Well known as a sculptor, Meadmore began his career as a designer. His furniture was sold at Marion Hall Best’s showrooms and his lighting design shown at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics Arts Festival alongside the work of designers such as Grant Featherston. Meadmore ran Max Hutchinson's Gallery A, Melbourne, in the late 1950s. In 1963 he moved to New York, where he concentrated primarily on his work as a sculptor.
While Clement Meadmore (b. Melbourne, 1929) now enjoys international fame for his sculpture, in the mid-20th century his Australian reputation was centred around his work in furniture.
Meadmore began tertiary study at the Melbourne Technical College (now the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) in 1946. In 1948, the college became the first in Australia to offer a formal industrial design course to service Victoria’s powerful postwar manufacturing base. Meadmore soon began taking courses in this area of study.
By 1949, Clement Meadmore was promoting himself as an industrial designer. By 1952, he had designed his first success – a corded black steel dining chair wrapped with synthetic fibre cord (available in red, blue, green, yellow, black and white) – under the banner of Meadmore Originals, 86 Collins Street, Melbourne.
Meadmore’s corded dining chair was celebrated, appearing in design features and on magazine covers throughout the 1950s. In 1953, the chair received the “Good Design Award” from the Good Design Society, Sydney. Marion Hall Best’s showrooms in Woollahra and Rowe Street, Sydney, showed the dining chair (with arms) in saddle leather as well as the coloured cord. A Meadmore corded recliner in the same style appeared in the same year, followed by a dining table with silver ash top in the same style. It was a productive era for him.
In 1956, he formed a short-lived partnership with Max Robinson (Meadmore & Robinson) and later in the same year he became involved in a celebrated commission with the painter Leonard French for the Legend Espresso and Milk Bar at 239 Bourke Street, Melbourne (demolished 1970). This cafe, previously known as the Anglo American Milk Bar, was owned by Ion Nicolades, who commissioned Meadmore to design a new interior. Meadmore invited Leonard French to paint seven panels for the Milk Bar on the theme of the Legend of Sinbad. The Legend was a deep and narrow interior that Meadmore enhanced by placing mirrors opposite each of French’s paintings. A dramatic terrazzo floor, coloured fibreglass-topped stools, diagonally-hung fluorescent lamps and a window display of a Meadmore-designed sculpture drawn from the silhouette of Sinbad’s ship (as it appeared in French’s painting no. 3) made the Legend one of Melbourne’s most visually exciting cafes.
The Legend reopened at a time when Melbourne, goaded by architect and newspaper columnist Robin Boyd and his sympathisers, struggled to modernise itself for the anticipated international visitors for the 1956 Olympics.
Victorian industrial designers were rewarded with an inaugural 1956 Melbourne Olympics Arts Festival intended to display the cultural riches of the host nation. It was the first Olympics to incorporate an arts festival rather than art competitions. Major venues were chosen throughout the city to display Australian and Victorian achievements in industrial design, painting, architecture and other media. The Melbourne Technical College (now the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) featured graphic and industrial design and included Meadmore’s lighting design amongst designers such as Grant Featherston, Carl Nielsen and Frances Burke. Unfortunately, Meadmore’s work was not illustrated in the catalogue.
By the later 1950s, Meadmore had begun to actively exhibit his sculpture and move within the Melbourne gallery milieu. He also came into contact with Max Hutchinson, a commercial furniture manufacturer and designer. Hutchinson (1925-99) said in a 1984 interview that Meadmore came to him in 1958 and said, “ '[T]hese artists that you like [to use in interior design commissions], they need an exhibition’, ... So he ran the Gallery [A] for a couple of years until my accountant said, look, if you go on with this, you’ll be broke in another year.”
Max Hutchinson went on to found a branch of Gallery A in Sydney before Meadmore encouraged him to migrate to New York City in 1968. One of Meadmore’s first 1959 shows at Gallery A, Melbourne, featured his own sculpture with a catalogue and essay by Bill Hannan. The designer also sold a line of 'Gallery A Contract Furniture’ (“Designed to serve the discriminating, by Clement Meadmore for the coordinated series by Gallery A contract furniture.”) This new work was now fabricated for the commercial furniture market, rather than the domestic consumer.
