Design in Everyday Things was the title of a series of ABC broadcasts on the subject of design. Included amongst its Australian speakers were the interior designer Margaret Lord (1908-1976), Melbourne fashion designer Edna Lewis (died 2001) and graphic artist Alleyne Zander (1893-1958). They were designing women with significant national and international careers.

The central theme of the talks, the formation of ‘taste’ through education, wound its way through broadcasts on interior design, dress, industrial design and architecture.

In introducing Design in Everyday Things, the ABC observed that ‘taste’ was a skill, “acquired like any other skill, by painstaking observation, the making of judicious comparisons and the exercise of our critical faculty.”

As Margaret Lord later wrote in her book Interior decoration: A guide to furnishing the Australian home (1944), “If we are to take full advantage of the present-day rapid changes in methods of manufacture, new processes and new materials, we must have instruction in the subject. The need is great in Australia ...”.

The 1941 ABC programming, their selection of speakers and their publication of an accompanying Design in Everyday Things booklet (with a cover by Alistair Morrison, illustrates that tracing the role of Australian women in the development of a national design consciousness (‘taste’ in the language of the era) can begin with teaching, broadcasting and print journalism, and design retailing.

Design broadcasting

Although the Australian history of design broadcasting still awaits its authors, we know that the NSW Society of Arts and Crafts organised weekly broadcasts on 2GB from 1930 to 1934, while historian Peter McNeil has found that furniture designer Molly Grey (Grey’s dates are unknown, but she was active in the 1930s) hosted a Sydney wireless programme called Let’s do up the House.

Mary Rossi’s fabled ABC television series Women’s World also presented art and design segments from the 1950s introduced by Phyllis Shillito (1895-1980), a former Brisbane Technical College design lecturer who was later appointed head of the National Art School in Sydney. All of these ‘taste makers’ were active designers.

Design teaching

In an era where the design profession was poorly established for male and female alike, designers worked across many fields. Two samples of the careers of the many female design teachers of the era illustrate the phenomenon.

Thea Proctor (1879-1966) ran an art school that supplemented her talents as a designer. Her school in George Street, Sydney taught design, drawing and colour. Much of her design career is surveyed in a touring National Portrait Gallery exhibition and book, The World of Thea Proctor.

In the late 1920s, Proctor began to advertise herself as an ‘interior decorator’ after she took courses in this area. Her first big commercial-scale commissions were for the David Jones department store, where she designed a range of furniture and provided interiors for the store’s beauty parlour.

In 1929, she did colour styling for imported Ford motor cars. Turning her hand to stage design in the 1940s, she also had a significant career as an illustrator and graphic artist.

Eirene Mort (1879-1977) was another designer who made her way teaching in private schools and as principal of the Women’s Painting School while agitating for a national design school where an expressly Australian design vocabulary could be taught.

As an engraver and graphic artist, her 1966 designs for the Australian decimal currency competition were highly commended by the Commonwealth’s selection panel.

Design retailing

A number of female designers found a career in design retailing, something which integrates all of the elements of forming ‘taste’. To be successful, one must master the role of teacher, guide and finally, designer. One of Melbourne’s most successful designers, Frances Burke (1907-1994), painter and textile designer, was a master of the art of design retailing.

Frances Burke’s New Design showrooms (1948-1967) opened in 55 Hardware Street, Melbourne, selling Clement Meadmore and Grant Featherston furniture, her own range of fabrics and other furnishings and domestic utensils in a gallery-like atmosphere. She also advertised nationally in the design press and sold her fabric range to other design retailers.

Amongst her out-of-state clients was Marion Best’s design outlet in Woollahra (1938), Sydney. Frances Burke’s New Design was part of an Australian tradition of women-directed design emporia that also includes Melbourne’s Cynthia Reed Modern Furnishings (Little Collins Street, established 1934), Mary Andrews’ Andrews Designs, Macleay Street, Potts Point, and Margo Lewers’ design consultancy and gallery Notanda in Sydney (established 1935).

Frances Burke was a design professional whose career included major international design commissions. In 1947-48, when a professional design association, the Society of Designers for Industry (SDI) was mooted in Melbourne by R Haughton James and others, she became a founder member.

The SDI’s original committee included such design luminaries as Fred Ward, Ron Rosenfeldt and Grant Featherston. This important organisation evolved into the Design Institute of Australia (DIA).

The design professional

Adelaide-born Dahl (Wilmott) Collings (1909-1988) was  one of the first Australian women able to shape a career exclusively in design. Dahl studied at East Sydney Technical College and worked as a graphic designer for Sydney department stores.

When she married the Brisbane designer Geoffrey Collings in 1933, the two designers formed a creative partnership, working in interior design, industrial design and ex-hibitions work. In 1935 they moved their practice to London where Dahl worked in the studio of the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the former Bauhaus teacher.

Returning to Australia in 1939, Dahl and Geoffrey provided design services for the Australian pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Although Dahl and her husband had experimented with film in the 1930s, they did not develop their interest in the medium until the 1940s.

In 1954, the Collings founded their own film company specialising in documentaries. Their series of Qantas-sponsored short films on Australian artists including Russell Drysdale, William Dobell, Sidney Nolan and Aboriginal rock-painting, The Dreaming are notable.

Jenny Allen’s recent Monash University study, Australian Visions: The Films of Dahl and Geoffrey Collings ( 4/allen.htm), has added volumes to Dahl Collings’ design achievements, including costume design and scriptwriting. 

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