The interior design of Seven Elizabeth Street
Located in central Sydney, the nine-storey block comprised 54 flats – a challenging project for any young designer. The resulting decoration not only showcased Best’s emerging talent and the influences of her early interior design training but now provides an insight into Best’s practices, especially in relation to colour, that endured through much of her career.
Apartment living and ‘bachelor flats’ in Sydney
In February 1940, when the first residents moved into Seven Elizabeth Street, apartment living in Sydney was not new. More than 70,000 apartment dwellings had been built in Sydney between 1918 and 1939. In 1911, just 1.5% of private dwellings in Sydney were apartments, but by the 1940s the number had increased to 19%.1 Apartments had clearly become a desirable option for many Sydneysiders. But after the first major flurry of apartment building in Macquarie Street in central Sydney up to the 1920s, more flats were constructed in inner-ring suburbs and fewer in the city as property prices increased due to retail and office development. Therefore, Seven Elizabeth Street was one of only a small number of apartments built in central Sydney in the 1930s and 40s.
One of the main reasons it was economically viable to construct Seven Elizabeth Street was that the block was made up entirely of ‘bachelor flats’, similar to today’s studio apartments. As early as 1934, an Australian Home Beautiful article stated that ‘the one-room bachelor flat is becoming an established fact, and its inclusion in most of the large, good-type flat-buildings will soon become a matter of course’.2 In fact, by the late 1930s, new blocks like Marlborough Hall (1938) in Darlinghurst consisted solely of bachelor flats.
It is perhaps no surprise that the same architect, Emil Sodersten, designed both Marlborough Hall and Seven Elizabeth Street. By the late 1930s Sodersten had become one of the most accomplished designers of apartment blocks in Sydney. His much-praised Birtley Towers (Elizabeth Bay, 1933–34) consisted of nine storeys with six flats per floor, just like Seven Elizabeth Street, but each apartment at Birtley Towers had one or two bedrooms.
Bachelor flats were applauded for their ‘economy of space’ – the main room in the apartments at Seven Elizabeth Street measured just 5.2 x 3.2m. In order to use small areas most efficiently, designs often adopted modernist ideas of the time such as removing unnecessary ornament, installing built-in furniture and dispensing with suites of bedroom or dining room furniture, which had become standard fare in the Australian suburban bungalow. Sodersten designed the built-in wardrobes, described as ‘a marvel of compact planning’, and a very small but efficient kitchenette with all the services and cupboards built in. According to The Home magazine, ‘for a building in the heart of the city, and for single unit flats at that, these apartments give an amazing impression of spaciousness and cheerful light. This is due to their skilful layout, partly to the use of compact, functional furnishing items, and largely to the enlivening colour schemes which prevail throughout’.3
- 3. ‘Sydney’s new metropolitan flats’, The Home, June 1940, p21.
The colour schemes for Seven Elizabeth Street were the work of Marion Best, who was responsible for the interior design, which included movable furniture, soft furnishings, rugs, light shades and art prints. The schemes developed by Best and illustrated in the contemporary booklet Luxury flats for moderate incomes show six layouts for the six apartments on each floor; the layouts were then replicated across each of the nine floors of the block. There were two apartments facing Elizabeth Street at the front, two at the rear, and two in the middle that received light from a central light well.
Best’s schemes were presented as isometric projections; the idea of using this format came from her year studying architecture at the University of Sydney in 1936. The isometric projections effectively became presentation drawings for the developers of Seven Elizabeth Street, who readily approved the schemes. Best particularly liked this form for presenting her ideas because, as she said some years later, ‘you can see the whole thing … you can feel it and you can see the volume of it’.4 However, the colours reproduced in the booklet were, according to Best, a little ‘crude’, as she had used poster paint in her original design. Best also altered some schemes slightly, including colours, after they were published, though her general intentions did not change. Most significantly, these designs are the first of Best’s interior schemes that were reproduced in colour (and after completion they were photographed only in black and white). Throughout her long career, Best became renowned for the way she employed colour in interior design, and these early renditions provide a window into her ideas on colour.
- 4. Oral history interview with Marion Hall Best regarding Thea Proctor, interviewer: Avenel Mitchell, 22 May 1980, Art Gallery of NSW research library.
