Sunday, August 26, 2012

Blueprint to Patterncraft

In the period of reconstruction following World War II, designer Frederick Ward was concerned about the lack of affordable modern furniture for working and lower middle class Australians with which to furnish their small suburban houses and apartments. Limited investment capital, shortages of materials and of labour, had impacted on Australia’s early post-war production of consumer goods, and high tariffs made imports expensive. Ward’s experience in designing moderately priced furniture in the 1930s and in managing the construction of aircraft by an inexperienced workforce during the war, led to the idea of a range of paper patterns.
Available by mail order through Australian Home Beautiful magazine from 1947, Patterncraft furniture could be made with basic skills, using common materials and a limited set of tools. Ward developed a subsequent innovation of furniture kits called Timber-pack, comprising pre-cut pieces ready to glue and assemble, further stimulating the widespread enthusiasm for DIY furniture construction among people with limited skills or without access to timber. The Patterncraft system and furniture packs helped Australians furnish their modest homes with objects they had made themselves, avoiding debt, and constituting a unique effort by a designer at responding to social need while gaining a modest economic benefit.
The launch of Patterncraft in October 1947. Image courtesy Pacific Magazines
This paper explores an historical instance of design activism that fits Ann Thorpe’s four criteria for activist design. It framed a challenging issue, made a contentious claim for change, worked on behalf of a large but neglected group and was unorthodox in its approach (Thorpe 2000). As Thorpe argues, activism more generally, is effective only as part of a broader movement or campaign. Patterncraft and Blueprint paper patterns, and Timber-packs facilitated DIY activity—a broad movement that emerged in response to changing social values and extreme post-war shortages. Furthermore, as Margolin has explained ‘…human beings depend on products in order to live their lives, or…to transform their consciousness into projects,’ and Frederick Ward’s designs for patterns and packs were both product and project (Margolin 2003).
Patterncraft patterns were first advertised in the nationally circulated Australian Home Beautiful magazine in 1947. Furniture designs and instructions to make them had been readily available for the cover price in Australian magazines since the inter-war period, but they were usually traditional in style and tended to require a much higher level of skill. Patterncraft patterns appear to have sold well until 1951 when they were replaced by a new range called Blueprint, also designed by Ward, that were sold for a further two years. While these pattern ‘services’ lasted only as long as the post-war shortages, the early success of Patterncraft led to Timber-pack, a separate brand of packaged, pre-cut wood components in Patterncraft designs, to be assembled and glued together, also available through mail order. Timber-pack appeared in 1948, and lasted beyond the shortages, until the early 1960s. It was a whole new category of commodity in the Australian context, combining elements of craft kit, and a set of affordable, modern furniture that was sold nationally, and copied by numerous companies throughout the country from the mid 1950s.
The first of two pages in Australian Home Beautiful showing Patterncraft furniture types. Image courtesy Pacific Magazines
Frederick Ward’s conception and work in designing and bringing Patterncraft to market constitutes design activism defined as; ‘design thinking, imagination and practice applied knowingly or unknowingly to create a counter-narrative aimed at generating and balancing positive social, institutional and/or environmental change’ (Thorpe 2008). His designs improved people’s daily lives by helping them to obtain the furniture they needed. Furthermore, as a low-cost solution, Ward’s designs proposed the counter-narrative of a DIY future, leading to greater financial autonomy and social mobility through lower levels of indebtedness for an unprecedented proportion of working and lower-middle class Australians who bought and built homes in the post-war period.
Patterncraft, Blueprint and Timber-pack have so far been excluded from the canon of Australian modernist design and its history, since although they were the work of a well-known designer, pioneering modernist Frederick Ward, their form—a set of patterns or kits for DIY construction meant that they didn't fit existing categories of study, such as furniture. Also the designs addressed popular taste, with Patterncraft in particular, with its American Arts and Crafts-inflected style, a homely modernism, rather than exemplifying an innovative avant-garde aesthetic. While the patterns resulted in furniture that might have been collected and studied, its amateur and mostly anonymous construction and provenance means that it hasn’t fitted with traditions of connoisseurship. Moreover, lack of interest in Patterncraft, Blueprint and Timber-pack reflects the way design often falls between the collections of decorative arts, and science and technology museums. No Australian museum has collected these patterns, packs or finished pieces, although the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has collected furniture packs of another brand.
The Context for Patterncraft
Whereas extended family households were common during the inter-war period in Australia, a generational change in values, the large pool of wartime savings, and expectations of full employment, meant that most young couples planned to buy or build a home of their own in the post-war period. But even as reconstruction planning began, a federal government report estimated there would be a nationwide housing shortage of over 300,000 homes at the war’s end (Dingle 2000). Australia’s population was also rapidly increasing as the result of a baby boom and a mass immigration program, beginning in 1947, which saw the arrival of over 200,000 immigrants from Europe by 1950 and over one million by 1960.
