WHAT WE CAN STILL LEARN FROM MARION HALL BEST
Talk about Australian architecture and chances are most people will come up with names such as Harry Seidler, Robin Boyd or, more recently, Glenn Murcutt.
But ask someone to name local interior designers who have made their mark here and it is a bit more of a struggle.
A new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney opening next month hopes to shine a light on one of our most successful local talents of the 20th century.
Marion Hall Best: Interiors celebrates the designer’s masterful use of colour to transform spaces at a time when most households were more familiar with beige and pastels, and most manufacturers were just beginning to embrace the potential of the local furniture market.
Exhibition curator Michael Lech says the Dubbo-born designer’s work stands up well in contemporary settings, even though she started working with bold colour in the 1930s.
“You look at some of her interiors and they are so incredibly vibrant that they almost feel like something you haven’t seen but they are still of today,” he says.
The designer believed in the power of colour to stimulate thinking and described pastels not as calming or restful, “but dreary, sapping the energy and the mind”.
While her country upbringing and her own mother’s confident use of colour at home impacted on Marion Hall Best’s love of simplicity in design, it was her time doing colour classes with well-known Australian artist Thea Proctor between the wars and a year attending architecture classes at the University of Sydney that really sharpened her skills as a designer.
From student to master
Thanks in part to connections she made in her final years at Frensham School in Mittagong, Marion received regular commissions, completing a series of interior commercial fitouts, as well as her mother’s beach house at Palm Beach.
By 1938, she had her own shopfront in Sydney’s Woollahra.
While the commissions continued to roll in, Michael says the shop also offered smaller services to customers.
“You could have your curtains done, so you could just dip into it,” he says. “She also sold glassware and ceramics, lighting, rugs and wallpapers.
“Almost everything she sold was other people’s work but when she started it was mostly local designers.”
A trip to Europe resulted in her importing furniture and homewares for the shop.
“She was just interested in good design, wherever it was from,” Michael says.
Hi-tech goes high fashion
In the years after the end of World War II, improvements in paint technology resulted in a wider range of colours being made available.
This turned out to be perfect timing for Marion, who was often more skilled at showing homeowners how to use the vibrant new colours than the manufacturers.
Given our climate and light, she was keen to shrug off the drab colours of Europe.
“She did say that the pastels might be more suitable for Europe or the UK but she thought the bolder colours were better for the Australian light and suited our lack of formality,” Michael says.
“It was all about not being afraid of using bolder colours.”
Indeed, her work is saturated with colour, with deep pink, burnt orange and lime green particular favourites.
Patterns were big and bold but always carefully considered to ensure that the space didn’t feel cluttered or overfilled.
Public response to her work was mixed but having her work published in the media, including The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, was key to building her name and reputation.
Michael says it was her training with Thea Proctor that set her work apart from other interior designers at the time.
“She was applying colours of artists to her interior design,” he says. “There were very few interior designers who did that or have subsequently tried to do that.
“She stands out as being an individual interior designer, but she was very successful commercially as well.”
More Marion Hall Best: Interiors is at the Museum of Sydney from August 5 to November 12, sydneylivingmuseums.com.au
This futuristic space is classic Marion Hall Best, with layers of saturated colour and texture, and low-hanging metallic lights thrown in for good measure. The Eero Aarnio Ball chair offers privacy in an otherwise open space.
Low leather chairs keep this sophisticated space from appearing too formal. Marion Hall Best’s confident use of bright colours became her trademark.
Marion Hall Best was so comfortable with bold colour, she wore it itself. She believed Australian light demanded the use of stronger colours.