At about the same time as Best was preparing interior furnishing schemes at Seven Elizabeth Street, she was undertaking a correspondence course (or ‘home study course’) in interior decoration with the Arts and Decoration (A&D) school in New York. The course was almost certainly recommended to her by her design teacher, the artist Thea Proctor, who had completed the same program more than a decade earlier. Best drew a number of ideas for Seven Elizabeth Street from lesson XI of the A&D course, entitled ‘Furnishing the apartment’. In smaller apartment spaces, which might have low ceilings, the most important means to create a sense of spaciousness – according to the course notes – was the use of colour. Neutral colours ‘like tan, cream, gray or gray-green’ were recommended for the walls, but ‘this uniformity of background does not mean, however, a dullness or lack of interest, for bright accents may be brought in by the furniture, the draperies, the lamps and all the decorative accessories’.5 Best followed this recipe to the letter at Seven Elizabeth Street.
- 5. ‘Lesson XI: Furnishing the apartment’, Interior decoration: [Arts and Decoration practical home study course in interior decoration], Arts & Decoration Pub Co, New York, 1939, p163.
The six layouts proposed by Best all employ neutral-coloured walls as suggested by the A&D course book. Best used similar ideas for some of her early interior design schems such as in 1942 for the 'Resident Medical Officer's Room' at the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children in Redfern NSW. However, such neutral-coloured walls are perhaps unusual when compared to the strong colours Best became most noted for in later years. However, she filled the rest of the interiors with those ‘bright accents’ of colour also suggested by the course, in the form of soft furnishings like curtains, cushions and upholstery, as well as the rugs, lampshades and even the careful selection of prints on the walls by favoured artists like Matisse, Bonnard, Gauguin, van Gogh and Franz Marc. In the choice of these colours and colour combinations, Best put into practice ideas on colour and the latest colour theories from around the world that she had been exposed to in her formative years, including through art and design classes with Proctor.
When describing her use of colour in interior design, Best often used the language of colour theories. For example, when explaining her approach to design, she said that she employed ‘colour harmonies, discords and vibrations’ to allow ‘visual expansion of space and movement in space’, and she ‘learnt the necessity of an ascending scale in tone values from dark to light’.6 There was, in fact, a growing international interest in colour theories in the early 20th century, both in regard to the physical and psychological effects of colour on people and in relation to the benefits of standardising colours to promote consistency for designers and industry. Best was exposed to a number of colour theories, including one from local artist Roy de Maistre, who employed music in his colour practice.
Best recalled Proctor’s lessons on colour later in life: ‘there was a colour theory which she [Proctor] used of four colours: red, green, yellow and blue...7 The four-colour theory was almost certainly that of Baltic-German chemist Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald. Ostwald’s colour theories, first published as slim volumes in the 1910s, went into several editions in various languages and proved to be highly influential in colour education around the world, including being taught in ‘design and crafts’ classes by Phyllis Shillito at the Sydney Technical College in the late 1940s. Best also mentions the Ostwald theory in a 1953 article entitled ‘Interior design’ in The Housewife magazine, where she suggests that ‘there are various color [sic] theories for the untrained’, including one by ‘Ostwald’ that she proceeds to use to demonstrate an interior design scheme.8
Best explained parts of the Oswald theory on more than one occasion, most commonly describing the use of analogous colours – three or more closely related colours from the colour wheel ‘and then straight across the circle to the immediate opposite which would be classic tone’.9 This idea of using analogous or harmonising colours with a discordant one across the colour circle is clearly employed in each of the Seven Elizabeth Street schemes. By the end of her career, Best was still advocating similar theories, though half a lifetime of experience helped her perfect her ideas.
Best became most noted for the use of strong colours in her interior design schemes, some of which can still deliver an optical shock today. However, Best always insisted that her use of colour was never haphazard but carefully considered, as she followed the science of colour theories. Later in her career she wrote: ‘I have very definite ideas on colour and how to use it in the home; but … my colour schemes follow the definite scientific rules of colour itself that must be learnt as principles – even though they can be broken on purpose when one believes it to be necessary’.10 Although Best said that she used more colours earlier in her career than she did later on, the schemes at Seven Elizabeth Street demonstrate the beginning of her long and successful exploration of the science of colour in interior design.
Furniture and furnishings
Best’s choice of furniture and furnishings for Seven Elizabeth Street was equally important: different textures helped to provide a sense of volume to the rooms. She was allowed £50 by the property developers to furnish each unit. The furnishing schemes included furniture made in Sydney by retailer Beard Watson & Co, hand-hooked rugs imported from India and screen-printed fabrics by Melbourne-based Frances Burke (whose company was then known as Burway Prints).
