Mid-Century Modern – An exhibition in iconic Australian furniture

Grant Featherston - Contour chaise longue Z300 designed 1950 and manufactured 1953 by Emerson Bros Pty Ltd via artshubdotcomdotau

The first major exhibition of its kind, Mid-Century Modern at Melbourne’s NGV explores Australian furniture styles from the 1940s to the 1970s. Presented by the Ian Potter Centre, Mid-Century Modern charts four decades of dynamic design. 

Keen to know more about the movers and shakers in Australian furniture design? Mid-Century Modern at the NGV offers an insightful look into iconic home-grown style from the 1940s to the 1970s, featuring work from Australian greats such as Grant Featherston, Clement Meadmore, Gordon Andrews and more.

From left: Douglas Snelling’s webbed lounge chair, Gordon Andrews’ Rondo chairs and Roger McLay’s Kone Chair Image sources from left: via tongueandgroove.com.au, artshub.com.au and duckfat.com.au

In the decades following World War II, Australia experienced significant social change. A spirit of optimism emerged in the aftermath of years of crippling depression and debilitating war. Prime Minister Chifley promoted immigration with the slogan “Populate or perish”, resulting in a rich, new cultural diversity and an influx of skilled European artisans.

Grant and Mary Featherston’s designs transitioned from hand-made to mass-produced, implementing new industrial materials. Notably the Relaxation chair (1947), the plywood Contour chair (1950), and the steel-framed Delma chair (1963) Image source via featerston.com.au

A new style of cosmopolitan living was introduced. New techniques for mass-production were forged. New materials became available whilst others grew scarce, driving innovation. The result – the contemporary Australian interior was revolutionised.

Inspired by the shifting paradigm of modernism, local designers struck out against the over-stuffed, traditional conservatism of the pre-war period. Furniture design evolved into flexible and organic forms, showcasing pared-back, sculptural silhouettes. The modernist ethos was that good design could enhance an individual’s life.

Fred Ward’s DIY Patterncraft furniture Image source: designjot.blogspot.com

Ornate gave way to sleek simplicity; timber and luxe upholstery, to plywood, steel and industrial plastics. Grant Featherston’s Contour seating range and Clement Meadmore’s welded steel corded chairs are now synonymous with Australian interiors of the 1950s. Similarly the sophistication of Gordon Andrews’ designs for home and office represent the 1960s. These designs are on show alongside those of Douglas Snelling, Fred Lowen, even Fred Ward’s post-war DIY Patterncraft furniture (paper patterns for creating your own furniture).

From left: Grant Featherston’s living room setting at Hotel Federal, 1953 exhibition, and Douglas Snelling’s webbed chair Image source: the Featherston Archive, Melbourne and NGV via artshub.com.au and artrecord.com

The exhibition presents the designers’ drawings and workings as well as textiles, and photos of contemporary architecture as context as well as interior vignettes, including a full-scale living room of the 1955 Age Dream Home. It includes work by visual artists and occasional dabblers in furniture design, Robert Klippel and Janet Dawson.

From left: Clement Meadmore’s welded steel corded chairs (circa 1952) and Gordon Andrews’ Gazelle chair (1957) Image sources from left: via tongueandgroove.com.au and via dhub.org

Tony Ellwood, director of the NGV, explains, “Mid-Century Modern is the first major Australian survey to provide an in-depth look at this period, revealing how Australian furniture designers moved away from traditional, conservative pre-war styles and forged a new language of design that was innovative in its use of materials, functional and often imbued with a good dose of style.”

NGV’s Mid-Century Modern exhibition is open 30 May 2014 to 19 Oct 2014. Immerse yourself in vintage velvet browns and burnt oranges, and peruse over 100 seminal pieces of Australian furniture design.

Grant Featherston Contour range pictured also in feature image, manufactured by Emerson Bros Pty Ltd, Melbourne Image sources via ngv.vic.gov.au

The Ian Potter Centre:
NGV Australia at Federation Square
Open 10am—5pm
Closed Mondays

Buy tickets here.

Kay is a feature, blog and copywriter. She collects empty jam jars, academic degrees and tawdry dreams in the hopes of turning them into something useful someday. Her work has been published in ACP magazines, ABC fiction, Overland, Brittle Star, Seizure, trade publications and online forums. Her creative writing has won several awards.