Icons of Design: Douglas Snelling

It’s a question that we, as an Australian company, often ask ourselves: what is Australian design? What are its distinguishing features? What does it say about us as a nation? Rising out of WWII’s ashes, Douglas Snelling was one of the first to put Australasian design on the map; defining not necessarily a style, but an attitude towards design that was distinctly Australian. In this article, we’ll take a look at how Snelling’s designs defined a new generation of post-war Australians, and paved the way for the ‘mid-century modern’ style still popular today.

The end of WWII marked a huge turning point in Australian design. This was partly due to “manufacturing and material restrictions during and immediately after the war generating an innovative design culture, while new methods and materials developed during the war created new possibilities.” Travel both to and from Australia had also never been so easy or affordable, meaning immigrants brought their culture to Australia, and Australians found inspiration from travelling abroad. Douglas Snelling was a typical example of a well-travelled Australian. Originally from the UK, he had emigrated to New Zealand, before travelling to Los Angeles and finally settling in Sydney. A multi-disciplinary designer, Snelling tried his hand at everything from cartoons to architecture during the course of his career. His first big break came in 1946, when he designed a range of chairs made from local timbers, upholstered in synthetic webbing derived from wartime parachute material. Taking inspiration from a number of sources, including Scandinavian designs of the 1930s, and several West-Coast-based American designers, his cosmopolitan attitude towards design reflected Australia as a nation: a melting pot of cultures and styles.

Icons of Design: Douglas Snelling

Snelling at home, 1940s or 50s.

After the success of a first round of prototypes and small batch productions, Snelling founded a manufacturing facility to cope with the growing demand for what was now called the ‘Snelling line’ of seating, storage and tables. His designs, now being made in a variety of bright colours, reflected “the optimism surrounding post-war life,” and exemplified a new, modernist style of furnishings. Although the products were extremely popular, the limitations of technology and methods of manufacturing in Australia at the time limited the number of chairs able to be produced. Never one to sit still, Snelling travelled once more to the West-Coast of America, where he was greatly influenced by the work of the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Keen to try his hand at a new strand of design, Snelling began designing Wrightian-style houses back in Australia in the early 1950s. Along with residential and commercial projects, Snelling was also commissioned to design a number of refurbishments and interiors in what was becoming known as his ‘signature style’.

Icons of Design: Douglas Snelling

The design that made Snelling famous: locally-sourced solid timbers, ergonomically sawed, and upholstered in criss-cross synthetic parachute material.

Snelling continued to design into the 1960s and 70s, where he is credited for popularising the Polynesian-inspired “tiki” form of architecture in Australia, as well as designing the first spill-edge “infinity” pool. Having successfully designed several homes in this style in Sydney, he was commissioned to work on a number of holiday resorts in Fiji and Vanuatu. During the 1970s, he fell in love with the country of Cambodia, which he visited frequently, amassing a collection of Khmer artefacts and antiques. These visits clearly had an influence on his designs, as a number of South-East Asian-inspired roof shapes and adornments started creeping in to his proposals for new buildings around this time.

Icons of Design: Douglas Snelling

The first infinity-edge swimming pool built in Australia. Vaucluse, Sydney.

Snelling’s long and varied career exemplified the eclectic nation of Australia; his work the product of an immersion in a cultural hot-pot achieved by both travel and immigration. When someone is asked to define what an ‘Australian style’ is, it’s often more of a feeling than a visual reference or cue. Inspired by any number of historical or contemporary design references, these influences combine to create a timeless quality that allows Australian designs to look as current now as they did when they first came out. Snelling, who spearheaded “a dynamic and confident (though small) group of modernist designers responding to global forces in a local context”, made design approachable and exciting – an attitude that is still an enduring motif in Australian design today. Icon By Design embraces these qualities of Australian design in our own products. Taking design cues from a number of historical eras and designers, we have come up with a clean and elegant aesthetic that we feel represents the timeless quality of Australian design. Made from sustainably-sourced solid timbers, our products are manufactured in a responsible way that ensures their longevity, as well as creating a beautiful product able to be enjoyed for generations.

Icons of Design: Douglas Snelling

Our Franz Plank Armchair uses an element of the ‘Snelling line’ design, in its criss-crossed webbing design used to support the upholstered seating cushion.





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