De­sign Moment

The vi­sion­ary Mar­ion Hall Best and her place in the an­nals of Aus­tralian de­sign.

Australian House & Garden - - Content -

The set­ting was a vi­brant home in Syd­ney, with one room dar­ingly painted Prus­sian blue and mul­berry pink. In­side, seven in­te­rior de­sign­ers were gath­ered for tea and sand­wiches. It was

1951 and they were busy estab­lish­ing the So­ci­ety of In­te­rior De­sign­ers of Aus­tralia (SIDA). The key player was the host and home­owner, Mar­ion Hall Best.

Best al­ready had a colour­ful rep­u­ta­tion. Born in Dubbo, NSW, in 1905, by the 1920s she was liv­ing in Syd­ney and at­tend­ing paint­ing classes with Thea Proc­tor, the first of sev­eral artists to in­flu­ence her work. Af­ter estab­lish­ing an in­te­rior de­sign busi­ness, she opened a re­tail store in Wool­lahra in 1939, and an­other in the city’s Rowe Street a decade later. Mean­while, she stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture and com­pleted a New York­based cor­re­spon­dence course in dec­o­rat­ing.

In her in­te­ri­ors, Best ap­plied a pain­ter’s eye for colour, move­ment and com­po­si­tion. She sought to “ex­plode the con­fined ar­eas of four walls by the vi­bra­tion of one colour meet­ing an­other”. In mar­ry­ing clash­ing hues, she took in­spi­ra­tion from artist Roy de Maistre and his har­mon­is­ing charts, which likened colours to musical notes. She also drew on Justin O’Brien’s oil-paint­ing tech­nique of over­lay­ing a heavy colour on a “singing lighter one, such as olive over a bril­liant yel­low”, which de­liv­ered “the lu­mi­nous trans­parency of a Paul Klee wa­ter­colour”.

A neu­tral such as beige was ut­terly taboo for Best. “Gen­tle, soft colours are not rest­ful, but dreary, sap­ping the en­ergy and the mind,” she pro­claimed. “Bright, clear colours chal­lenge the mind.”

Widely trav­elled, she helped to bring Modernism to Aus­tralia by im­port­ing Marimekko tex­tiles from Fin­land. She also brought in Jim Thomp­son’s Thai silks,

French No­bilis wall­pa­pers, Ital­ian Flos light­ing, and fur­ni­ture by Knoll, Cassina and Her­man Miller. Through SIDA (the pre­cur­sor of today’s De­sign In­sti­tute of Aus­tralia) and her stand­ing within the de­sign com­mu­nity, Best fos­tered in­te­rior de­sign as a pro­fes­sion. When she be­gan her ca­reer, home­own­ers would hire in-store dec­o­ra­tors from David Jones or Mark Foy’s, but by the 1960s they were en­gag­ing in­te­rior de­sign­ers.

One of these was Ann Gyn­gell, who worked for Best from the late ’50s. “When ev­ery­thing was dull and bleak af­ter the war, Mar­ion broke all the rules,” says Gyn­gell. “Colour – yel­lows, or­anges and pink, of­ten to­gether – brought in the sun­shine. And with her love of Modernism, there was no heavy, stodgy fur­ni­ture.” Not ev­ery­one liked her spinach-green walls, but to Gyn­gell and oth­ers they were a breath of fresh air. Hall’s re­tire­ment in 1974, and her death in 1988, marked the end of an era. WHAT IT MEANS TO US “In the his­tory of Aus­tralian de­sign, Best is listed along­side pain­ters and ar­chi­tects. She’s part of that canon,” says Michael Lech, cu­ra­tor of Syd­ney Liv­ing Mu­se­ums, which is hold­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of her ar­chives at the Mu­seum of Syd­ney un­til Novem­ber 12.

“She was ex­cited by colour and de­sign, and her in­te­ri­ors, clients and staff were swept up in that vi­sion.” It was ir­re­sistible.

“I used to go to Mar­ion’s shop af­ter school,” says Gyn­gell’s daugh­ter, in­te­rior de­signer Bri­ony Fitzger­ald, also known for her love of colour. “I re­mem­ber its vi­brancy, its Marimekko fab­rics and Ja­panese mat­ting.” In dar­ing, en­ergy and flair, her pi­o­neer­ing pre­de­ces­sor was sim­ply the Best.

Best in a Marimekko print in 1968. She made a sim­i­larly strong colour state­ment in a 1967 ex­hibit called A Room for Mary Quant (be­low). See more of Best’s style on page 33.

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