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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, syd­neyliv­ing­mu­se­

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.

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