ACT News

Ward furniture legacy lives

A Canberra designer devoted to native timbers is becoming a cult figure 22 years after his death, PHILLIP THOMSON writes

Fred Ward.

It is a name so simple it almost seems made up.

Furniture designer Derek Wrigley at his Mawson home. He is writing a book about fellow designer, Fred Ward.
Furniture designer Derek Wrigley at his Mawson home. He is writing a book about fellow designer, Fred Ward. Photo: Graham Tidy

So quaint it is easily forgotten.

And Canberra's Fred Ward was forgotten. At about the time he died, his furniture was being rounded up and sold off. Thousands of Ward's tables and chairs were sold at a heavily marked down price to make way for the so-called ergonomic revolution.

Ward and his designs - simplistic, useable, good to look at and now known for their pioneering use of unstained Australian timber - were undervalued even during his lifetime, according to one friend, Derek Wrigley.

Wrigley says Melbourne designer Grant Featherston was close to a household name in the 1950s and 1960s because his furniture was mass marketed, but Ward's pieces were mostly created in silence for institutions such as the Reserve Bank, National Library and Australian National University.


Today, 22 years after Ward died, he is a cult figure.

Antique lovers pay more for a Ward chair.

Timber chests half a century old designed by Ward are selling for as much as $1000.

Ironically, many of the items are not Ward's designs.

''If it's timber and it's from Canberra people will say it's a Fred Ward,'' Canberra antique seller Brendan Lepschi says.

''But a lot of it is wrongly attributed to him.''

Ward's closest workmate at the Australian National University was fellow designer Derek Wrigley, who today spends much of his time writing a book on Ward.

The rest of his days he chases down sellers incorrectly advertising pieces of ''Ward'' furniture.

''Many of them are on eBay and it's hard to contact them,'' the 88-year-old says. ''One was in Victoria just last week.''

In the words of Wrigley, the popularity of Ward's work now is a small posthumous victory for Ward in the ideological war it looked like he was losing decades ago.

Ward was chief designer at the university, creating furniture for all the buildings and Wrigley was head architect and later a creator of furniture too.

By the time both men had left, Wrigley says, they had left behind furniture adapted better to the human body for students, teachers and administrators inside the university's laboratories, libraries, offices and lecture theatres.

Desks were lowered by a few centimetres. Footrests added. Chairs modified to reduce the risk of varicose veins in a person's legs later in life.

It was ergonomics, without the word ergonomics.

Then came the revolution.

''Much of the furniture they got rid of was needless,'' Wrigley says.

''The administrators were hoodwinked.''

''They said 'it's ergonomic', it has to be better.''

Walk Wrigley through the university today and he is increasingly appalled by the designs he sees. Desks are overdesigned, he says. There is often no need for them to be raised or lowered and, besides, it increases the price threefold.

Ward, born 1899, trained as an artist at a school within the National Gallery of Victoria, according to a biography at the Powerhouse Museum.

Drawn to the young, radical modernist movement which was a threat to the established social order of the time, he did some cartoons for weekly magazines and started making furniture in 1927.

He opened a contemporary furniture department for Myer in 1931. During the Second World War, Ward served with the Department of Aircraft Production and became involved in the manufacture of the wood-based Mosquito aircraft.

Afterwards he lectured at Melbourne University and launched Patterncraft, an idea which brought affordable, stylish furniture to Australian homes.

Design researcher at Swinburne University Nanette Carter says limited investment capital and shortages of materials and of labour had impacted on Australia's early post-war production of consumer goods, and high tariffs made imports expensive.

''Available by mail order through Australian Home Beautiful from 1947, Patterncraft furniture could be made with basic skills, using common materials and a limited set of tools,'' Carter says.

From 1949 to 1961 he worked at the Australian National University, first as design consultant and later as university designer. Later he designed furniture for Australia's embassies and was awarded an MBE for his contribution to industrial design.

Ward did not follow the pack.

He resisted the trend at the time of using dark stains to imitate the heavy European timbers.

The heroes of his work were Australian timbers such as whitegum, blackwood, myrtle, fiddle-back and coachwood.

Ward died in 1990.

His biography will be self-published by Wrigley in the coming months.

The book has been five years in the making and is now 70,000 words long. As Wrigley writes the book, he sits on a chair designed by his old friend.

There are other Ward pieces throughout the home.

''I wouldn't part with them for all the tea in China,'' Wrigley says.