Best was a long-time supporter of Burke’s work, incorporating her textiles into interior design schemes and showing a selection in her shops until at least the 1950s. At Seven Elizabeth Street, at least four Frances Burke designs appear to have been used, with different designs allocated to different apartments. Burke designs include ‘birdflight’ and ‘oak leaf’, and possibly ‘tiger stripe’ and ‘tartan’.
The furniture was specially made for the Seven Elizabeth Street apartments by local Sydney manufacturer Beard Watson. This company had been producing fine furniture since 1901 for sale (along with other fine furnishings) in its store in George Street, Sydney. By the early 1930s, the company was also taking on custom fit-outs of private, public and commercial buildings – an advertisement stated that ‘to do justice to the architect’s conception, the building must be furnished in harmony with the architectural treatment … Our studio is trained to design furniture and furnishings in co-operation with the architect’.11 At Seven Elizabeth Street, the furniture was custom-built to fit the spaces – small bookcases were constructed to fit around corners in some rooms, while chairs and tables were smaller than average to better fit into modest-sized rooms. For the choice and design of Seven Elizabeth Street’s slightly undersized furniture, Best may have again drawn on lessons from the A&D interior design course she was undertaking at the time. The course notes recommend ‘furniture small in scale’ for apartment living and that it would be ideal if furniture could be made to ‘shrink to the right apartment-house size’.12
The design of the furniture was probably a collaboration between Best and Beard Watson’s in-house designers. The furniture designs at Seven Elizabeth Street do not appear in any known advertisements or trade literature for Beard Watson. Most pieces were without ornament, of lighter coloured timbers and distinctly modern in appearance – the Seven Elizabeth Street apartments were associated with ‘modern’ living at a time when period furniture was still a common choice. Although some furniture was made from Queensland maple, the majority was of paler polished silver ash, which, according to reports of the time, ‘is a happy contribution to the prevailing light and cheerful character of the colour schemes’.13 In addition to the moveable furniture, the day beds were also made by Beard Watson, and it is likely that other joinery such as the built-in wardrobe and kitchen cupboards were produced by the company.
- 13. The Home, June 1940, p67.
In fact, the flats at Seven Elizabeth Street came completely furnished, even down to the household linens, dinnerware, glassware, cutlery and cooking utensils. And the kitchen included ‘such up-to-the-minute appointments as a refrigerator, electric stove, stainless steel sink and drainer’ as well as ‘charmingly styled English crockery ware in cream bordered with green, cutlery and glassware enough for four people’. Telephones were installed in each apartment and residents could take the lift directly to the Normandie Restaurant on the lower ground level.14
The new apartments at Seven Elizabeth Street proved to be popular: in August 1940, around six months after the first residents moved in, advertisements appeared in newspapers proclaiming that ‘there is now a waiting list for the flats’.15 Nonetheless, few new apartment blocks were constructed in central Sydney over the following decades, so that by the 1970s it was reported that only three residential blocks were extant: the Astor in Macquarie Street, the Park Regis on the corner of Pitt and Park streets, and Seven Elizabeth Street.16 However, from the late 1970s apartment living in central Sydney slowly increased.
Company title arrangements for Seven Elizabeth Street changed around 1960 and a number of individual flats were offered for outright sale. A brochure issued by estate agents LJ Hooker stated that ‘all flats are tastefully furnished and purchasers of the units may, if they so desire, buy the furniture too at an almost nominal price’.17 As furnishings wore out and different furniture was installed by new owners, the original interiors changed so that by the early 21st century only a very few apartments still contained any of their original furnishings or any memory of Marion Best. The livability of many flats also changed for the worse as office buildings were constructed nearby or even abutting Seven Elizabeth Street. While the two apartments fronting Elizabeth Street on each floor retained their positive aspect, the two at the back and the two built around light wells became much darker inside.
In 2017, Seven Elizabeth Street was demolished as part of the Sydney Metro redevelopment. At around this time, the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) acquired some original furniture and fittings from one apartment owner and also from Transport for NSW. Marion Best’s first major interior design commission can now be celebrated through these collections as well as the substantial archive of materials at the CSL&RC related to the rest of her career.
- 17. LJ Hooker Limited, 7 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, c1960, [unpaginated].