Following is a transcript of Mary Featherston‘s speech given at the launch of the book at Heide Gallery, Victoria, 10 December 2006.
Modernism & Australia is a treasure trove of a book. It’s a very large book; over one thousand pages! Heide is a most appropriate site to launch this wonderful tome as it epitomises the interdisciplinary nature of Modernism, not so much a style as a collection of ideas. This very Modernist Heide 2 was designed for John and Sunday Reid by McGlashan Everist in the mid-sixties, right at the end of the period covered by the book, 1917’1967.
This is an anthology of changing ideas, a compilation of documents that reveal, as the editors say ‘Australia’s fraught and complex reception of Modernism’. Over the few days since I received the book I have only dipped in and explored a few gems, especially those on architecture and design. I have to confess I found it so engaging, following threads backwards and forwards, it was difficult to extract myself long enough to put a few words together for today. Initially I followed people and events about which I had some personal experience but that soon led me down surprising paths to new revelations.
What I find so engrossing is the immediacy of the voices ‘ unmediated, straight from the horse’s mouth. Each primary document (over 200) has a helpful, context-setting introduction which leads the reader to where the practitioner or commentator is positioned geographically and in time, within this vast panoply.
We are given insights into the inevitable struggle in the heads and hearts of individuals as they reject past ideals and practices, and grapple with exciting new ideas and with one another. It is also intriguing to learn of their passion to communicate their ideas to a wider audience, ideas that they believed had the potential to transform society.
The Australian Army education journal SALT included articles about urban planning by Robin Boyd and articles about contemporary furniture design, one in 1944 entitled ‘Furniture in the Modern Manner ‘ from Curlicues to Cubes’. Sometimes the protagonists over enthusiastically embraced the new, to convince the wider public that this will be good for them.
The book is organised into three time periods, each includes four aspects of Modernism: Interdisciplinary, Visual Arts, Design and Architecture. Using original documents exposes us to the immediacy of ideas and a real sense of the times. The personality of each protagonist is revealed through their choice of expression. I can just hear Roy Grounds in his rough, gruff manner, dismissing one of the fathers of Modernist architecture Mies van der Rohe, as ‘a gardenia without perfume’ and ‘the bloke that claimed a house was a machine for living in – never meant a word of it’!
These words were spoken in the heat of a debate which included his colleagues Romberg and Boyd in 1952. This ‘Three-sided debate’ reproduced in the book, addressed the question ‘Are we at the beginning, peak or end of an architectural era” The first speaker, R.G.Parker referred to modern design being at the ‘oil drum and packing case phase’. Others refer to Modernism as the ‘operating theatre period’. Robin Boyd refers to ‘form follows function’ as ‘an old-fashioned phrase’.
Boyd also questions whether functionalism is ‘too hard’ ‘ and asks ‘are we to let it go because it is cold and sterile or develop it further” The fustiness of the Victorian era had been replaced by an unfamiliar severity. Romberg responds to Boyd’s concern by referring to countries with strong traditions of craft and ‘proper’ use of materials. ‘In Sweden and Switzerland, the functional and rational basis of Modernism is supplemented by human and artistic endeavours’. Swedish design is described as having ‘extreme simplicity’ ‘ ‘turning commonplace aspects of life into art’, ‘the art of gracious living’.
This discussion follows a thread that goes right back to 1929 when the artist Roy de Maistre presented a display of Modern Rooms in Sydney, citing the Bauhaus and le Corbusier. This exhibition was inspired by an exposition in Paris four years earlier. Paris was where ‘good design is everybody’s business and famous designers are household names’. The local audience was encouraged to ‘develop a critical faculty and express criticism when selecting your own furniture, only then will the standard of design improve ‘ these things form the background for living and are essential to our happiness and exert a great influence on our lives generally.’
There are some quaint and dated expressions, such as ‘the space-saving, oscillating portal wall bed’ from America. My late husband Grant had one in a flat designed by Roy Grounds. I enjoyed the comment by A. Rutherford in Home Beautiful in 1941 that ‘old fashioned furniture in a modern flat is as much out of place as a slum girl at a vice-regal party!’
In this book we find familiar voices of those who did so much to champion modernist ideals, as well as the smaller voices, people who gave insights into the struggle with new and sometimes perplexing ideas. The architect Eva Buhrich reported in the Architecture & Arts Journal on the lecture given by the luminary Walter Gropius in 1954. In Melbourne Gropius spoke to a large audience, exclusively architects because the general public were excluded! Buhrich expressed surprise at the breadth of Gropius’s ideas about Modernism and reflects that perhaps his ideas had been narrowly interpreted and that, in fact, functionalism and humanism were not poles but that ‘emotionally and organically balanced living is the important aim’. As Gropius said in 1928 ‘architects must plan the physical background for a fully democratic life, a life in which everyone participates, a life in which quality counts not quantity, in which the artist is as important as the technician and in which a coherent social pattern emerges again.’ I recently found in our archives the typewritten notes that Gropius used for his Melbourne talk.
Ideas ricochet around the book, much as people moved backwards and forwards between Australia, Europe and America. The visit of Gropius, founding director of the Bauhaus and teacher of Harry Seidler, to Australia in1954 is a quintessential story. We learn that when in Melbourne Gropius rode in a Studebaker. The editors say it was owned by Romberg, but I remember that Boyd was also a proud owner of a Studebaker. Gropius conversed in German with Fred Romberg and met up with Hirschfeld-Mack who was then teaching art at Geelong Grammar.