A significant number of Australians chose a DIY solution, building their own homes in the late 1940s. This phenomenon escalated in the 1950s and reached a peak of forty per cent in 1954 (Holland 1988). These houses were small compared to houses of the inter-war period, since state governments instituted uniform maximum house size to facilitate the maximum number of dwellings for the minimum amount of materials and labour.
Even if young couples had managed to buy or rent a home, they soon became aware of the lack of affordable modern furniture. Shortages of materials, of labour, and investment capital, meant Australian industry’s conversion from wartime manufacturing to the production of even basic consumer goods was slow, and high federal government tariffs kept imports expensive. Many young couples were deterred by the expensive tradition of buying matching furniture suites for specific rooms that required them to outlay a substantial sum or acquire a debt through a hire purchase agreement. Ward’s Patterncraft addressed the failures of manufacturers, retailers and the economy, to provide matching furniture that responded to the contemporary taste of young homemakers at a moderate cost. His intentions were based on his utopian modernist faith in the instrumentality of ‘good design’ to improve the lives of ordinary people, and a particular concern for the generation who had served in the war. As Thorpe argues, activism may ‘frame a better alternative—it may be generative’ (Thorpe 2000). His work also fits Alastair Fuad-Luke’s description of design as having ‘the ability to catalyse societal transformations. Design is critical imagining’ (Fuad-Luke 2009).
Frederick Ward: designer
Frederick Ward was Australia’s leading designer of modernist furniture prior to World War II. He had trained as an artist and worked as a cartoonist and illustrator but was fascinated by mechanisms and enjoyed making things (Carter 2007). He began designing and making furniture for his own use, which he then sold to friends and before long, to a large retailer, the Myer Emporium. Ward sought training by attending technical drawing classes, displayed his furniture in exhibitions held by the Victorian Arts and Crafts Society and opened an eponymous shop, gallery and interior design consultancy in 1932.
By 1934 Ward was employed full time, supervising a fine furniture workshop producing his sober Depression-era ‘Unit Range’ for Myer. Made in cost-effective Australian native timbers, pieces or ‘units’ could be purchased one by one, as finances allowed—appealing to the section of the thrifty middle class who had some disposable income at the end of the Depression. Advertisements presented the Unit Range as modern through its flexibility: it was suitable for use in different rooms and for apartment life since it wasn’t bulky. Also the woman of the house, or a neighbourhood seamstress could replace its soft covers, changing interiors cheaply and fashionably with the seasons.
With the entry of Japan into World War II in December 1941 Ward, like many Australians, registered for military service in early 1942. But he was assessed as unfit and as serving in a reserved occupation. Ward was directed to work in the Department of Aircraft Production where his manufacturing and management experience was used in the production of timber-framed Mosquito aircraft. Later he took charge of the (blueprint) plans and drawings for the Beaufort Beaufighters and instituted the ‘stream of modifications sent out from Britain’ (Ward nd.). Ward established ‘a unit to handle the clarification of all drawings and manufacturing data ordered from industry’ through the Department of Aircraft Production. He designed a shadow board for the Beaufort, enabling semi-skilled labourers, including women who were new to factory work, to assemble it more quickly and effectively.
At the war’s end in 1945, Ward wrote a letter to the editor of the Melbourne Herald, which partly explains his motivation in developing Patterncraft. He argues that the federal government, manufacturers and retailers need to collaborate in using design to create products for the domestic market that will stand up to international competition in the post war period. He explains that Australia’s economic development depends on the education of both a young generation of industrial designers and the public as consumers. In the short term Ward recommends that ‘we must improve with what is now available’, failing to give clear guidelines of what he has in mind or how it should be undertaken. But Patterncraft fits Ward’s prescription, it was a pragmatic improvement on what was available in terms of furniture aimed at the mass market of working and lower middle class consumers, a new low cost alternative to the mostly traditional, relatively expensive products of the furniture industry. It would also provide an accessible introduction to a casual, homely modernism.
The second of two pages in Australian Home Beautiful showing Patterncraft furniture types. Image courtesy Pacific Magazines
Patterncraft: A design, a service and a brand
On his demobilisation Ward became a consultant for Australian manufacturers who had supported the war effort that were now turning their equipment and personnel to peacetime production. He worked on a range of projects, including a successful design for an egg-incubator called the Empress, before returning to Myer and furniture production aimed at the affluent middle class market. It was at this time he came up with the idea for Patterncraft. According to Fred’s wife Elinor, his motivation was as humanitarian as it was entrepreneurial.
Fred wanted of course to do something to help returning soldiers, some of them missing a leg, or otherwise damaged. Their money was first spent on a spree and then on buying a house — not much left to furnish it and start again … he had the idea of designing some basic pieces of furniture so simple that any man could make them with the few tools in every house, a hammer, a chisel, a saw, a hand lathe, even a tape measure. But how to get directions to the men was the question. The answer was at hand. The Herald already had a service of patterns for making home frocks and such things. Patterns could be cut to fit the parts of timber used to make a table, a stool, a chair and soon even a drawer or a bed.