Although he had been pursuing his sculpture throughout the 1950s, Meadmore vigorously expanded this career in this media in 1960 and moved to Sydney. He exhibited sculpture at Macquarie Galleries and Clune Galleries, Sydney; was awarded a commission for a sculptured balustrade for the Town House Hotel, Canberra; and briefly taught sculpture at the National Art School, Sydney.
His industrial design work of the 1950s gave way to sculpture. In 1963, a 13 minute documentary film titled Clement Meadmore was directed by a young Bruce Beresford and narrated by John Bell with a jazz soundtrack by Tony Curby Trio + 1. In this film showing Meadmore at work, the narrator explains that “Meadmore trained as a furniture designer…” and reflects that “Meadmore has no preconception of final work in his sculpture; he relies on inspiration for final form … The object is created first and then the [public] taste for it… This is the nature of artistic innovation…”.
Meadmore is described by Ken Scarlett in Australian Sculptors 1830-1977 as an Art Director for the fledgling editions of Australian Vogue, first published in Sydney in 1959. But a search through their first quarterly editions from 1959-1963 does not show his name on the masthead and more research is needed in this area. It is possible that he did some design and styling work for them as some of his furniture appears in an issue in the Summer 1960 edition and their Christmas 1961 edition suggests some of Meadmore’s graphic qualities.
In 1963, Meadmore moved to New York. Although his sculpture was foremost after he went to the United States, he maintained his Australian design links through Michael Hirst, a furniture designer and manufacturer working in Melbourne.
Michael Hirst, (b. 1917) ran a factory in Melbourne and remained active in furniture from 1955 to 1983. During this time, Hirst manufactured his own work as well as Meadmore items under the trademark H-Line and H/Flex. He sold through outlets like George’s, Andersons and interior decorators in Melbourne. It is not clear precisely when he began to fabricate Meadmore’s furniture. In a telephone interview in 1997, Michael Hirst explained that he too exhibited some of his design work at Gallery A, Melbourne. Some of Hirst’s work from the late 1950s has stylistic parallels with Meadmore’s work but after he left for Sydney, and later the USA, the influences wane. However, Hirst released a coffee table by Meadmore in 1965, suggesting that their commercial association continued after the designer had moved to the United States.
Although he single-mindedly pursued sculpture in the United States, Meadmore continued his interest in furniture design and in 1974 he published The Modern Chair, an illustrated survey of contemporary furniture from the Thonet Brothers to Mario Bellini. In his 1974 introduction, Meadmore reveals something of his own aesthetics of furniture. “Each chair…[in this book] has been selected for qualities that we can assess from our standpoint today, qualities which have less to do with style and period than with a solution of a defined problem. ...[However] Some of the finer adjustments of proportion, left unresolved by the mere solving of functional problems, have often been made with a visual sensitivity which undoubtedly contributes to make a chair a delightful object…”.
When the book was reissued in 1997, Meadmore pronounced himself disappointed with the designs of the last quarter of the 20th century. “...[W]hen I considered updating the book I realised that I could not think of a single chair to add. I still believe that a designer who is not solving problems is a stylist, and styling is what we have been looking at for the last quarter of the century.’
Meadmore’s furniture work studiously avoided historical references, although there were affinities with the 1950s furniture of the sculpture Isamu Noguchi and other mid-century sculptors who enjoyed exploring spatial problems. Meadmore favoured experimentation in synthetic fibres, plywood, finishes, steel alloys and other metals. It is clear that the designer found the techniques of fabrication interesting only as exercises in problem solving; craft values had no interest for him. As he states clearly in his book on modern furniture, Meadmore considers that problem solving is at the centre of good furniture design. His design work in Australia suggests that a very interesting furniture designer was lost to sculpture.