A new way of living
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, 19521
By the time Rose and Max Seidler moved in to their new home in late 1950, it was the ‘most talked about house in Sydney’.2 Designed by their son Harry, the house was his first commission in Australia yet it seemed almost from another world. Hovering at the edge of the bush, its stark, cube-like form sent shockwaves through the leafy tranquility of Sydney’s upper north shore, then still more rural than suburban.
Sydney at the time was emerging from decades of restrictions and shortages following the depression and war years, and a fresh optimism was spreading through the housing industry. Arriving from New York (via Brazil), the young Harry Seidler was one of a number of architects exploring a new kind of architecture that looked to the future rather than to the traditions of the past. Seidler shared with them a concern for simplicity and function, for undecorated materials, and for new kinds of relationships between built forms and the landscape and in the arrangement of internal spaces. Yet as expressed in the Rose Seidler House, the strength and daring of Seidler’s vision was unique, and it both excited and divided the profession as much as the public.
Seidler’s holistic approach determined the use of form, space, materials, colour, fittings, interiors and landscaping, with the site itself integral to the design and the way of living it would enable. Describing the secluded, rocky site on the edge of Ku-ring-gai Chase, Seidler recalled:
Of course she [Rose] brought her friends here and they all said you’re crazy … you can’t dig yourself away out [there]. Mind you there was nothing there … Clissold Road didn’t exist – nobody was there – all it was, was a rough unmade road and flanked on both sides of the approach here were market gardens where people were growing vegetables, but once you came in it was a really wonderful enclave’.3
Harry Seidler was born in Vienna in 1923, the younger of Rose and Max Seidler’s two sons. With the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, at the age of 15 Harry joined his brother Marcell in England. There he studied building but following the appointment of Winston Churchill in May 1940, Harry and his brother were interned as ‘enemy aliens’ and shipped to a camp in Canada. When released on parole in late 1941, Harry was able to study architecture, at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and later became a registered architect in Canada. He then won a scholarship to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied under the pioneering founder of the Bauhaus, émigré, Walter Gropius.
Harry graduated from Harvard in 1946, an enthusiastic and committed modernist. That same year his parents and brother migrated to Australia to join his paternal uncle Marcus, who had established a successful shirt-making business in Sydney. Harry, however, remained in New York, until his mother enticed him to Australia with the offer of designing and building a house for her and Max.
Harry arrived in Sydney in 1948, intending to remain only until the house was completed, but the architectural success that followed persuaded him to stay. In the decades that followed, he designed an extensive range of innovative, controversial and award-winning residential, commercial and public buildings, introducing uncompromising modern architecture and making a major contribution to Australian architecture.
The rectilinear form of the house is quite deliberate to be in strong contrast to the natural form of the land. I prefer to see beautiful nature – green trees and grass offset by a man-made geometric square. I think that contrast between nature and what is built is to me a source of what we call a tension.
Harry Seidler, 1952
A revolutionary design
Seidler’s design for the Rose Seidler House overturned virtually every convention of suburban architecture in Australia. Rather than facing to the street, the house sits back from Clissold Road in the centre of the rugged bushland site. Six external doors give easy access to an outdoor area, while each room, with the exception of the bathrooms, has a view onto the bushland. In the service areas, glass extends up from waist height. In other areas, floor to ceiling glass allows panoramic views of the surrounding bushland, producing giant green views during the day while at night the curtains were drawn.
The floor plan was equally modern. The house is divided into two distinct zones – the living or public areas and the sleeping or private areas – linked by a transitional zone of a central playroom, stairs and terrace that can be used to extend either public or private areas, depending on the occasion. Instead of conventional walls, there are flexible dividers: an internal curtain which allows the playroom space to be isolated from or connected to the surrounding rooms, and the bedrooms off the playroom have sliding access doors, while the kitchen servery, fireplace and key pieces of furniture help to define the changing focus and function of a space.
The house experienced huge delays in construction because building materials were still in short supply following World War II. ‘There was formwork lying constructed here ready for the floor to be concreted that was sitting here for months. [You] couldn’t get any reinforcing steel we had to beg from this outfit and that outfit ... I remember going around in the car, my mother’s car, to try and get a few bricks for this fireplace. No bricks were available and you begged somebody for six bricks from this yard [and] another eight from another one’.4
[The local council] said: you’ve got two bathrooms and only one of them has got a window. I said: no that’s not right, they both have windows. Where’s the window, where’s the window? ... you explain the plan to the local building inspector, he didn’t realise there was a window sticking out of the roof on top – a skylight. Oh is that it? He was trying to find rules that forbid that kind of thing ... but he didn’t get very far with me, so it got approved.
