In the 1930s a small AWA design department specialising in radio cabinets and electronic equipment was headed by Lionel Neate. The department serviced the requirements of their Radiola line of domestic radio receivers.
Like many designers of that era, Neate worked across other media and enjoyed a successful career as a graphic artist.
Amalgamated Wireless Australasia was incorporated in 1913 and under its director, Ernest Fisk, reached an agreement with the Australian postmaster general (then responsible for wireless communications) to develop, manufacture and sell wireless equipment for sealed radios preset to licensed stations.
The ‘sealed set’ was rejected by the public but, with tacit Commonwealth approval, AWA dominated the Australian wireless market for many years.
In 1918, AWA was responsible for one of Australia’s first wireless political messages, an emotionally charged oration on the need for wartime conscription from Prime Minister Billy Hughes in London.
As the unequivocal leader in the development of wireless broadcast and receiving equipment, AWA had a rare opportunity to shape the public’s perception of what a wireless receiver should be. Designers of the earliest AWA radios were faced with a dilemma: what should a wireless look like?
There were no earlier styles or models to research; their sketchpads were blank. When it designed the first Radiola in 1924, AWA’s answer was to simply enclose the wireless circuitry in a wooden box.
Marketing, of course, soon accompanied the design, production and sale of receivers and by 1924 AWA began to publish the Radio Guide, a magazine promoting wireless listening, the AWA radio station 2FC and their Radiola receivers.
The 1939 AWA Building at 47 York Street, Sydney, designed by Robertson, Marks and McCredie, also contributed to the AWA branding process and for many years the lighted transmission ‘Eiffel’ tower was a landmark structure in the city.
AWA continued to integrate industrial design into its corporate program, utilising some of Australia’s most prominent industrial designers, including R. Haughton (Jimmy) James, who designed an AWA radio cabinet in 1943-44.
Jimmy James (1906-85), the first President of the Society of Designers for Industry, is a little-known figure who played a major role in establishing the discipline of industrial design in Australia. James was born in Sussex, England, and emigrated in 1939. On arrival in Sydney he established a design practice called the Design Centre, with Geoff and Dahl Collings.
In late 1940 many of his Society of Designers for Industry members were exhibiting in one of Australia’s first design shows, sponsored by the Australian Commercial and Industrial Artists Association (ACIAA). With exhibition invitations designed by Gordon Andrews, the exhibit took place in the recently completed AWA Building.
In 1947, Jimmy James, always aware of the power of the wireless, wrote in The Australian Artist: “We note with interest the formation in Melbourne of a provisional committee to promote a Council for Industrial Design… The Council, already in touch with similar bodies in America and Britain, means to promote understanding where it is most needed, among manufacturers themselves, by means of a carefully planned series of lectures and discussions. Plans are afoot for a weekly broadcast, directly to housewives…”.
In the 1950s, AWA employed designer Carl Nielsen, then Don Goodwin from 1958 to 1963. Bill Moody became industrial design manager of AWA in 1960.
Continuing the traditional pattern of cross-training in design, Moody had been a stylist for General Motors Holden, later moving to the British Motor Corporation. He was joined at AWA in 1962 by ex-BMC styling engineer John Holt, who then became their senior industrial designer.
AWA’s early commitment to design was the result of its fortunate marketing position in the wireless industry. It was several years before Australia’s wireless market attracted international competition. With initial support from the Commonwealth and tariff protection, and bolstered by its early commitment to research and development, AWA prospered.
As the 20th century progressed, AWA’s dominant wireless position was attacked by A G Healing’s Golden Voice, Pye Industries, Kreisler Radio, HMV and Philips.
The wireless radio dominated design consciousness to such an extent in the mid-20th century that
the first Australian industrial design award, 1952’s Beetle Elliot prize, was won by the Dutch émigré Adrian Knaap for a moulded thermoset plastic radio for HMV.
AWA, however, continued to innovate by designing and producing the AWA K13, Australia’s first portable transistor radio in 1956, then moving into telephones, televisions, computers, gambling totalisators, gaming devices, and information and communications (ICT) services, which also cover home entertainment.
These days, however, AWA’s ICT focus is on the maintenance and deployment of technology rather than on product design.