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Dream Houses In Australian Modern Style

Sydney museum exhibit displays post-World War II home design and down-under architecture

AFTER World War II, returning Australian soldiers and their waiting wives eagerly set out to fulfill their dreams - their own home on a quarter-acre plot.

Thousands of inexpensive homes were needed, quickly. Designers sprang up to furnish a new vision of home design for this era. It was a time of contemporary designs for a new lifestyle, one based on economy, convenience, sleek lines, and bright colors. Modern style had arrived.

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"The Australian Dream: Design and the Home of the 1950s," at the Powerhouse Museum here, recaptures the lifestyle of the '50s through the works of those who changed the national consciousness about good design.

Because the demand for housing swamped the local building industry, most people had to take charge of building their own houses. Help came from many quarters: Home-design and decorating magazines flooded the market. Design competitions educated new buyers into accepting a higher standard of design. Newspapers advertised house plans. Even department stores offered assistance.

In the exhibit's video about the experiences of homebuilders in the '50s, Aileen Holden recalls, "We hadn't any idea how the thing would look when built. We just gave the floor plan to Grace Brothers [a large department-store chain], and they drew the elevations."

The exhibit is laid out like a home show and highlights the plans of several popular designers. The "Choosing a House" section displays the work of the Vandyke Brothers. During the end of the austere '40s, thay cranked out thousands of bare-bones, prefab houses using a popular man-made material, fibrous cement sheeting. The company built sections in a factory and assembled them on site. Whole new suburbs of these "fibro" cottages were created out of the Australian bush.

The search for a new national identity, combined with the influence of international Modern style made designers search for a unique Australian architecture. While many of the prefab houses were cramped and dark, like the traditional dark, brick Federation-style cottages, some designers opened their houses to the outdoors.

Architect Harry Seidler's 1954 "House of the Future" has a flowing layout, ventilated skylights, and one-piece bathroom and kitchen units. At only 740 square feet, it was compact and economical enough for a young couple just starting out, but it could easily expand. The Australian Women's Weekly built a replica of the "House of the Future" in Sydney's Town Hall; thousands came to see it.

The 1949 "House of Tomorrow" model, by architect Robin Boyd, presented an open-plan house with a flat roof, walls with huge windows, and a cantilevered second story.

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Moving into the affluence of the early '60s, builders Pettit & Sevitt offered an architect-designed product for the more upscale customer. Their designs had flexible floor plans, easy adaptability to the site, and allowance for extensions. The split-level concept became popular because it worked well on Sydney's many hills.

If the outside of the houses had a hard-edged aesthetic of fibro and glass, the insides were softer. "Choosing the Decor" shows how furnishing designers borrowed from the '20s focus on bare walls and geometric lines but put a greater emphasis on comfort.

Sydney interior designer Margaret Lord developed five design principles: A piece should be comfortable and easy to use, space-saving, labor-saving, beautiful to look at, and cheap enough for everybody. These, combined, became the definition of "good design."

Built-ins saved space and created a sense of spaciousness. The "Lounge Sleeper" was actually two single divans that could be joined to turn a living room (or lounge, as it's called in Australia) into a guest room. Furniture seemed to float: Tables had glass tops, chairs were laced with cord, and bookshelves were held together with delicate filaments of wrought-iron. The beautiful and useful kitchen equipment included a mint-green mixer, a fuchsia iron, and a goldenrod stove with an easy-to-clean surface .

A gray Holden car, the stately sedan Australians filled with many children, occupies nearly a whole room in the museum. Dummy '50s family figures stand looking into the future, mother and daughter wearing matching cotton-print dresses. Playing in the background are '50s tunes, such as "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" and "Sha-Boom ("Life could be a dream, sweetheart"). About the only thing the exhibit doesn't include is onion dip and ridged potato chips that look like car fins.

In the video, Ray Mamo talks about how he came from Egypt in 1956, got a job his fourth day here, and proceeded to save for a house. He bought a block of land and found a design for an inexpensive three-bedroom ranch-style fibro house in the Sunday paper. His wife, Lillian, arrived in 1960 to a new home. "I didn't know what to expect," she says. "There was this blue house, with big windows. It was nice, clean, new. It was wonderful!"

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