Paul Ernst Kafka

(Excerpt from Anne Watson, “Kafka and Kalmar: two European furniture designers in post-war Sydney.” Furniture History Society (Australasia) Journal, No 2, 2004, pp 10-14.

The contribution of European émigré architects and designers to the built environment in post-war Australia is being increasingly recognised for the significance of its long-term impact on our design history. Architects like Harry Seidler and Hugh Buhrich and furniture designers such as Schulim Krimper and Fred Lowen have been documented to varying degrees in publications, exhibitions and even film. Yet there are still many important design stories that have not been told. This article (see entry on Steven Kalmar) explores the separate stories of Paul Kafka and Steven Kalmar, two largely undocumented furniture designers in 1950s Sydney.

The son of a Viennese furniture maker Paul Ernst Kafka was born in Vienna on 1 July 1907 [1]. Experience in his father’s factory and an apprenticeship in another Viennese furniture factory gave him a good grounding in the more practical aspects of furniture making, but he is also said to have studied furniture and interior design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna [2].

During the 1930s Kafka worked as a furniture and interior designer with a furniture retail store in Vienna and in 1939 he and his wife emigrated to Australia. Kafka worked for the redoubtable Ralph Symonds, an entrepreneurial Sydney plywood manufacturer, before establishing a small furniture factory in 187 William Street, Darlinghurst, in 1941. About 1945 Kafka moved to larger premises at 161 Botany Road, Waterloo where he employed four tradesmen, two Italians and two Australians. His company was listed in 1948 directories as a ‘Manufacturer of Modern Exclusive Furniture’ and from 1951 to 1967 was registered with the New South Wales Furniture Manufacturers’ Guild (formed 1948) as ‘Paul Kafka Exclusive Furniture Pty Ltd’.

In the 1950s and 60s Kafka exhibited regularly at the Ideal Homes Show and the Building Information Centre in Sydney and at the height of his business in the late 50s was employing about 40 staff [3]. During the 1960s, as imports competed with locally-made furniture, Kafka concentrated on work for hotels such as the Sheraton and the Chevron and for the Travelodge motel chain. He died in Sydney on 15 May 1972.

Kafka’s clientele ranged from private home owners to architects and interior decorators to corporations, but what distinguished many of his clients were their European origins. Like Kafka, many were also Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe and there was a particular concentration of these clients in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Apart from their common European heritage what attracted many to Kafka’s work was its stylishness and fine craftsmanship, qualities that were part of a strong tradition in European cabinet-making, but were less common in Australian post-war furniture.

Kafka produced furniture, particularly built-in cabinet work, for a number of Sydney’s European-born architects, themselves amongst the small group of pioneering modernists practising in Australia at the time. Harry Seidler was a notable early client. Like Kafka, Seidler and his parents, Max and Rose, were Viennese and no doubt these shared origins, as well as a common interest in modernist concepts, helped reinforce their professional relationship.

Kafka completed built-in and freestanding furniture for Seidler’s landmark ‘Rose Seidler’ house (Wahroonga, 1948-50, now managed by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales) and for several other Seidler projects. Kafka also worked with the late Hugh Buhrich, a German-born architect whose idiosyncratic form of modernism is belatedly receiving the recognition it deserves. Henry Epstein, another of Sydney’s early émigré modernists, commissioned Kafka to create furniture for a number of his houses, notably the Chaim and Florence Hillman house in Roseville in 1950 (4). Kafka’s cabinet work for this radical, flat-roofed cubic design was largely intact when the house was sold in 1995 amid much media attention. Kafka’s own house, a flat-roofed, concrete and glass essay in modernism in suburban Roseville, was designed about 1950 by Hungarian-born Hugo Stossel. Described as a ‘functional house that is different’ in the May 1952 issue of Australian House & Garden, it featured much beautifully-detailed cabinet work by Kafka [4].

According to Neil Sear, a cabinet-maker who worked for Kafka from 1948 to 1966, Kafka was a very astute businessman and played an important entrepreneurial role in the operation of the company. He was also very fastidious and insisted on traditional construction techniques and a high level of hand finishing. While Kafka had some training in design it seems he employed designer/draftsmen to produce art work for the firm and to draw up designs for interiors and individual pieces.

During the 1950s a Dutch designer, Alfons Worms, worked for Kafka and in the 1960s he employed George Surtees, a Hungarian-born designer. Kafka’s working method, according to Surtees, was to meet with clients and then provide the designer with a rough sketch of the client’s requirements for further interpretation and development.

While Kafka’s furniture can often be identified by a company label, his distinctive use of highly-figured veneers is also a characteristic distinguishing feature. Kafka’s favoured timbers included Italian walnut and burr elm, stripy zebrana, Macassar ebony and sapele wood, as well as sycamore, Queensland maple and silver ash. Borders of distinctive crossbanding were a common feature of both built-in and freestanding cabinet work with the occasional inclusion of marquetry patterns and decorative motifs, as in the Powerhouse Museum’s stylish cocktail cabinet of 1954.

Kafka’s love of patterned veneers was no doubt influenced by the strong Austrian tradition of using highly figured woods to enliven otherwise relatively plain, functional designs, a tradition that extended from the Biedermeier period of the first half of the 19th century through to furniture designed by members of the Wiener Werkstätte in the early years of the 20th century and the Art Deco style of the inter-war years. Indeed, the strongly geometric design of much of Kafka’s furniture of the 1940s and 50s remained firmly rooted in the European Art Deco or ‘art moderne’ style prevalent during the late 1920s and 1930s when his career in Austria was just emerging. Furniture such as the cocktail cabinet and Kafka’s tiered, mirror glass-topped coffee tables, and interiors like the Vaucluse dining room of the late 50s with its dramatic asymmetrical geometry [5] owe an obvious debt to the inter-war ‘modernist’ aesthetic. Kafka’s Austrian heritage and his penchant for decorative veneers largely inured him to the fashion for the blonde timbers and organic forms of Scandinavian design in the post-war years.

Paul Kafka’s furniture may not have reflected the latest international design trends and may have been subject to a certain ‘overstatement’ at times, but it nevertheless contributed immeasurably to the richness of Australia’s post-war furniture industry. In a country only just beginning to emerge from its pre-war isolation, Kafka’s stylish, sophisticated and well-crafted cabinet work acted as an important conduit for the transmission of European styles and standards of craftsmanship to Australia.

  1. ^ Kafka’s biographical details are based on information gathered from the author’s interview with Kafka’s widow, Mrs J Hocking, in 1981.
  2. ^ This information was supplied by Mrs Hocking. However Kafka is not listed as a student in the files of the former Kunstgewerbeschule (now University of Applied Arts) in Vienna.
  3. ^ Information relating to Kafka’s business activities has been drawn from an interview by the author with a former Kafka employee, Neil Sear, in the early 1980s.
  4. ^ Vicky Masters, ‘The home of furniture designer, Paul Kafka’, Australian House and Garden, May 1952, pp32-33
  5. ^ Kafka’s late 1950s built-in and freestanding furniture for this house at 12 Serpentine Parade, Vaucluse, was auctioned by Lawsons, October, 1991. One of the distinctive dining chairs was acquired from the auction by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.

Michael Bogle
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