Edited by Rebecca Hawcroft, The Other Moderns: Sydney’s Forgotten European Design Legacy, 

NewSouth Publishing, 352 pp., ISBN: 9781742235561, p/bk, AUS$49.99

Rebecca Hawcroft, a cultural heritage consultant, has brought together some of Australia’s most important commentators on culture and design for The Other Moderns: Sydney’s Forgotten European Design Legacy (2017), from NewSouth Publishing.

In the forward, Nectar Efkarpidis, co-founder of Hotel Hotel in Canberra (and project partner with NewSouth), writes of stories and how beyond “aesthetics and an appreciation for design, our spaces and furnishings speak of people, traditions and divergent ways of thinking” (p. 9). Hawcroft follows up this idea of storytelling, in the Introduction, noting how the stories of many of Australia’s most talented migrant designers have been forgotten (p. 11). Names are routinely cast adrift from their designs. Chairs and coffee tables sit elegantly but often anonymously.

As the book’s title suggests, this is an excursion in modernism, that “philosophy intertwined with ideas of industrial functionality, socialist reform and health [leading] to comprehensive changes in production, housing and city planning” (p. 13). Each chapter explores a different aspect of a movement that can be interpreted as compelling and startling but is always, despite the passage of time, a vision that is very ‘new’.

The first chapter, by Michael Bogle, explores the training grounds for European architects and designers. Hawcroft then looks at “the lucky escapees” and the European architects in postwar Sydney, before turning her attention to the artistry of Ferdinand Silberstein-Silvan’s architecture. Catriona Quinn explores the stunning Gerstle Furniture story which allowed for modernism to enter every home via rich timbers and sleek design. Jeromie Maver explains how George Kóródy and Artes Studios also supplied furniture, alongside lighting, fabrics and artwork “for the modern home” (p. 123). The Bonyhady desks, Kóródy designed pieces for Anne and Eric Bonyhady, are looked upon as living objects by Tim Bonyhady. Hawcroft returns with a piece unpacking how modernism transited from the margins to the mainstream. The glorious photography of Margaret Michaelis, with a gift for capturing images as diverse as beautiful architecture and a small group of poor children (pp. 196-97), is highlighted by Helen Ennis. Hawcroft then focuses in on Zsuzsa Kozma and that dream device that some of us own and some of us lust after: the drinks trolley. Tone Wheeler completes the narrative with his work on the migrants who built modern Sydney: from office towers to shopping malls and from hotels to medical centres.

For any publication about design, the pressure to create an object as well as a text can be immense. The designers for The Other Moderns are clearly not easily intimidated: images and words are integrated seamlessly. Each page is an example of the way the elegant placement of a heading or a picture can enhance, rather than diminish, a story. The images – buildings, objects, people – are all thoughtfully included, there is nothing featured that does not work serve the story, nothing that has been presented simply to add bulk. Importantly, there is no set template regulating placement and size, each image has been carefully considered to add balance or to catch the eye; much like you would arrange furniture in a favourite room.

This volume is as informative as it is beautiful. It will make a fine addition to any home’s coffee table (or drinks trolley).

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, October 2017

Available from all good booksellers and directly from NewSouth Books here. 

The associated exhibition The Moderns: European designers in Sydney is showing at the Museum of Sydney until 26 November 2017. For further information head to the Sydney Living Museums website here.

 

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