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Words Joe Brennan

The other moderns—an alternative history

We review the new tome on Sydney’s forgotten European design legacy. 

The Other Moderns: Sydney’s forgotten European design legacy is edited by Rebecca Hawcroft co-produced by Hotel Hotel and New South Publishing. It is available to order.

In how many ways do we go about forgetting? How easily does colloquial understanding change? By what apparatus—deliberate and incidental—are moments and lives let go, surrendered to collective ignorance?

A lot, it turns out, can disappear by accidental or purposeful omission, by clerical errors and abbreviations. When Robin Boyd published his essential Australia’s Home in 1952 he established a precedent: identifying Harry Seidler, Fritz Janeba and Frederick Romberg as the country’s only European designers. This inaccuracy was reinforced a decade later when John Maxwell Freeland’s Architecture in Australia argued the same. It would happen again to a lesser extent in 1980 with the publication of DL Johnson’s Australian Architecture 1901-1952: Sources of Modernism. Despite oblique references to a general modernist influence—brought about by a wave of émigré architects—Seidler was often the only Sydney-based European designer named.

And so national mythology is manufactured. With names left out, histories are simplified. The Other Moderns seeks to amend these oversights. Edited by Rebecca Hawcroft and produced in collaboration with the Efkarpidis brothers of Canberra’s Hotel Hotel, this newly released book diversifies our shared understanding of the presence and depth of influence of European modernism in mid-century Australia. Each chapter focuses on a different designer or artisanal community, unpacking the detailed narratives of their professional and social milieu—from Redfern-based cabinetmaker Leslie Buchwald to the Austrian-born documentary photographer Margaret Michaelis. The interwoven work of Sydney’s forgotten architects, furniture producers, property developers and retailers is here revealed in an elegantly printed and portable tome.

One of those designers was Michael Gerstl, who immigrated to Australia with his wife and young son in 1947. After settling in the suburb of Clovelly, the family opened M. Gerstl Cabinet Works within a small section of a Rozelle timber mill. Such businesses most often began with custom-made domestic projects for European-born clients. Each commission was discrete. Gerstl’s furniture brochures emphasised that no mass-produced ‘stocklines’ were maintained—sideboards and armchairs alike registered the labour of their construction, with unvarnished patches and occasional notches in the Persian walnut.

Meanwhile, from a small three-storey building on Castlereagh Street, Elsie Segaert of atelier Artes Studios was distributing modular, lightweight furniture suited to the Australian climate. Her shop was divided into interior vignettes, imagined recreations of fully furnished spaces—here a loungeroom, there a bedroom. They featured locally-sourced coachwood wrought into organic forms beyond the familiar terms of Seidler’s Harvard School modernism.

By the late 1940s, Segaert’s in-house designer, George Kóródy, was entering the final years of his life. Before arriving in Australia he had operated a tapestry business in Budapest, taught students at the city’s Municipal Technical Drawing School and completed his best-known design project: the modernist facade and opulent interior of the Lipcsei Vilmos Fashion Salon. Kóródy’s practice, like that of many fellow émigré designers, did not come of age in Australia. The Other Moderns makes no such claims to uniform experiences of antipodean rebirth and prosperity. There was certainly no limit to the number of skilled mid-century emigrants whose design credentials were disregarded—not to mention those who, after years of diasporic upheaval, felt too old and exhausted to start over in a new market.

This book instead provides a sense of continuity between the firms and schools of Vienna, Berlin and Budapest and the creation of a new mainstream design aesthetic within Sydney. So too does it speak to continuity via immigration, drawing attention to the intense processes of relocation experienced by designers and their extended families. Now and again throughout The Other Moderns, striking photographs of mid-century furniture within the contemporary spaces of Hotel Hotel appear, acknowledging the objects’ ongoing, functional relevance. These physical artifacts serve as evidence against the simplification of cultural history. They remedy established omissions and argue on behalf of the varied lives of their makers.

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