Couched in history: Mid-Century Modern showcases radical furniture at the NGV

Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square, until October 19

The radical nature of these examples of mid-20th-century furniture and fabrics is apparent when juxtaposed with contemporaneous exhibits informed by earlier notions of design and construction.

In part, that is the role here of the celebrated cabinetry of Schulim Krimper (1893-1971), who settled in Melbourne, a refugee from Germany, in 1939.

In particular, Krimper’s large screen, c.1961, with its extravagant use of hardwood decorative elements, looks like a folk object when compared with, say, Clement Meadmore’s steel and glass coffee table of 1958-59.

Also in the role of offering a more conventional benchmark are the designs of Fred Ward (1900-90). Ward began making timber furniture in the 1920s and had a shop in Collins Street in the '30s before being hired by Myer to establish and run its furniture design studio.

After World War II, Ward’s innovations included Patterncraft – paper patterns, sold by mail order, with designs for easy-to-make wooden furniture and toys, launched in 1947.


Patterncraft was a response to a very real need in the community for inexpensive furniture. The hardwood chair and ottoman in the show were made by returned serviceman Jack Shattock in Beaumaris in the early '50s.

Ward followed Patterncraft with Timber-Pack, a ready-to-assemble kit of “machined, band-sawn, shaped and sanded” parts, in 1948; in 1952 came Blueprint, a range of “more upmarket” furniture.

Ward’s commitment to affordable furniture is salutary. In 1950 the annual salary for a male factory worker was £296 3s 7d, and for a male white-collar worker it was £433 1s 4d. In both cases, women were paid less than half a man’s wage.

So, on about £6 a week (or even £8), who could afford, say, the first two “modern” exhibits in the show, designed by Douglas Snelling (1916-85) in 1946: a hardwood upright chair with red cotton webbing for seat and back, priced at £7 6s 6d; and a hardwood rocking chair with white webbing, priced at £8 7s 6d?

In the use of materials such as cotton webbing (Snelling and Grant Featherston), plywood (Gordon Andrews and Roger McLay), cotton cord (Meadmore), aluminium (Fred Lowen), steel (Michael Hirst) and, later, fibreglass (Featherston), this furniture reflects the supply of materials and production capabilities of mid-20th-century Australia.

Good design of any period facilitates the object’s intended function, is sustainable and its fitness for purpose can be pleasing aesthetically. It should be forward-looking, but not aspire to a concept of modernity developed in some remote cultural context. 

Whether the designer is thinking in an interdisciplinary way, such as Meadmore being inspired by the paintings of Piet Mondrian, or responding to a precedent, as with McLay’s adapting the use of plywood seen in work by Americans Charles and Ray Eames, design success lies in the physical detail.

Compare contemporaneous exhibits by Featherston (1922-95) and Australian furniture-industry luminary Lowen (1919-2005).

Presumably, Featherston’s idea in creating an elliptical opening at the junction of seat and back of a chair in his Contour range was to create an impression of lightness, of the chair taking up less space. But did he compromise his design by so doing?

By reducing the visual weight and actual mass of the legs of his aluminium-shell chair, the upholstered profile of which is not dissimilar to Featherston’s Contour range, Lowen achieves the effect Featherston is after.

This show presents work from four decades, but we learn little about the designers, 20 of whom have brief bios in the catalogue.

And with subtle abstract paintings by Sydney artists Grace Crowley and Ralph Balson included as '60s decor, the installation definitely feels as if it loses focus.