From his background of teaching in the Bauhaus, Hirschfeld-Mack developed innovative methods for teaching art to children which were championed by Joseph Burke, Professor of Fine Arts at Melbourne University from 1947 for 32 years! Joseph Burke, a relentless supporter of Modernism also prophetically warned of the likely consequences for local manufacturers and designers if Australia’s protective tariffs were removed.
Among the many voices it is heartening to be reminded of great figures who contributed to many aspects of Australian life and identity such as the wonderful H.C (Nugget) Coombs. His opening address to a symposium on ‘Design in Australian Industry’ in 1958 refers to the establishment of the Industrial Design Council of Australia. After declaring himself not to be an expert, he goes on to say, ‘a well designed article is a product of mind and heart of a person, coming from a sympathetic study of the article, the circumstances under which it is to be used and the people by whom it is to be used… if people in their daily activities can use articles which are not merely effective for their purpose but also in their use give a lift to the heart and spirit, then quality is added to everyday life.’
Through the period of the book we see the growth of nascent design beginning as art and industry. An English designer Robert (Jimmy) Haughton James, who arrived in Australia in 1939 and worked in Sydney and Melbourne, was very influential in developing local design and designers, including the establishment of the Society of Artists for Industry. He brought with him a strong European culture and was an early mentor for many, including Grant.
Exhibitions were an appropriate way to convey the unity of modernism and there are several seminal examples in the book. In 1949, very early in Grant’s career, Jimmy Haughton-James initiated a memorable exhibition called The Modern Home. Robin Boyd designed a two-storey Model House, Grant designed the furniture and Wolfgang (Mimi) Seivers was the photographer.
In a much later exhibition in 1967, the Australian pavilion at the World Expo in Montreal, Robin commissioned us to design a ‘Talking Chair’ to deliver information about Australia to visitors in seated comfort! Our design for the chair involved new plastic moulding technology and we must have been so pre-occupied with this challenge that we were quite unaware of the controversy aroused by the conservative selection of contemporary art for the pavilion, described by Mervyn Horton in Art and Australia and quoted in the book.
In Modernist circles the chair was particularly significant. In that post war period materials were scarce and Grant’s first chairs, the Relaxation range, used surplus army webbing. In the absence of sophisticated machinery he went on to develop innovative techniques to turn flat sheets of ply into curvilinear forms to support the human body in the Contour Range. Perhaps Grant’s most significant design in terms of the Modernist ideal was his prolific output of truly mass-produced items produced for Aristoc Industries but not mentioned in the book. Here the possibilities of new materials and techniques were exploited to produce affordable, elegant furniture for a very broad market, an ideal that is mentioned by Robin Dods as early as 1917. Dods urged a rejection of the arts and crafts movement’s abhorrence of machines and states that Australian manufacturers will require the intelligent cooperation of local designers. He also said that ‘local style would emerge naturally’ that we ‘need not resort to waratahs and boomerangs’, and that ‘design should speak for its own day.’
Many believed in technology as the key means to achieve social improvement and in the machine as a symbol of that aspiration. Others saw mass-production as de-humanising, referring to the ‘inhuman effects of standardisation’. In his piece Sitting Pretty, Grant Featherston says that machines should not simply ape the human hand but ‘machines require designs created to take advantage of their specific operations’. It is hard now to conceive of a time when all products were made singly by human hands. Grant was very aware of the impact of industrialisation, its potentials and pitfalls. If machines can make anything in any quantity then how should we use them’
Grant also used to tell horror stories of the fellows who made his early chairs. They explained to him the techniques they used in their previous employ to create fake antiques by pouring ink over them and then belting them with bike chains! Perhaps this led Grant to make impassioned pleas on behalf of modern furniture. He would break up a polite dinner party by saying that all antique furniture should be burnt!
Our surroundings are increasingly human-made. And some claim that our 21st century surroundings are largely shaped by Modernism ‘ is that so’ It seems that design thrives where designers make decisions for others as in the commercial/institutional area, but not where people make their own decisions in the personal and domestic realm. Any survey of the large full-colour images of domestic interiors on real estate billboards will make you wonder if you are indeed living in a modern world let alone a post-modern one! And it is salutary to know that our Prime Minister governs the country from a Chesterfield settee ‘ having thrown out the modern one he inherited with his office! So, there is much to be done…
Of most significance, this book reveals that Australia has a long and rich modernist heritage of ideas and practice. We come with the hindsight or ‘retrospective coherence’ of 40 years and can reflect on the optimism about creating a new world. One wishes the protagonists had been more sceptical and as Nugget Coombs urged ‘take more time’.
I am very honoured to be asked to launch this valuable book. It will be of deep and widespread interest and will provide fertile seeds for many more flowerings. I also join the editors in thanking Louise Adler for her courage to produce ‘an art book without pictures’. It will provoke exploration of not only the rational but also the human face of modernism ‘ modernism at its best.
(Ann Stephen is a curator at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.)
Modernism & Australia: Documents on Art, Design and Architecture 1917-1967
Melbourne University Publishing
1072 pp, PB, 234 x 153 mm