 1973, it was promoted ‘as one of the world’s great hotels’ (1). With its distinctive arch-pattern topped façade, and ‘sculptured’street-level colonnade, the Boulevard quickly established itself as a city landmark. It also became a favoured destination for local and international stars including Frank Sinatra, who regularly stayed in the hotel’s Presidential Suite. Other famous names associated with the Boulevard during the 1970s -through the numerous fashion parades, gala dinners, prize luncheons and press conferences it hosted – included Edith Head, Pierre Cardin, John Wayne and the Bay City Rollers. Theglamorous interiors that provided the background to these well-publicised events were primarily the work of Sydney interior, furniture, exhibition and graphic designer, George Surtees.

The main entrance and lobby of the Boulevard as depicted in The Boulevard Hotel brochure, c 1973. Artist unknown. Source: George Surtees.

The main entrance and lobby of the Boulevard as depicted in The Boulevard Hotel brochure, c 1973. Artist unknown. Source: George Surtees.

Surtees had arrived in Australia at the beginning of the 1950s, emigrating with his wife Suzie (nee Szigeti) from Hungary, via Austria (2). Born Georg Nicolaus Szirtes in Budapest in 1922, he attended the preparatory school of the city’s renowned Academy of Fine Arts between 1938 and 1942. There he trained in the decorative arts, specialising in techniques, such as fresco, that could be applied to the restoration of buildings. Samples of his drawings in watercolour and ink and wash, that have survived from the 1940s, show a distinct talent for drawing and illustration. However, as a Jew, life became extremely difficult for Surtees during the Second World War and he spent the latter years in forced labour. Unable to find gainful employment in Budapest after the war, Surtees and his wife left Hungary for Vienna in 1949, and from there emigrated to Australia.

Settling in Sydney, Surtees initially found employment designing exhibitions and displays for companies such as Olympic Display, National Display and Austral Display. After some years, he set up his own practice in furniture, interior, exhibition and graphic design, working from his home in Watsons Bay and later Dover Heights. In addition to a varied range of commercial and private clients, Surtees also undertook work for prominent local designers, notably graphic artist George Hamori and furniture maker Paul Kafka. For the latter, Surtees designed interiors and furniture for private clients as well as for Kafka’s hotel and motel projects. A significant collection of Kafka’s furniture and drawings is held by the Powerhouse Museum.

Surtees’ largest hotel project, however, was for John Saunders and Frank Lowy of the Westfield Corporation. This was the 25-storey, three hundred-room Boulevard Hotel built in conjunction with the Westfield Office Toweron what was meant to become ‘Australia’s Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysees’ (3) – William Street in Sydney. The project architect for both buildings was Fraser More (4). Surtees had worked with Saunders and Lowy in the mid 1960s, in association with Kafka, designing alterations to the partners’ first hotel-motel venture, The Shore Inn in the northern suburb of Artarmon (5). The Boulevard project however was much more ambitious and Surtees was employed by Westfield as its interior designer and art director. Despite Travelodge Australia taking over the management of the hotel before its opening (6), Surtees was still responsible for most of its distinctive interiors, from the entrance lobby with its spectacular crystal chandeliers to the 83½ square metre, ‘Philippino-Spanish style’ Presidential Suite on the 23rd floor.

 Detail of drawing, 'Design for Family Room' by George Surtees, dated August 1993. Source: George Surtees.

Detail of drawing, ‘Design for Family Room’ by George Surtees, dated August 1993. Source: George Surtees.

Following the Boulevard project, Surtees continued working as an interior, furniture, exhibition and graphic designer until 2003.Since then, he has devoted his time to illustration and drawing, in particular documenting his war and post-war experiences in Europe and his early years in Australia.

As a designer, George Surtees is probably best known for his interior projects, a significant number of which are documented in the collections of the Mitchell Library and the Caroline Simpson Library and Research Centre. These holdings include proposals for a diverse range of interiors, from hotels, motels and resorts to shops, restaurants and airports. The majority of projects however are domestic schemes designed predominantly for clients in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Surtees was frequently responsible for designing every element within these interiors, including built-in and freestanding furniture, lighting fixtures, decorative panels, screens and doors. These individual elements could be quite complex and elaborate in both construction and decorative detail. Typically Surtees’ design drawings combine careful detail with illustrative flair, skilfully conveying the intended mood and character of the proposed scheme.

 Detail of drawing, 'Design for Family Room' by George Surtees, dated August 1993. Source: George Surtees.

Detail of drawing, ‘Design for Family Room’ by George Surtees, dated August 1993. Source: George Surtees.

Surtees’ design style varied over time, responsive to the fashions of the day and to the taste of his clients. However certain characteristics remained consistent. These include an emphasis on bold formal elements and decorative themes, finely detailed joinery and the use and combination of luxurious materials and finishes. Surtees has described some of his schemes as ‘modern progressive with Baroque characteristics’ (7). This encapsulates two important aspects of his approach to interior design: firstly, his use of dramatic gestures and decorative features within unified and tightly controlled schemes and secondly his openness to referencing and combining styles from a diversity of sources. A number of Surtees’ drawn proposals for rooms in the Boulevard Hotel for example are inventively eclectic, with ‘traditional’ and ‘tudor’ detailing convincingly integrated into what are essentially contemporary interiors. Asian-inspired motifs also appear within some of his designs.

The significance of European émigré designers such as Paul Kafka within the history of Australian design of the latter half of the 20th century has already been recognised (8). George Surtees deserves similar attention. Like Kafka, much of his work falls outside a conventional understanding of ‘the modern’ or ‘contemporary’ in the way it draws on European traditions of fine craftsmanship and decorative technique. Surtees particular strength however was his ability to create a convincing hybrid – part contemporary, part elaborately ‘baroque’– that found a receptive market in Sydney over a number of decades.

1. Advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1973, p.2.
2. Author’s interview with George Surtees, 11 September 2009. The biographical information that follows is largely drawn from that interview.
3.‘Boulevard Hotel & Westfield Office Tower’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July, 1973, p. 16.
4. Ibid
5. Author’s interview with George Surtees, 11 September 2009. Drawings held in the Mitchell Library and receipt books held in the Caroline Simpson Library and Research Centre.
6. ‘New Boulevard Hotel is Part of a Total Area Development in Sydney’, Hospitality Management, July 1973, p. 12.
7. Display panel, ‘George Nikolaus Surtees’ exhibition, Waverley Library, New South Wales, 18-31 January 2010.
8. See for example, A. Watson ‘Kafka and Kalmar’, The Furniture History Society Australasia Journal, No 2, 2004, pp 10-13.