A nation of immigrants, Australia has a history of looking overseas for inspiration. Just about every facet of our lives – from philosophy, politics, and business to art, sport, and food – is inspired by people from a long way away.
While for many years, this involved the infamous Australian “cultural cringe”, it seems that now, in 2021, we are over this non-sensical impulse. For the most part, Australians are comfortable with who we are, proud of our multi-cultural heritage, and happy to say that we do a lot of things very well.
Furniture design is a case in point. Contemporary Australian furniture makers are known for their openness to various influences, their adaptable approach, and their simple, no fuss work ethic.
The story of Australian furniture
To trace the roots of this high-quality work; and seek out the best Australian furniture designers, you have to start at the post World War II era and consider people like Tony Parker, Fred Lowen, Paul Kafka, Douglas Snelling, Roger McLay, Fred Ward, Douglas Snelling, Grant Featherston, Gordon Andrews, and Clement Meadmore. This was a signature era for Australian furniture design; an era that set the scene for what was to follow, and for the designers that continue to ply their trade today.
Boasting impressive levels of craftsmanship and influenced by what was happening in the US, Europe, Scandinavia and elsewhere, and in particular with modernist principles, these designers sought to make chairs, tables, and sofas for their compatriots. As the list that follows shows, they certainly succeeded in this aspiration. May of these designers and their work have gone down as classics.
Australian designer furniture - a selection of some of the great Australian furniture designers
Born in Australia, Clement Meadmore is probably best known as a sculptor. However, before he moved to New York in 1963 and gained fame in that field, he had already established himself as an excellent furniture designer. Like his sculptures, his Australian designed furniture is inspired by abstract expressionism. He was well known for using materials like steel and plywood and he often used steel rods to create outlines with his furniture. His DC601A chair is one of his best-known pieces of Australian designed furniture.
Though he was born in the UK and raised in New Zealand, Douglas Snelling Spent much of his life in Sydney. This is where his career started. As a teenager, he had a lathe and a stool so he started his own graphic arts business and from there he never looked back. He went on to be recognised as one of Australia's best furniture designers. Indeed, having designed this country's first mass produced range of furniture, he is a real pioneer in the field. His best-known work is of course the ‘Snelling Chair.’
Born in Canberra, Fred Ward is recognised as one of the first Australian furniture designers to make a point of using Australian timber. While his contemporaries were inspired by European designers, Ward was highlighting local materials like White Gum, Myrtle, coach Wood, Blackwood and Fiddle Back. Later in his life, Fred Ward worked at the Australian National University as a designer and consultant.
Grant Featherston is probably Australia’s best known furniture designer. Self-taught, his best work includes the ‘Relaxation Series’ in the late 1940s and the ‘Contour Series’ a few years later. The ‘Contour Series’ of chairs and chaise lounges (which are designed to curve with the human body) are probably the most recognisable furniture pieces ever produced in this country. Featherston did much of his work with his wife Mary. Their best-known furniture includes the Delma chair, the Obo chair, the Stem chair, and the Scape chair.
Marc Newson, a Sydney born furniture designer who has been prominent since the mid-1980s, was named as one of time magazine's one hundred most influential people in 2005. A designer who is inspired by nature, his most recognisable work includes the Embryo chair, the Lockheed lounge, and the Chop Top table.
Some contemporary Australian furniture designers who are making an impact
Nick Pedullá is a contemporary furniture designer who works in his own workshop on the northern beaches of Sydney. Having learned his craft by watching his grandfather, Pedullá is dedicated exclusively to designing custom made furniture. Everything he makes is one of a kind and designed with a specific customer in mind.
Melbourne based Ross Didier has been a furniture designer since the early 2000s. His work has featured in many well-known places including the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne’s Vue de Monde, and New York’s Times Square. Pictured here is Ross Didier’s ‘Cappala’ high wing back chair.
Simon Ancher, a furniture designer who spent many years teaching design at the University of Tasmania, now dedicates himself to his own work. An award-winning designer, he is more concerned with the use of materials rather than style. Pictured here is Simon Ancher’s ‘Clipped Wing’ sideboard.