The exciting use of a material that had been associated with modern forms of transport such as bicycles and ocean liners, seemed in its combination of functionality, hygiene and new technology, expressly suited to and reflective of the modern era. The German company Standard Mobel and the Thonet company competed to manufacture the first tubular steel furniture to designs by Breuer, Mart Stam and Mies van der Rohe by 1928.
One Australian manufacturer was quick to catch on to the new trend. Tubular steel chairs became available from A.G. Healing, a Melbourne firm described as a radio dealer. In the December 1931 issue of Australian Home Beautiful, the editorial includes photographs of three different models from Healing with a caption that they are “now being made in Australia”. They closely resemble chairs in the Thonet catalogue, although whether these designs were made under license is unclear since the Austrian parent company’s records were lost in World War 11.
In 1932 Healing opened a shop at 101 Elizabeth Street selling radios and tubular steel chairs. The combination of the new tubular steel furniture and the radio, a form of modern technology and popular entertainment, constituted an entirely new domestic interior. In this new interior, highly ornamented polished wood furniture and the traditional piano, were replaced by these new products of inventive engineering, mass manufacture and the modern practice of design. The store must have stood in stark contrast to the one next door at 103 Elizabeth Street. This was Ackman’s, which sold a wide range of popular Art Deco or ‘moderne’ furniture in highly polished wood veneers with mirror inserts, generously upholstered and covered with multi-coloured printed velvet.
The company K. R. Devling situated in William Street Melbourne began to advertise tubular steel furniture made with Healing’s “unrivalled bent tube frames” six years later in 1937. In January 1938 the William Bedford company, “Specialist Manufacturers in all Metalwork”, advertised tubular steel furniture and in August of that year D.F. Cowan offered “Latest designs from Australia and overseas” in tubular steel furniture. This sudden increase in manufacturers advertising tubular steel furniture in the late 1930s implies Healing’s success and suggests that its acceptance had become widespread, at least for commercial and institutional purposes.
Perceived as hygienic, tubular steel furniture filled cafeterias and hospitals. It was also used in school and civic halls and in offices and professional rooms where its functionalism and modernity were considered appropriate. It wasn’t until after World War 11 that it was widely seen in domestic settings.
While local manufacturers developed lines of tubular steel furniture in the 1930s, there is nothing that distinguishes them from the designs of British manufacturers Pel and Cox & Co. or Thonet despite the claims of D.F. Cowan’s advertisement. No designers of note were brought in to provide new designs. Healing did however provide a touch of vernacular with their introduction of sheepskin seat covers.
Sam Atyeo a local designer, who had trained in architecture and painting and who went on to design the outstanding modern re-fit of Regency House in Melbourne in 1936, designed some furniture reminiscent of the office furniture in the Thonet and Pel catalogues in the early 1930s. A desk has curving tubular steel legs, a timber top and side drawers and came with a matching tubular steel chair. Atyeo’s sketches can be dated to the period 1933 to 1935. But it is unclear whether these designs were ever made.
While more adventurous designers such as Atyeo might have played with the potential of tubular steel, no innovative furniture designs in tubular steel eventuated. Tubular steel furniture for the mass market in the 1930s was made entirely to imported designs or manufacturers’ clumsy adaptions. It was widely used in interiors like the vividly tiled Coles Cafeteria in Bourke Street, Melbourne by Harry Norris, the outstanding hospital buildings by Stephenson and Turner and in the foyer of the radio station 3AW, where its ability to signify hygiene, progress, and technology was considered appropriate. The inability of local designers and manufacturers to collaborate in producing significant designs for tubular steel furniture that may have earned the support of domestic consumers, was a lost opportunity.
Despite its wide promotion in local magazines and journals like The Home, Australian Home Beautiful and the Journal of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, the use of tubular steel furniture in domestic settings was rare until after World War 11. While it was taken up in Australia within a few years of its initial release in Europe, tubular steel furniture’s capacity to embody modernity didn’t fit in with popular notions of the home during the interwar period. It took the upheavals of the war years to result in popular acceptance of a new image of domesticity, to produce a widespread desire to buy into the future, in the form of the tubular steel chair.