The exhibition featured a series of full-size model houses billed as the Homes of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and was well attended by a war-weary public eager to explore new ideas.
Organised on behalf of the Red Cross Society, with important local architects Robin Boyd and Peter McIntyre playing leading roles, the exhibition was intended to encourage an awareness of ‘good design’, which in the late 1940s in Australian intellectual circles meant an approximation of European architecture and consumer products.
Many designers and commentators were eager that Australia throw off the shackles of its colonial history and appear to be a vigorous and modern nation.
In describing the exhibition’s genesis in the January 1950 issue of Architecture a few months later, Boyd criticised Australia’s past architecture and manufactured consumer goods and what he perceived to be the poor state of consumer products at the time. “The theme was ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,” the article said.
“The idea was to take the 1890’s as ‘Yesterday,’ and to poke fun at its floral toilet fittings and unlikely-looking black iron equipment. ‘Today’ was to show, impartially, a representative collection of currently available products. ‘Tomorrow’ would be applied to outstanding designs in the various fields.
"A small jury, led by Professor Brian Lewis, selected Tomorrow’s items. But the pity of it was there was so little of value from which the jury could select,” Boyd wrote.
The growing influence of America on Australia’s design community was also apparent in this important post-war exhibition. A Special America Exhibit was organised by the American Consulate Cultural Department consisting of 1,200 photographs, plans and diagrams, and special reports, all of which reflected American practice in the design fields of architecture, building and planning, interior design and industrial design.
Financial advice was also offered at the exhibition: "Information is provided on such subjects as housing needs, costs and financing methods." These financing methods included ‘hire-purchase’ and had been largely unavailable, or unappealing, to Australian consumers before WWII.
Historians have traced the swing in Australian consumer attitudes from what they characterised as pre-WWII British frugality to post-WWII American consumption – a transition they claimed took less than a decade and which was aided by the arrival in Australia of American-style easy-credit.
Australians on show
No less than seventy Australian companies had trade stands devoted to their products at the Modern Home Exhibition. Prominent magazines Woman’s Day and The Australian Home Beautiful had their own displays; stands were devoted to home furnishing retailers Cohen Brothers and Georges Ltd and a dozen others.
There were stands occupied by builders’ suppliers: Regent Traders (nails and wire), Romcke (plywood and veneers), Australian Plaster Industries and various hot water appliances. Consumer goods were many and varied.
A major trade stand, positioned in the Central Exhibit, was occupied by the Australian company Moulded Products (Australasia). There, consumer products such as ‘Nylex’ shower curtains, light pendants, lamp shades and garden hoses, ‘Duperite’ toilet seats, utility and picnic wares, plastic bread covers, plastic clothes lines and many other items for the home were displayed.
Plastics were clearly an arena allowing great experimentation while objects such as baths, wash basins and sinks, previously made from porcelain or cast iron were offered by the Appleton company in Perspex, the new wonder material.
Many small local engineering firms, most of them no longer trading, manufactured appliances for the kitchen. While it is unclear how much actual design work was carried out in Australia, and how much was merely copied from overseas models, the range and variety of Australian-made goods cannot be denied.
It would appear, however, that being Australian-made was not enough to woo the consumer. For most Australian consumers at this time, the word ‘American’ was synonymous with modernity and style.
Locally-made products were often advertised as - "American-style" or "popular in America" in order to give them added consumer appeal.
Conversely, conservative local retailers and manufacturers looked back to Britain, and to a lesser extent, France, when they wished to invest an Australian-made object with ‘heritage’.
The Cohen Brothers’ stand featured reproduction antiques advertising "Dining Room Suites in Chippendale design", while many retailers featured English Wilton carpets in traditional designs.
House of Tomorrow
The chief attraction of the Modern Home Exhibition was the separate House of Tomorrow – a challenging design proposal. There were very few other such modern houses in Australia at the time.
In fact, the House of Tomorrow was directly contemporary with the most famous modern domestic residence in mid-century Australia. The Rose Seidler House designed by Viennese-born architect Harry Seidler was erected in 1948-1950.
Seidler had studied in America with Walter Gropius, Joseph Albers and Marcel Breuer. The influence of these modernists is evident in his design’s open plan layout and minimal colour schemes. The house was awarded Australia’s prestigious architectural award the Sulman Medal in 1952.
The House of Tomorrow proposal within the Modern Home Exhibition was designed and constructed by Robin Boyd, Peter McIntyre and the Architecture students of the University of Melbourne.
Measuring about 1,300 square feet, the small two-storey display house contained a sitting room, master bedroom, child’s bedroom, kitchen-dining room and bathroom and was filled ith exciting new consumer products.
An AWA television set prototype – and some of the furniture for the House of Tomorrow – was designed by local industrial designer Grant Featherston. Described in the official catalogue as "2 Relaxation Chairs of modern design", they were designed specifically for the house and, according to contemporary newspaper accounts, ‘drew almost universal approval.’
The Fler Company of Richmond, Melbourne, designed Scandinavian-inspired furniture for the dining room and bedroom. These examples of Australian furniture were undoubtedly chosen because of the simplicity of their styling.
The catalogue from the Modern Home Exhibition included an essay on Tomorrow’s Furniture. It said furniture should be "honest", while the modernist maxim of ‘truth to material’ was evoked by the following - “It is sometimes thought attractive to make teapots look like cottages, and ash timber resemble mahogany.
"Good design never fakes, and for this reason appearance depends very much on materials used. New forms derived from new materials are part of the exhilarating future..."
The exhibition of 1949 displayed a broad range of Australian consumer goods available on the post-war market.
The dramatic newspaper reports (using the emotive wartime terms - "battles", "bad taste under fire") suggested an excitement about modern architecture and industrial design products and a willingness on the part of the public to attend such exhibitions to dream of a better – more modern – life.