Tam Purves and his wife who ran the paper pattern service already were enthusiastic. At once they joined up and Patterncraft was born. Fred designed the furniture, making the first pieces himself. The Purvis pair cut the paper patterns to fit the timber. The Herald ran the patterns and sold them with plenty of ads also in Home Beautiful where I wrote the articles showing how to furnish a room for an incredibly small amount of cash; every piece and upholstery material documented. The patterns sold like hot cakes. Fred got a royalty of two shillings and sixpence on each and over the years it came to a tidy sum (Ward nd.).
Ward’s wartime experience in training and developing systems for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in manufacturing had given him a unique insight into designing for DIY production by his future clients. His understanding of popular taste, and of the increasing post-war enthusiasm for modernist design, was also important in the development of the new product.
Patterncraft was heavily promoted in the October 1947 issue of Australian Home Beautiful, firstly on the cover and then in a two page article titled ‘Elinor Ward Suggests: Lounge Furniture for the Times’. A half page illustration shows two men and two fashionably dressed women in a living room furnished with three identical armchairs, a divan, a stool and a magazine table from the new Patterncraft range. The introduction makes clear that Patterncraft addresses shortages and budgetary considerations.
If you have been hamstrung in your furnishing by production shortages; if you are a person who hates waiting for something to happen; or if you are champing at the bit to get that house of yours looking decent; take a look at the drawing of the room which laughs at such troubles, Home Beautiful Patterncraft furniture designs have been used in this economical and practical room for the times (Ward 1947). Initially the patterns were branded as ‘Home Beautiful Patterncraft’, either a sign of the editor’s concern about whether this new product will be taken up by readers, or alternatively, a confidence that readers’ loyalty to the magazine would flow on to this new product as an extension of its brand.
A full-page photograph showing a young woman glancing through a magazine in a room filled to capacity with Patterncraft furniture, and a double page spread showing the designs followed Elinor Ward’s article. The text notes that only three designs are available and that others will be released each month through the magazine, but the three pages of illustrations have made clear that Patterncraft is a co-ordinated set of designs. Within a year patterns for 26 different pieces of furniture and toys were made available.
Patterncraft was presented as easily made, with the minimum number of tools. Image courtesy Pacific Magazines
While Patterncraft was simple and flexible in use like Ward’s earlier Unit Range, its DIY mode of production was profoundly different. Australian Home Beautiful’s photographic illustrations of the furniture were followed by a page with a set of captioned photos, showing a young woman wielding a saw and a sanding block, and a man in a white business shirt using a hand-operated drill, to encourage women and inexperienced lower middle class male readers. The first caption suggests that Patterncraft designs are ‘so simple they can successfully built by women, providing a little time and patience is spent on the job. Almost every saw cut is a straight one and in most designs this hard work has been reduced to a minimum’ (Australian Home Beautiful, 1947a).
NOW, probably more than ever, shortages of building materials, fittings and equipment are making the problem of setting up a home even more difficult. Rising costs, too, have added their burden and are often the last straw, which breaks the financial camel’s back when the newly finished empty house has to be turned into a home with the installation of floor coverings and furniture. Even the modest requirements of a newly married couple in this field can run into several hundred pounds, and it is regrettable that very often the quality of furniture is nowadays scarcely on a par with that of pre-war goods (Australian Home Beautiful, 1947b).Copy accompanying the order form, describes Patterncraft as a system of home carpentry produced by a panel of experts and as a ‘valuable contribution to present day needs’.
Patterncraft helped working class and lower middle class people to furnish their homes using their own labour and to buy the materials when they could afford and obtain them. Along with other DIY projects such as renovating, painting and even self-building, it allowed them to avoid debt, build financial equity in their homes and thus attain an unprecedented level of economic independence in the following decades. University student and returned air force serviceman Bill Woodburn, whose only training in woodwork had been classes in Sloyd in his first two years of secondary school, made a set of Patterncraft furniture that was part of the inspiration for he and his wife Bettina to build a two-bedroom mud brick (adobe) house in the summer of 1948-49. In an interview about their experience of DIY building he explained; “[T] hat’s what triggered it off!” (Woodburn and Woodburn 2010).
Timber-pack and followers
Nine months after its launch, in July 1948, a Patterncraft advertisement shared the page with one for Timber-Pack, described as ‘Completed sets of machined, band sawn, shaped and sanded ready-to-assemble parts …for … Patterncraft designs’. Timber-pack was introduced with the headline; ‘The Timber Problem Solved’, referring to the general difficulty people had obtaining it. Production by the Australian timber industry was insufficient to domestic requirements in the post war period and imports from Europe and Scandinavia could not meet the gap in demand. Some Patterncraft promotions in the late 1940s suggested re-cycling timber from older furniture and buildings.
Early advertisement for Timber-pack, a new category of commodity. Image courtesy Pacific Magazines
Timber-Packs were successfully sold through mail order from the Purves’s pattern factory in Collingwood, until 1954. At first Patterncraft patterns and Timber-Packs were advertised together, with the public being advised that the patterns were required for the construction of the packs, but later they were advertised separately. By 1951 it appears that the Fler Company of Fred Lowen and Ernest Rodek, which became a leading furniture manufacturer in the following two decades, was producing Timber-Pack components.
