Colour rules for legendary interior designer

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Craft / “Marion Hall Best: Interiors” Canberra Museum & Gallery, until June 15. Reviewed by MEREDITH HINCHLIFFE.

THIS vibrant exhibition was curated by Sydney Living Museums. Sydney identity Marion Hall Best was well known for her extensive use of rich, bright colours in furniture, wall treatments and fabrics.

“Hibiscus” textile length, design by Dora Sweetapple for Marion Best Fabrics, c1941. Photo: Jamie North/Sydney Living Museums

Hall Best was one of the pre-eminent interior designers of Australia in the 20th century. She opened her first shop in Queen Street, Woollahra, in 1939 and a second in Rowe Street in the city of Sydney in 1949. Rowe Street, little more than a lane, became a hub of design, with several shops selling paintings, handmade ceramics, fabrics and furniture for the home.

In 1939, at the opening of the Queen Street shop, Hall Best announced: “Now is the time to prove the value of the artist to industry in creating new ideas of good design.”

She continued to work with artists, guiding them, encouraging them and providing a ready market for their work. One such artist was Dora Sweetapple who designed the fabric length fabric titled “Hibiscus”, c1941. The use of bright colours must have been a startling sight when Australia was in the throes of World War II.

Another artist/designer supported by Hall Best was Gordon Andrews. The Rondo Chair in the exhibition has an aluminium base – I understand that Hall Best strongly urged him to change from the wooden base he previously used. The chair is comfortable and envelopes the sitter, and has an appearance of lightness.

Rondo chair, circa 1968. Designed by Gordon Andrews. Photo: Jamie North/Sydney Living Museums

A highlight of the exhibition is a small group of clothes against a backdrop of Finnish producer Marimekko. While Hall Best strongly supported Australian artists and designers she also stocked the work of outstanding international artists and designers. Marimekko used strong, bright colours and simple designs motifs. The combinations were unusual too, in the rather staid Australian context of the time. The popularity of Marimekko has continued and can still be purchased.

Canberra Museum and Gallery curator Virginia Rigney has brought a local flavour to the exhibition by including a small display of swatches for a proposed interior design for a house in Bungendore and photographs of Canberra commercial and domestic interiors. A full page advertisement announces that Hall Best also works in Canberra.

This exhibition might surprise some who were unaware of the huge influence that Marion Hall Best had in Australian interiors – both commercial and domestic. I believe the exuberant use of colour and fabrics shows the current interior colour palette to be boring, uninteresting and rather depressing.

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