An environment for living: Rose Seidler House

Living room, Rose Seidler House, Marcell Seidler, 1950. Sydney Living Museums. The grasshopper chair (foreground) and womb chair (background) were both designed by Eero Saarinen, manufactured by Knoll International and purchased by Harry Seidler in New York. 

Living room, Rose Seidler House. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums 

From the curtains to the coffee table and the cutlery, every object and fitting in the house Harry Seidler designed for his parents was of a functional and flexible design that reflected the modern lifestyle.

 

When designing a house, the contemporary architect thinks of an ‘environment for living’ rather than of empty box-like rooms … he designs actual spaces in the interior for specific purposes and designs the furnishings and equipment that go into them.

Harry Seidler, Sunday Telegraph, 21 September 1952, p41

Rose Seidler House contains a remarkable collection of furniture, furnishings and household effects amassed by the late Harry Seidler AC OBE (1923–2006) for use in the house he designed for his parents, Rose and Max. The house was built in 1948–50 in the centre of the original 6.5-hectare (16-acre) bushland estate overlooking the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. It was one of three houses designed for the family on the site. This form of communal housing was innovative for Sydney at the time; the intention was to reunite the Seidler family in Australia after World War II.

The house is perhaps one of the most recognised examples of 20th-century modernist architecture in Australia and was Seidler’s first commission in this country. During the war, Austrian-born Seidler and his brother, Marcell, had been interned as enemy aliens in camps in England and, later, Canada. In 1941 Seidler was released on probation to undertake a Bachelor of Architecture degree at the University of Manitoba; he graduated in 1944 with firstclass honours. He then worked briefly in Toronto before studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, former head of the Bauhaus design school in Germany. Seidler worked with architect Marcel Breuer in his New York office from 1946 to 1948 before being enticed to Australia by his mother. The construction of Rose Seidler House marked the transition from Seidler’s American training to his Australian practice.

The house – ‘the most talked-about house in Sydney’1 – was awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Sir John Sulman Medal of 1951. Most of the furniture currently in the house is original, either bought by Seidler from the New York showrooms of Herman Miller and Knoll International or designed by him specifically for the property. The contents are arranged according to Seidler’s design in 1950 and as they were used by his parents from 1950 to 1967. A selection of the objects is shown below.

  • 1. Sunday Herald, 17 August 1952.

Rose Seidler House is divided into two distinct zones – the living or public areas (dining and lounge rooms, kitchen) and the sleeping or private areas (bedrooms, bathrooms) – based on Marcel Breuer’s concept of a binuclear floor plan. The zones are linked by transitional spaces: the playroom, stairs and sundeck. These spaces were used to extend public or private areas, depending on the occasion, whether an intimate dinner for family and friends or a party for international guests and clients.

Rose Seidler was a generous hostess and a wonderful cook, and in 1950 her kitchen was fitted with the very latest model refrigerator, mixer, stove, dishwasher and exhaust fan. Harry Seidler’s belief that ‘the relation between the kitchen work centre and the dining room table must be an arm’s length matter’2 was brought to fruition in his design of a counter in the kitchen that acted as a servery and could be shut off from the dining room by a sliding panel was brought to fruition in his design of a counter in the kitchen that acted as a servery and could be shut off from the dining room by a sliding panel.

  • 2. Harry Seidler, ​Houses, interiors, projects, Associated General Publications, Sydney, 1954, pxvi.

‘American Modern’ flatware, stainless steel, designed by Russel Wright c1950, manufactured by the John Hull Cutlery Corporation

‘American Modern’ dinnerware, Bean Brown glazed earthenware, designed by Russel Wright in 1937, manufactured by Steubenville Pottery Company.

DCM (dining chair metal) side chair, laminated plywood, birch veneer, steel, metal, moulded rubber, paper label. Co-designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1946, manufactured by Evans Products Company, made for Herman Miller Furniture Company. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Seidler purchased crockery and cutlery by influential American craftsman and designer Russel Wright (1904–1976) for his parents to use in the house. Wright promoted modern, practical and affordable products that struck a chord with Seidler, who believed that ‘decoration should be OF a thing, NOT on a thing … every object of use in the house, such as crockery, cutlery … should be a pleasure to use and behold, however humble their value’.3

  • 3. Seidler, Houses, interiors, projects, pxix.

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