In 1950 Ward moved to Canberra to work on a major interior and furniture design commission for Australia’s growing capital, leaving an opening for others to design for Timber-pack. He did however supply the new designs for Blueprint patterns that continued with the low-skill requirements, but addressed increasing enthusiasm for modernist style without the heaviness that was the obvious legacy of Arts and Crafts style in Patterncraft. While Timber-packs continued to add new designs and were sold into the early 1960s, Australian Home Beautiful replaced Blueprint in 1954 with Plycraft patterns. These were designed for use with more affordable plywood, by architect Walter Gherardin, and Ron Rosenberg who had trained with Ward in the Myer workshop. But this venture appears to have been unsuccessful, lasting only a few months.
Australian Home Beautiful and other shelter magazines published advertisements for new furniture kits produced by a range of manufacturers in Melbourne and in other states by the mid 1950s. Since the worst shortages of timber were largely overcome by early 1954, it appears the continued popularity of furniture kits was related to their affordability and the popularity of DIY activity. Furniture packs were often marketed with the use of the term ‘pre-fab’, indicating popular understanding of the success of pre-fabrication in helping solve Australia’s housing crisis.
Blueprint patterns replaced Patterncraft towards the end of the period of post-war shortages. While they were more modern in design they were equally simple to make. Image courtesy Pacific Magazines
Frederick Ward’s designs for Patterncraft, Blueprint and Timber-pack became extremely popular, evidenced by the life of the pattern services, advertisements for Timber-pack and the perennial appearance of Patterncraft furniture in vintage furniture stores today. Anne Purves recalled that an Australian Home Beautiful photographer told her that he came across Patterncraft furniture throughout Australia, no matter how far he went from Melbourne where they originated (Purves C 2008). It is likely, since paper dress patterns were frequently shared among women within families, and easily mailed over vast distances, that Patterncraft and Blueprint patterns were copied and shared among family and friends, and not necessarily employed in the recommended manner to be glued to the timber and used only once.
As Thorpe explains, design activism is more than good design that ‘constitutes general improvements to daily life … gained through private consumption, accessed according to the consumer’s ability to pay’ (Thorpe 2011). Frederick Ward’s response to the specific social and economic context of post-war shortages and the failure of existing manufacturers to adjust to the needs of post-war society, can be understood as design activism however, even if typically design activism typically ‘distances itself from commercial or mainstream public policy-driven approaches’ ( While Ward’s designs were commercially successful on a modest scale, this ensured that they continued to reach a mass audience—because they provided a financial return for the Herald and Weekly Times, publisher of Australian Home Beautiful.
Although flat-pack furniture today is often associated with multi-national conglomerates, rapid obsolescence and questionable environmental practices, Patterncraft, Blueprint and Timber-pack are examples of design for DIY production that met the practical needs and economic constraints of users at a time of shortage rather than excess. They gave users of a confidence in their capacity to make the things they needed and facilitated a DIY future that often included building and renovating, and at the least, making essential pieces of furniture at a moderate cost that enabled working and lower middle class people to consolidate their finances and avoid debt.
Australian Home Beautiful (1947a), ‘Home Beautiful Patterncraft Furniture’, 26, (10): 30. Australian Home Beautiful (1947b), ‘You Can Make this Furniture From Paper Patterns’, 26 (10): 26. Carter, Nanette (2007) Savage Luxury: Modernist Design in Melbourne 1930-1939, Bulleen Victoria: Heide MOMA. Dingle, Tony (2000) ‘Necessity the Mother of Invention, or Do-It-Yourself’ in P. Troy, A History of European Housing in Australia, Oakleigh, Victoria: Cambridge University Press: 57-76. Fuad-Luke, Alastair (2009) Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World, London: Earthscan. last viewed 23/9/2011. Holland, Graham (1988) Emoh Ruo: Owner Building in Sydney, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger. Margolin, Victor (2003)‘ The Designer as Producer: Working Outside Mainstream Manufacturing’, in Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne (Eds.), Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, New York: Allworth Press: 159-164. Purves, Anne (with Felicity St John Moore) (nd.) Sprinters and Stayers: Forty Years of Handling Australian Artists: Australian Galleries 1956 to 1996, unpublished manuscript, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, PA00/700, Box 11. Purves, Caroline (2008) personal interview, Collingwood, 17/8/2008. Thorpe, Ann (2011) ‘Defining Design as Activism’,, last accessed 10/8/2011. Thorpe, Ann (2008) ‘Design as Activism: A Conceptual Tool’, in Changing the Change, Design Visions, Proposals and Tools, Changing the Change Conference, Turin, Italy. Ward, Elinor (1947) ‘Elinor Ward Suggests: Lounge Furniture For the Times’, Australian Home Beautiful, 26, (10): 18-19. Ward, Elinor (nd.) Puss’s Journal, (unpublished manuscript), collection Dr Martin Ward, Canberra. Woodburn Bettina and Woodburn Bill (2010), personal interview, Williamstown, 4/8/2010.
Professor Kate Darian-Smith
Caroline Purves
Dr Martin Ward
Bettina and Bill Woodburn
Pacific Magazines for permission to publish illustrations from Australian Home Beautiful.
This article is a revised version of a paper given at the Design History Society's Annual Conference, on Design Activism, held in Barcelona, September 2011.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nipped in the Bud: Clement Meadmore’s interior for the Teahouse

