In 1947, Russian-born architect Dr Henry Epstein began designing a house in Sydney’s Roseville for Polish tailor Chaim Hillman and his wife, Florence. Epstein had graduated in 1935 with a Doctorate of Technical Sciences from the Technical University of Vienna before fleeing the increasingly dangerous political situation in 1938. He arrived in Sydney the following year, but due to wartime restrictions on building, the Hillman House was one of his first completed residential projects in Australia.
The Hillmans had bought a steep block in a quiet street and engaged Epstein to design them a house. His dramatic composition of white rectangular prisms arranged at 90 degrees to one another provided three levels of living spaces with adjoining roof terraces and sheltered porches. The use of continuous strip steel-framed windows and suspended concrete slabs demonstrates the architect’s considerable skill with modernist materials. When completed in 1949, the house was a remarkable example of influential Austrian architect Adolf Loos’s style of modernism transplanted to the Sydney suburbs.
A large number of Europeans emigrated to Sydney as a result of the upheavals in Europe following World War I and the devastating rise of National Socialism that followed. Designers were well represented among these migrants, and as they re-established their careers in Sydney they had a significant impact across architecture, interior and furniture design, and in the media. Although a few of Sydney’s émigré designers were well known during the 1950s and 60s, many – like Epstein – were not. Now, at a time when the numbers of stateless people globally far exceed those of the postwar period, it is timely to note the great skills this period of migration brought and to acknowledge the European designers who came to Sydney. The Moderns explores the distinct form of European modernism postwar migrants brought with them, and the contributions they made to shaping the modern city.
A number of Sydney’s émigré designers arrived with extensive experience, having left behind established careers. Czechoslovakian architect and town planner Ernst Korner was 51 when he arrived in Sydney in 1939. He had studied architecture in Vienna, and after working for a number of years in Sweden and Prague, developed a successful practice in the Czechoslovakian city of Ostrava. On his arrival in Sydney, Korner immediately began designing, working in partnership with his brother-in-law, Hungarian émigré Kurt Singer. The pair designed Korner’s own functionalist modernist house in Mosman and an apartment building in Cremorne before wartime restrictions halted their practice. Korner died in 1966 without having returned to work, the years of displacement and disruption having all but ended his career. Although celebrated as one of Ostrava’s best architects, Korner remained unknown in Australia.
Outside the profession
Korner was one of only a handful of European-trained architects who were permitted to register in NSW without having to sit further examinations. German émigrés Hugh and Eva Buhrich had studied in Berlin with modernist leader Hans Poelzig, and Hugh had worked for a period in the Zurich office of functionalist architect Alfred Roth. When the Australian Institute of Architects did not recognise their degrees, Eva pursued a career in journalism while Hugh continued a small-scale practice working unregistered as a ‘planning consultant’, unable to take the role or status of ‘architect’. Despite this he received a steady stream of domestic commissions during the 1950s and 60s, including the Gador House, Northbridge (c1952), and the Franklin House, Waverley (c1957). One of the Buhrichs’ early projects was their own starkly modernist house in the waterside suburb of Castlecrag. Commenced in the 1940s, it took more than ten years to complete, with Hugh building most of it by hand.
The Buhrichs’ second house, built in 1968–72 just down the road, was the culmination of Hugh’s idiosyncratic career. A remarkably individual and sculptural work, it is now widely acclaimed as one of the finest examples of modern architecture in Australia. Eva’s contribution is also seen as significant; she wrote for numerous industry and popular publications, including a regular architectural column in The Sydney Morning Herald from 1957 to the late 1960s. Despite their status on the periphery of the architectural profession, the Buhrichs demonstrate the significant contribution European migrants made across design-related fields.
THE TOTAL WORK OF ART
Like other émigré designers, the Buhrichs’ work extended to furniture. Many of their early commissions were for custom-made furniture, and during the 1950s Eva and Hugh provided build-your-own furniture designs in homemaker publications such as Australian House & Garden. European design education included a focus on furniture as well as architecture, and numerous Europeantrained designers found work in Sydney’s burgeoning postwar furniture trade. This approach – known in Germany as Gesamtkunstwerk or the ‘total work of art’ – was well accepted in Europe by the early 20th century and saw architects involved in every aspect of a project’s design and realisation, providing a unified approach to furniture, lighting, interior colour scheme, carpets and more, with the aim of creating an overall harmonising effect.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Artes Studios, in Castlereagh Street, and Kalmar Interiors, Rowe Street, were the foundation of Sydney’s modern furniture market. Artes Studios’ designer, trained architect Professor George Korody, had left behind a successful career in Budapest. Artes Studios offered a retail and custom design service for more than a decade before morphing into a retailer of international designs (eventually evolving into what is now Space Furniture). Steven Kalmar, also a Hungarian architecture graduate, sold lightweight, compact modern furniture before moving into interior design and journalism.
A FORGOTTEN LEGACY
While Kalmar and Korody were well-known figures in their day, very few Europeans are identified in the histories of Australian modernism. A salient example is D L Johnson’s Australian architecture 1901–1951: sources of modernism, published in 1980. Although Johnson noted the importance of ‘European strains’ in the local development of modernism, with the exception of Harry Seidler, no European designer working in Sydney was considered important enough to name. The arrival of a large, robust and interconnected community who continued European forms of modernism had become nothing more than a footnote.
In what has been an exciting journey of discovery, The Moderns explores the stories of Sydney’s ‘forgotten’ émigré designers, examining their impact on mid-20th-century Australia. Their stories of achievement, loss, adaptation and ingenuity are also a reminder of the richness that migration brings and of the importance of diversity in the history of our city.
From the collection
This dining chair was one of 12 – together with other furniture and built-ins – commissioned from Paul Kafka by merchants Moses and Musia Greengarten for their new Vaucluse home in 1959. The shape of the asymmetrical chair back was repeated in two matching glass cabinets. The upholstery fabric, a yarn made with metallic fibres, was known by the trademark ‘Lurex’.
Kafka was born in Vienna, where he trained in furniture design. In 1939, he and his wife, Ilse, migrated to Australia. He eventually set up a furniture factory in Waterloo where his clients, many of them Jewish refugees like himself, were attracted to practices brought from Vienna: traditional construction techniques, hand finishing and the use of highly figured veneers. Kafka provided furniture for homeowners, offices, motels and a number of Sydney’s European-born architects, including Harry Seidler, Hugh Buhrich, Henry Epstein and Hugo Stossel.