Steel sculpture titled Awakening (1968) by Clement Meadmore
Clement Meadmore was acclaimed internationally for his monumental public works in corten steel. Image by Liz Hobday/AAP PHOTOS
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Pioneering Meadmore works reveal Australia’s design DNA

Liz Hobday March 23, 2024

Within the industrial design of renowned sculptor Clement Meadmore lives Australia’s design DNA, according to artist and collector Peter Atkins.

Meadmore was one of the nation’s most important 20th century sculptors, acclaimed internationally for his monumental public works in corten steel but less so for his pioneering modernist pieces.

Atkins and partner Dana Harris have spent decades compiling the most comprehensive assemblage of Meadmore’s designs anywhere in the world and their much-loved collection of 30 pieces goes on public display for the first time Saturday at TarraWarra Museum of Art outside Melbourne.

Meadmore’s iconic chairs, tables and lights from the 1950s and early 1960s epitomised Australia’s postwar optimism and suited the new modernist homes being designed for young families by the likes of Robin Boyd.

They are displayed along the length of a corridor at TarraWarra, with the artist’s steel sculpture Awakening 1968 (which used to sit at the corner of Bourke St and William St in Melbourne’s CBD) installed on the grassy slope outside.

Peter Atkins and Dana Harris with their Clement Meadmore collection.
 Meadmore’s iconic 1950s and 60s furniture epitomised Australia’s postwar optimism. Image by AAP PHOTOS 

Piece by piece, it’s possible to take in the arrangement in almost chronological order and if the designs seem strangely familiar now, says Harris, it’s important to remember they were radical in postwar Australia.

The couple started their collection in 1999, when they moved to Melbourne and bought a $40 red corded dining chair for their home studio warehouse.

Meadmore designed the chair aged 20 in 1949 and it’s now considered a classic of mid-century furniture.

Before long, Atkins says, he and Harris found themselves amassing a collection of national significance, with almost all the pieces extremely rare and in several cases the only known examples in existence.

Their warehouse filled with Meadmore furniture but most of it was too valuable to actually use.

Hunting down more of the sculptor’s work required forensic research but they were fortunate to uncover a rare catalogue of Meadmore designs in a NSW library, which served as their guide to what was genuine and what was not.

The stories behind their 25-year mission are almost as good as the pieces themselves.

One of Meadmore’s last known commercial designs is his Sling Chair (model 248) from 1963, one of which is held in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In 2020, Harris and Atkins discovered a rare black sling chair being offered for auction in the US, along with a matching steel and leather footstool which was never produced commercially.

At three o’clock one morning they managed to successfully bid online for the pair and Atkins flew to little known Hatfield, Massachusetts during the pandemic to collect the find and bring it home.

“This is the unicorn; it hasn’t been documented anywhere,” says Harris, admiring the set installed at TarraWarra.

The Harris/Atkins collection of industrial design
 In 2020 Harris and Atkins discovered a rare black sling chair with matching footstool. Image by HANDOUT/SUPPLIED 

The couple had a head start of about a decade of collecting before the mid-century modern revival in the mid 90s that saw prices soar as interest and demand increased.

Even so, such dedicated endeavour involved hard yards and they have made the kind of financial sacrifices that are sometimes hard to justify, Atkins says.

A green pendant light Meadmore produced for Melbourne’s T House cafe in 1956 is installed near the Sling Chair, its design encapsulating the beginning of Australian modernism.

Atkins believes it’s one of the most important light fittings in the country – a through line can be traced from its spot welding all the way to Marc Newson’s famous Lockheed lounge of the 1980s.

He’s horrified that similar pieces often end up in hard rubbish simply because people don’t recognise or value them.

“They don’t understand the significance – it’s about us as Australians, that’s our history,” Atkins says.

Looking at Meadmore’s furniture it’s possible to see the shapes and solutions that would later characterise his world-famous sculpture – the use of steel and distinctive curves and forms were present almost from his very first designs.

Harris and Atkins feel their odyssey is finally complete and hope it might be acquired as part of an institutional collection.

The Clement Meadmore designs are being shown in conjunction with major new works by Atkins and Harris themselves, in their first joint exhibition titled SUPERsystems.

Peter Atkins Dr. No (after Maurice Binder)
 Atkins’ Dr No references the iconic animated opening sequence of the first James Bond film. Image by HANDOUT/SUPPLIED 

Harris’ hand embroideries are inspired by shapes and details from Melbourne’s CBD that she experienced during the city’s pandemic lockdown desertion and are made with materials including builders line.

Atkins’ work Dr No. (after Maurice Binder) references the iconic animated opening sequence of the first James Bond film, released in 1962, which the artist watched during the series of lockdowns.

Also on show is Systems and Structures, featuring several smaller Meadmore sculptures, with works by Australian abstract artists including Rosalie Gascoigne and Robert Hunter.

The Harris/Atkins Collection is on show at TarraWarra Museum of Art from Saturday until July 14.