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