Harry Seidler, 20035
Life in the house
After a long construction period, Rose and Max Seidler moved into the completed house in late 1950. Harry dismissed most of his parents’ Viennese furniture as unsuitable for a modern home, to be replaced with items he had bought before leaving New York. Rose, however, insisted on keeping several Viennese pieces: an ornate silver cutlery service and a decorated tea set that had pride of place on the traymobile Harry designed to her specifications.
Rose Seidler was herself a modern woman. A superb cook and hostess, she mostly welcomed the house’s mod cons when entertaining family, friends and those Harry invited to the architectural functions held constantly at the house. She also faced a regular invasion of uninvited visitors, who, following the extraordinary amount of media coverage the house generated, lined the driveway to stare through the glass walls.
Rose’s influence is particularly evident in the area between the bush and the lawn. Over 17 years, she almost single-handedly built the eccentric layers of rockeries: ‘the remnants of this excavation from the garage that wasn’t usable for building stone was just tipped in here ... and she built these rough stone walls ... they were certainly not architect designed’.6 The exotic plants and flowers, fruit trees and vegetable gardens Rose cultivated are still evident today. The vegetable garden always produced a surplus. ‘She used to invite friends to come and take anything they want and I remember ... [photographer] Max Dupain going home with great boxes full of cabbages and whatever’.7
Mod cons and modern spaces
Rose Seidler House demonstrates the modernist belief that the quality of life can be improved by functional and flexible design. The uncluttered interior, lightweight furniture and the hard and high off the floor surfaces were easy to clean, while the latest technologies, labour-saving devices, low-maintenance materials and mass-produced products, including electrical appliances, light fittings, ironing board and radiogram, along with built-in wardrobes, aimed to reduce and streamline chores. In 1950 the kitchen was one of Australia’s best equipped, with a waste disposal unit and the very latest model refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, exhaust fan and Mixmaster. Even the Gents plastic wall clock and the Flint utensil set were the latest in industrial design.
While such kitchens soon became the norm, they were beyond the reach of most Australian homemakers in 1950. Indeed at the time it cost more to fit out the kitchen than the rest of the house.
When this house was finished, people used to come in and it was published in the paper, the picture of it – and people were four deep. My mother had to leave the house sometimes on the weekend, because they were all standing around the windows you know, trying to see this incredible contraption.
Harry Seidler, 2003
The house today
Following Rose Seidler’s death in 1967 and shortly after Max’s move to a retirement home, the house underwent a series of changes as new residents moved in and on. In 1985 discussions began with the Historic Houses Trust to open the house as a museum, and in 1988 Harry Seidler generously gifted the house and its contents to the state as a house museum to be managed by the Historic Houses Trust.
The original 1950 colour scheme has also been meticulously reinstated. The scheme owes much to the influence of Josef Albers, under whom Seidler had studied. Albers’ drawings are the only artworks in the house. The mural, designed and originally painted by Seidler himself, provides a colourful focus to the palette of the minimalist house interior. But the mural is also a clever code to the colour scheme throughout. Seidler came to Australia via Brazil, where he became enchanted by the modernist murals which were the architectural vogue.
The furniture and furnishings form one the most important mid-century domestic design collections in Australia. Most of the furniture is original, either bought from the New York showrooms of Herman Miller and Knoll International or designed by Harry Seidler specifically to meet the requirements of the house and its inhabitants. The dining table, coffee table, tray-mobile, sofa and fitted cabinetry were designed by Seidler and made locally by Paul Kafka. The furniture is today arranged according to Harry’s design in 1950 and as used by his parents from 1950 until 1967.
Rose Seidler House is a special and fragile place. It is an influential architectural structure in itself but also with direct association with Harry Seidler and his family, the contents and surroundings combine to form a bold and powerful statement about the mid 20th century modernist movement in Australia.
* This story is based on a recent guide to Rose Seidler House written by Caroline Butler-Bowdon and other SLM staff.
- 1. Sunday Telegraph, 21 September 1952, p41
- 2. Sun-Herald, 17 August 1952, pp28–29
- 3. Harry Seidler interviewed by Colleen Morris, May 2001 reprinted in Colleen Morris and Geoffrey Britton, Rose Seidler House garden conservation plan prepared for the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 2001, p8.
- 4. Harry Seidler interviewed by Colleen Morris, May 2001, reprinted in Rose Seidler House, room brochure, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 2008.
- 5. McHugh 2003
- 6. Morris & Britton 2001, p18.
- 7. Morris & Britton 2001, p19.