The Teahouse, Melbourne
c.1956, reproduced
courtesy of Ion Nicolades

It is widely known that prior to embarking on a successful international career as a sculptor, that Clement Meadmore was an influential Australian designer of furniture and of the interior of the groundbreaking modernist Legend Espresso and Milk Bar in Melbourne's CBD in 1955. With its black metal and fibreglass furniture, semi-abstract murals by artist Leonard French and its brilliant colour scheme, the Legend was Melbourne’s most remarkable café interior at the time when the city was gearing up to host the Olympic Games and doing its best to live up to the image of a progressive and cosmopolitan city. What has been overlooked is that Meadmore designed a second café and milk bar called the Teahouse for Ion Nicolades, the same client who had commissioned the Legend.


Clement Meadmore´s 1955 design for the Teahouse was a re-working of the traditional ladies´ tearoom. It is examined here not only for its addition to the picture of Australian modernist design in the 1950s but also for what it can tell us about the durable appeal of a notional ´Britishnesss´ within Australia´s increasingly modern, cosmopolitan and American influenced consumer culture of the post World War II period. It is argued that allegiance to the British Empire was affirmed within the ‘spectacular space’ of the Teahouse, an interior designed for women, within which the labour and control of subject people was encoded. From the 19th century commodity of tea and spaces associated with it had been sold throughout Britain and the British Empire using images of imposed order associated with European domination and total control.1

Melbourne’s successful 1949 bid to host the XVI Olympic Games had led to a building boom, not only of modern sporting facilities like the Borland, McIntyre and Murphy Olympic Swimming Pool (1956), but also a range of commercial buildings and retail spaces in anticipation of the impact of thousands of international and inter-state visitors. Economic expectations and modernisation inspired the renovation of many existing businesses including the Sigales/Nicolades family café and milk bar in Bourke Street that had been established by Ion Nicolades’ maternal grandfather as the Anglo American Café and confectionary store around 1918. Transformed by Meadmore´s design and with a change of name, it became the Legend.

While both the Legend and the Teahouse served workers and city shoppers at café tables by day, they also attended to patrons of neighbouring cinemas and theatres into the evenings. They provided bar service for confectionary, ice creams, milkshakes and other cold drinks around screening times and at intervals. Inter-war milk bars and cafes located in proximity to cinemas and theatres were a particular kind of social space, their moderne styling providing highly reflective interiors within which patrons would see and be seen by others as an extension of the spectacular experience of film and theatrical performances. Following this custom of spectacular space the Legend and the Teahouse provided a somewhat more stage-like interior than cafes in locations with a more retail or business focus.

The background and practice of the Teahouse designer Clement Meadmore are explored here in order to grasp his intentions and better understand the expression of a nostalgic ´Britishness´ in a modernist interior. It is apparent though that the design for the Teahouse necessarily addressed the commercial imperative of providing a café interior that welcomed a specific sector of the public that would have been unlikely to patronise the highly successful Legend only a few doors away. This group was middle class women, for who the Teahouse´s updated narrative of British imperial power held greater attraction than the internationalism implied by the Legend´s modernist design and the emerging multiculturalism implied by the style of its food and drink choices.

In examining the Teahouse’s evocation of the British Empire, this article seeks to uncover something of the relationship of gender, class and allegiance to a notional Britishness that characterised a sector of Australian society in the mid 1950s and how its expression was underpinned by racial ideology. In the white settler colonies of Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, Britishness was conceived of as “vitally dependent on Anglo-Saxonism and Caucasian racialism”.2 Allegiance to Britain the seat of Empire, was supported by access to a range of commodities including tea whose advertising and promotion in international exhibitions reinforced the “vertical control over production and of an ordered workforce” of ‘coolies’…”.3

The Legend: Clement Meadmore Designer

Sculptor Clement Meadmore became prominent in the United States in the late 1960s and ´70s, with major museums buying his work and commissions for large scale abstract works in metal, often sited in the forecourts of major corporate headquarters. A local example is his Awakening (1968) positioned in front of the AMP building in William Street Melbourne. Art was the second career for Meadmore however; he had emerged as a leading designer of modernist furniture in Australia in the early 1950s.

After completing a first year in aeronautical engineering, Meadmore shifted to the new Industrial Design course at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology from which he graduated in 1949. He established an industrial and interior design practice called Meadmore Originals in 1952 at 86 Collins Street before moving it to 62 Little Collins Street.4 In 1956 he formed a short-lived partnership to manufacture his furniture designs with Max Robinson 5 and Michael Hirst manufactured some Meadmore furniture designs in addition to his own, from 1959. Meadmore began a fruitful and lasting collaborating with Max Hutchinson in 1956, to manufacture and market his designs. They established Gallery A in Melbourne 1959, an influential exhibition space for new design and local artists working with abstraction, where Meadmore displayed both his design work and early sculptures.

Meadmore´s designs were promoted through occasional advertisements and through extensive editorial coverage. His furniture along with that of Grant Featherston, Douglas Snelling and Gerard Doube was ubiquitous in the exciting new modernist homes designed by architects including Robin Boyd, Peter and Dionne McIntyre, and Roy Grounds, that were widely illustrated in Australian Home Beautiful and other local journals.

An occasional contributor to the journal Architecture and Arts from 1953, Meadmore wrote short articles about furniture, lighting and interior design that indicate a thoughtful approach. While his interiors and exhibition displays recycled a set of his furniture, storage and lighting designs that he was able to build up using different manufacturers, his practice was far from a rigid system. In a 1955 article on interior design he wrote
"The aim of interior design is much more than merely furnishing a room tastefully. Apart from the basic necessities there is an infinite variety of personal idiosyncrasies which a skilful designer should be capable of incorporating into a unified whole…The same principles apply to all types of interiors — business, professional, exhibition or commercial."6

Meadmore’s reputation as a furniture designer was clearly established with his daring black steel dining chair and bar stools with brightly coloured synthetic fibre cord forming their backs and seats that appeared widely in advertising and fashionable interiors throughout Australia from 1952. He received a national Good Design Award for the chairs from the Good Design Society in Sydney that year. His chairs, tables, shelving units and lighting were sold by department stores the Myer Emporium and Georges, modern furniture specialists Anderson and Michael Hirst, and interior design consultancies such as Stuart’s of South Yarra and Marion-Hall Best in Sydney.

