In November 1956, Melbourne’s architects, designers and artists frantically groomed their metropolis for the world’s attention. The 16th Olympic Games were coming to town.

As Christopher Heathcote points out in his book A Quiet Revolution, “Stores along Collins Street were repainted in pastel shades, the Melbourne City Council systematically stripped the Victorian lacework and verandahs from all buildings, temporary sculptures were installed along city streets, and the country’s first television station commenced broad-casting”.

The newspaper critic (and architect) Robin Boyd described the transformation of urban Melbourne as the city’s finest hour.

Victoria’s designers, architects and artists were awarded the highest visibility when the International Olympic Committee decided to abandon its customary arts competition and use the 16th Olympiad to trial an Olympic arts festival.

After much discussion, Melbourne’s Cultural Olympiad included five significant exhibitions: architecture and sculpture at the University of Melbourne’s Wilson Hall; painting and drawing at the National Gallery of Victoria; Aboriginal art at the National Museum (of Victoria); displays of literature at the Melbourne Public Library and finally graphic arts, industrial design and ceramics at the Royal Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT University).

The commissioning of Australian designs for manufacturing was not uncommon in this era due, in part, to the progressive vertical integration of Melbourne-based urban retailers such as Myer Emporium and the late George & George (Georges).

These stores conceived, designed, manufactured, wholesaled and retailed goods. For a variety of reasons, these firms chose to manufacture a restricted range of goods rather than import.

This practice ensured that Melbourne had a substantial domestic goods manufacturing base in the 1950s. During the Olympic Arts Festival’s design exhibition at Royal Melbourne Technical College (RMTC), for example, Myer Emporium showed furniture, textiles and saddlery from its own studios and factories.

A sample of Melbourne’s designer/manufacturers in the Olympics Arts Festival exhibition includes Brownbuilt, Repco, AG Healing (radio and television), Malleys (washing machines), General Motors Holden and Grant Featherston furniture.

The city also enjoyed the advantages of the urban-based Royal Melbourne Technical College, an inspired training centre that offered its first classes in 1887.

The ‘tech’ taught design as a part of architecture, engineering and applied art studies, and in 1951 it began to offer an industrial design qualification – the first in Australia. Ex-students from RMTC dominated the 1956 Olympic Arts Festival exhibition and included such luminaries as Clement Meadmore, the lighting designers Joyce and Selwyn Coffey, Ted Healey, Carl Nielsen and the celebrated textile designer Frances Burke.

Although most of the exhibiting designers were in their twenties, many had substantial design experience.

The career of Ron Rosenfeldt, the industrial design exhibition coordinator for the Arts Festival, is typical. In 1955, Rosenfeldt Gherardin and Associates was one of the first consultancy firms in Melbourne to practise industrial design and architecture.

RMTC-trained Rosenfeldt was the co-founder. In the 1930s he had designed furniture with Fred Ward for the Myer Emporium’s manufacturing plant. After World War II, Rosenfeldt worked with Myer from 1946 to 1954, designing furniture, interiors and hotel refits.

Rosenfeldt Gherardin and Associates was employed as a design consultancy by many manufacturers, including Vulcan Australia, for whom it designed electrical appliances over a twenty-year period.

Rosenfeldt was also an educator (at RMTC) and one of the founding members of the Society of Designers for Industry and the Industrial Design Institute of Australia (IDIA), so he had a major national profile. Naturally, he was invited to become involved in the exhibition of industrial design at the 1956 Olympic Arts Festival.

Rosenfeldt and the Melbourne-based Society of Designers for Industry chose to emphasise (and illustrate in the catalogue) products of aluminium and its alloys, moulded plastics and composites of fibreglass and plywood, as well as stamped steel.

The energy generated by wartime manufacturing had allowed local makers to produce some of these technologically advanced products for the first time. In conventional Australian domestic interiors, however, timber remained the dominant medium for furniture. This was not reflected in the exhibition, however, which had a dearth of timber products.

A considerable percentage of independent designers and designer/makers also appear amongst the Olympiad exhibitors. Australia’s small domestic market has always assured a role for the independent designer and maker and this is a point that Ron Rosenfeldt emphasises in his catalogue essay entitled “Industrial Design”.

Amongst the designers and manufacturers, one can find Bruce Anderson, a director of Anderson Ltd (furniture); John Crow, the founder of Stuart Furniture; Selwyn and Joyce Coffee, founders of the Kempthorne brand of lighting fixtures; and Edward Worsley, director of Stuart Furniture.

The 1956 Olympic Arts Festival industrial and graphic design exhibit appears to have been one of Australia’s first major design survey shows. The Australian Commercial and Industrial Artists Association (ACIAA), the Society of Designers for Industry (SDI) and the David Jones Art Gallery had held smaller exhibits with very little surviving documentation.

But the Olympic Arts Festival catalogue was a well-bound letterpress edition selling for twenty-one shillings and can still be found on used booksellers’ shelves.

The Olympic Arts Festival’s design exhibition seemed to encourage further design shows in Melbourne. When John and Sunday Reed opened Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art of Australia at Tavistock Place in the city in 1958 (later the well-known Museum of Modern Art at Heide), design exhibitions were part of their inaugural program.

Frances Burke, designer, retailer and organiser of the Society of Designers for Industry, was one of the founding members of the museum’s governing council. The museum’s first year opened with the designer/painter Leonard French and the year’s program included an industrial design exhibition as well as a costume show from the Royal Ballet.

Reflecting this broader interest, the museum soon changed its title to the Museum of Modern Art and Design. Much of the support for these shows was no doubt initiated by the successes of the 1956 Olympic Arts Festival. 

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