In addition to furniture and lighting designs, Meadmore undertook a small number of interior design commissions, most famously for The Legend Espresso and Milk Bar at 239 Bourke Street. Commissioned by Ion Nicolades, a friend of Meadmore’s from Melbourne’s modern jazz scene, the Legend departed from the milk bar and café vernacular inspired by American drugstores, that had proliferated throughout Australian cities and country towns in the 1930s and continued into the post war period. Rather than the streamlined stainless steel counters, ice-cream palette and prevalence of glossy laminates and glass, Meadmore used Scandinavian/northern European-inspired vertical wood panelling for the bar and long fluorescent lights suspended with a playful asymmetry throughout the adjoining long narrow spaces. Tiny mosaic tiles were used on the exterior and a terrazzo floor was made of large irregular stone pieces contrasting with the fine terrazzo and large exterior faience tiles used on inter-war milk bars and cafes.

The Legend Espresso Bar
Melbourne c.1957, reproduced
courtesy of Ion Nicolades

With its sharp right angles and strong abstract forms, details like its contemporary punctured aluminium down lights over the café tables at the rear and welded black steel chairs that Meadmore designed specifically for the cafe, The Legend gained considerable attention for its design. Michael Bogle has described it as an ”…innovative and playful interior developed within the language of international modernism” explaining that “Meadmore’s aesthetic during this period permitted a surprising use of colour and pattern, far exceeding any of his later works.”7 The primary colours red, blue and yellow at full intensity were chosen for the fibreglass stool seats and the laminate counters of both café and milk bar. The Legend’s furniture appears to have been influenced by American style, the furniture is suggestive of the chairs of Harry Bertoia, Don Knorr and Eero Saarinen for Knoll.

A much admired feature of the design was its inclusion of contemporary abstract art, a suite of seven paintings Meadmore commissioned from emerging artist Leonard French on the theme of Sinbad the Sailor, hung behind the Espresso bar. French used rich jewel-like colours with red and yellow as the dominant hues and bold symbolic shapes. The wall of the milk bar was hung with mirrors that reflected the paintings opposite, the wall dividing the two areas was punctuated with openings to allow the images to jump across the space, recalling the way that images leap from film to screen in the nearby cinemas. The front window of the Espresso bar displayed a welded metal sculpture by Meadmore, inspired by French’s abstracted representation of Sinbad’s ship that provided a visual connection to the lines of its steel chair backs at the rear of the cafe.

The Legend has been described as introducing a new kind of café and milieu that introduced Anglo Australians to the sophisticated café culture of Europe and contributed to the acceptance of the values of multiculturalism. While often far too much is made of the acceptance of the food and dining culture of Australia’s non-British migrants as a sign of their social acceptance, of social harmony and the success of multiculturalism, certainly The Legend offered a striking modernist interior in which to enjoy Italian coffee, pasta and risotto dishes, Greek cakes as well as a range of more traditional Anglo-Australian café fare in a prominent downtown location.8

The Teahouse

Neglected so far in accounts of Meadmore´s design work, the Teahouse was a smaller café and milk bar Meadmore also designed for Ion Nicolades in response to the success of The Legend. It was in the same block and on the same side of Bourke Street, near the corner of Swanston Street, the axis of the commercial epicentre of Melbourne’s CBD. Like the Legend, it catered to passing trade and the cinema crowds, but while the chic modern bars of Italy inspired the Legend, either directly or via London’s rapidly proliferating youth-oriented coffee bars, the Teahouse referred to their maiden great aunt, the quaint British tearoom.

While also a dramatically modernist interior in the context of mid 1950s Melbourne, the Teahouse referred to the well-established tearoom typology, minus the clutter. It was aimed at middle class women and was thus a space that was gendered female. Not surprisingly its menu reflects its appeal to Anglo-Australian certainties with tea (China blend or Ceylon), along with various iced drinks, sandwiches, salads and grills. Coffee was not offered and neither was pasta nor baklava.

The Teahouse, Melbourne
c.1956, reproduced
courtesy of Ion Nicolades

The bringing together of women and narratives of the British Empire has been regarded as somewhat problematic since traditionally women weren’t understood as being active contributors to its formation and development. Upper and middle class men were understood as having made and maintained the British Empire without them; women’s role in empire was represented as largely symbolic or peripheral. Yet within Britain and throughout the British Empire and later the British Commonwealth, women gave tacit political support and drove the imperial project through their enthusiastic consumption of imperial goods and services, spectacles and images of empire. Being seen as supporting the Empire through their consumption fitted with the traditional construction of women as consumers rather than producers.

Contrasting with the grids and right angles prevalent in The Legend scheme, Meadmore made judicious use of the arabesque and the curved line and of plants, both as motif and as objects in the Teahouse. Since the nineteenth century, organic lines and shapes were used to signify the feminine through an ostensible connection to the female body and to its natural capacity to support new life. A mural on the right hand side of the café, painted by Meadmore himself spelled the letter ‘T’ assembled from a range of Victorian Baroque architectural ornament festooned with plant tendrils.9 One front window was filled with hanging baskets while the other included a pot of ribbon grass, a squat Victorian silver teapot and the 4 page menu on a slender metal stand on a bed of small white stones. The name of the café was painted on the front windows in two contrasting nineteenth century typefaces.

The Teahouse, Melbourne
c.1956, reproduced
courtesy of Ion Nicolades

The recoding of Victorian vernacular design Meadmore used here was also characteristic of an emerging strand of modernist design in England in the 1950s that he may have encountered during his trip to England and Europe in 1953 and through imported architecture and design journals. Mary Quant and Alexander Plunkett-Green were drawing attention to their Chelsea boutique Bazaar with surrealist assemblages of Victorian tat picked up from local second-hand dealers. In the cutting edge Typographica magazine (1949-1967) Herbert Spencer published photo-essays on Victorian vernacular signs and combined decorative wooden type with modern sans serif typefaces on covers and in layouts. Meadmore´s play with traditional typefaces, hanging baskets of trailing plants and strategically positioned silver teapot were similarly ironic and expressed a confidence in controlling the mixed messages of redundant Victorian vernacular and modernist iconoclasm.

Echoing the asymmetrical arrangement of lighting in the Legend, Meadmore hung around thirty conical lightshades in a close and irregular arrangement in the front half of the Teahouse. While fitting with the modernist enthusiasm for basic geometric shapes, primary colours and forms, in this context, the conical shape is also an allusion to the straw hats of tea plantation workers. While it is a striking visual effect, the allusion to colonial labour – undifferentiated, endless and mute, encoded an inevitability and triumphalism characteristic of nineteenth century commodity kitsch of the kind seen in traditional tearooms and in advertisements for soap and tea. As theorist Anne McClintock argues, in these kinds of representations, white women and racial types “are figured not as historic agents but as frames for the commodity, valued for exhibition alone”. This is despite the fact that it was the poorly paid and often indentured labourers and forced colonial trade ´agreements´ that made tea and other formerly exotic commodities affordable and ubiquitous in Britain and throughout the Empire and Commonwealth.10 Similarly middle class womens’ traditional labour of keeping house and raising children is understood today as productive in economic terms.

The Teahouse, Melbourne
c.1956, reproduced
courtesy of Ion Nicolades

In discussing the politics of race evident in tea advertising Arnandi Ramamurthy explains that while “in the majority of advertising, the social relations of production and depictions of labours are usually deliberately hidden”, in the case of tea advertising from the 19th century it was “exalted”.11 Tea was promoted using images of imposed order over the bushes of the ‘tea-garden’ landscape, lines of plodding elephants and through innumerable regularly spaced workers. Ramamurthy points out how despite the demise of the British Empire, the representation of regimented coolies persisted in British tea packaging and advertising into the late 1980s.12

While Meadmore explored overtly illusionistic spatial effects with the Legend, there are no such effects in the Teahouse. Its side walls were covered with emphatically flat vertical panels of a single colour, curved at the top to suggest the swag of a curtain. This curve echoes the concave detailing on the back of the café chairs but more importantly it represents the drape of textile walls, constituting a motif with a long history, the campaign tent. Since the Christian crusades it has appeared in Western manuscripts, in painting, textiles and decoration, alluding to military adventures and conquests. It was prominently revived in the early nineteenth century in France as part of Empire style, notably in the porte cochere and interiors of the Empress Josephine’s house Malmaison, apparently to help the habitual conqueror Napoleon feel at home when not abroad in the battlefield. In the Teahouse the campaign tent motif alludes to the British Empire, the ´romance´ of life under canvas experienced by the military and the adventuring of early capitalists in Asia. The rear wall was covered with a curtain, a continuous length of actual textile, creating an intimate, contained space that gestured to the traditionally feminine domain of the tearoom with its abundant use of textiles, albeit in a spare modernist manner.

The colour palette of the Teahouse presents another contrast with the Meadmore’s design for the interior of the Legend. While primary colours at full intensity had been used there, more sedate, lady-like autumnal colours of green, yellow and orange with accents of white and grey were chosen for the Teahouse.13

As with the Legend Meadmore custom-designed chairs for the Teahouse using black steel frames but this time using bent ply for the seat and back. The design was possibly inspired by Danish designer Arne Jacobsen’s Ant chair (1952) that went on to become a much-emulated international design classic. Other possible influences on the frame include Harry Bertoia’s Diamond chair (1952), Donald Knorr’s Metal Chair (1950), and other Knoll and Herman Miller designs using steel. A likely local influence is Grant Featherston’s cane and steel chair (1954) in which the seat appears to be raised above its horizontal thin steel support. In terms of Meadmore’s development as a designer and experimentation with materials, the Teahouse chair is half way between the Legend’s black steel chair with simple vertical bars as a back support and his 1959 plastic coated steel grid chair manufactured by Michael Hirst with its strikingly sculptural back.

The Teahouse chair wasn’t Meadmore’s first use of bent ply, he had used it in an extraordinary Surrealist-inspired and experimental three-legged stacking chair design in 1954-5. The top of the orange-coloured chair back is scooped out, echoing the curve of the wall panels and suggesting a tealeaf out of which the tip has been plucked. In the view from the street, the café’s assembled chairs imply a tea garden bed over which the ghostly coolie hat lampshades float.

Tea and triumphalism

When Melbourne succeeded in its bid for the Olympic Games in 1949 Australia´s economy was relatively limited, some would say stifled, by tight government control of banking and finance. The move from a war economy to consumer society was held back by the strong fears of the Labor government (maintained by the succeeding Liberal government) that the conditions that had produced the 1930s depression might return if control of interest rates, tariffs and other controls were lifted. Increasing sales of agricultural exports and primary materials in the early 1950s, notably wool to supply American and allied soldiers engaged in the escalating Korean War, provided an injection of capital. This created much-needed liquidity and supported the development of domestic consumption and business investment.

While increasing immigration from Europe contributed much needed labour and stimulated demand throughout the 1950s, Australian manufacturers and retailers struggled to obtain materials and supply goods and the government and building industry scrambled to address housing needs. Shortages of housing and basic goods contributed to social friction. The development of a consumer culture to support Melbourne´s realisation of a progressive, open and cosmopolitan city and society was a work in progress rather than a fait accompli in 1955. Multiculturalism was a future reality, assimilation was the dominant ideology in relation to both immigrants and indigenous Australians at this time.

Even as Australians returned in the post-war period to the internationalism and fascination with the power of American capitalism and its vigorous consumer culture, that had begun in the 1930s, loyalty to Britain, to the monarchy and the British Commonwealth were central to Australian official culture and middle class values in the mid 1950s. It was HRH the Duke of Edinburgh who would open the 1956 Olympic Games, the royal presence sanctioning Melbourne´s reaching out to embrace the world beyond the Commonwealth.

It has been argued that the culture and values at all levels of British society from the ruling class to factory workers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were fundamentally shaped by Britain´s imperial project, that “…militarism, heroism, masculinity and monarchy formed a cluster of the core beliefs of imperial patriotism.”14 Further, that Australia´s white settler colonial society was characterised by a ´powerful ideology of whiteness´, “an aspect of Britishness that the colonial setting generated”.15 Recent research has emphasized the durability of Britishness in the settler-colonial world, well into the post-war period.

Clement Meadmore´s Teahouse used the language of international modernism along with conical floating coolie hat light shades, campaign tent panels and Victorian vernaculars to present a racially inscribed narrative, constructing middle class Australian society as part of the British empire, attached by the “…crimson thread of kinship of white imperial ties”.16 Ideologies of race formed “…one common if non-identical link between the far-flung colonies of the British empire.”17 The language, sentiments and civic culture of the British world were extremely resilient in the face of unprecedented strains on the material and cultural ties of the British Empire and Commonwealth in the post World War II period.18


The Teahouse provided space within which Britishness was performed by middle class women in Melbourne from 1955 until around 1958, when the lease was terminated when the building it occupied was sold. Like Joseph Paxton´s Crystal Palace, which heralded the introduction of a total glass inspection house whose innovation lay “…its ability to merge the pleasure principle with the discipline of the spectacle”, the Teahouse was a spectacular space.19 Deriving its role from its position close to cinemas and theatres and Melbourne´s retail centre, the Teahouse was commissioned to address a section of the middle class market, primarily women, whose values and tastes were not addressed by the Legend´s sophisticated language of style with its striking references to Scandinavian and American modernism, and Mediterranean culture in its art and food. The use of Victorian vernaculars in the signage, objects and motifs of the Teahouse and its basis in the feminine tearoom typology, communicated the certainties of tradition, even as its interior simultaneously incorporated new materials, abstraction and a functionalist minimalism.

While modernist in style, the conical lightshades, wall panels and chairs of the Teahouse encoded triumphal messages about the British Empire and its control of subject non-white people and their labour. Despite the reality of the dismantling of the Empire, the transformation of the uncontrolled exotic into the everyday domestic commodity was reinforced through the commodity spectacle in this space. In her analysis of colonial commodity kitsch of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries McClintock explains how it refigures “…military subjugation, cultural coercion and economic thuggery…as benign domestic processes.20 Ironically Clement Meadmore´s design, which encouraged the performance of Britishness by Melbourne’s middle class matrons and young women, celebrated the colonial project, updating and reinforcing it using of the language of modernism with its internationalist inflections.

1 Arnandi Ramamurthy, ‘Landscapes of Order and Imperial Control: The Representation of Plantation Production in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century Tea Advertising’, Space and Culture, 4, 5 (2000), 159-168
2 Stuart Ward, ‘The New Nationalism’ in Australia, Canada and New Zealand: Civic Culture in the Wake of the British World’, in Kate Darian-Smith, Patricia Grimshaw & Stuart Macintyre, Britishness Abroad: Transnational Movements and Imperial Cultures, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007), 11,231-236, 234.
3 Ramamurthy, 160
4 Michael Bogle, ‘Clement Meadmore in Australia’, Australiana, 23, 3,(2001), 81-85.
5 Bogle
6 Clement Meadmore, ‘Furniture and Personality’, Architecture and Arts, November 1954, 28-29.
7 Bogle, 82.
8 Toni Risson, Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill:Greek Cafes in Twentieth Century Australia, (Ipswich, Qld, T. Risson, 2007.)
9 Interview with Ion Nicolades, Melbourne, August 2007.
10 Anne McClintock , Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, (New York, London: Routledge, 1995.), 223.
11 Ramamurthy, 160.
12 Ramamurthy, 169.
13 Interview with Ion Nicolades, Melbourne, August 2007.
14 Darian-Smith et al, Introduction, 4.
15 Darian-Smith et al, Introduction, 9.
16 Darian-Smith et al, Introduction, 10.
17 Darian-Smith et al, Introduction, 11.
18 Ward, 237.
19 McClintock, 58.
20 McClintock, 223.

This article is a revised version of a paper that was presented at the SAHANZ conference in Auckland in 2009.