Born in North Sydney in 1922, Roger McLay belongs to the first generation of celebrated designers (Gordon Andrews, Frances Burke, Alister Morrison, Grant Featherston and many others) who were taught their trade by the Australian technical colleges.

McLay’s design consultancy in Sydney ran a varied practice producing commercial furniture, interior design for such clients as the Sebel Townhouse, large commercial-scale lighting, heat-formed acrylic and glass as well as graphic design and packaging for corporate clients.

He trained initially at the National Art School in Darlinghurst from 1938-41 while serving an apprenticeship with John Sands in lithography. During the 1939-45 war, McLay enlisted in the RAAF in 1942 with service in North Africa and Europe, returning to the National Art School from 1945-47. Here he took classes with teachers such as William Dobell.

McLay said that he was won to industrial design when, en route to the RAAF in Europe in 1942, he stopped off in New York where he found industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s famous Studebaker motor car revolving on a lighted pedestal in the foyer of one of the city’s museums. “Fortunately for Australia,” McLay once said, “General Motors didn’t ask me to design the first Holden.”

In the postwar 1940s, like most designers of his era, he struggled to work independently. As a tenant of the New South Wales Maritime Services Board, McLay shared his Gloucester Street Studio with the late Alistair Morrison and Dennis Gray. Like other young artists and designers in the area, they frequented the Andronicus Coffee Shop as well as the Newcastle Hotel in the Rocks.

Following a familiar path for young designers, McLay did his earliest freelance work for advertising agencies where he met the designer Douglas Annand who was also struggling for clients during this period. The post-war pool of talent was large but the commercial market for designers was very small.

McLay’s most celebrated work, the “Kone” chair was developed and sold from his Gloucester Street studio in 1948 and the word spread quickly amongst Sydney’s small community of Modernists. “The first customer to buy one of the chairs,” McLay once explained, “was a lady called Marion Hall Best who had a design shop at Woollahra. I think the next client was Grace Brothers and Beard Watsons.” The Kone chair won an Interior Design Society award in 1950 and demand increased further as mainstream retailers sought it. The Kone chair remains in production

This chair is a masterpiece of simplicity formed from a single sheet of plywood, twisted and fastened into the shape of a shortened cone. This conical shape was then inserted into a simple black steel base. In an interview about the creation of the laminated timber Kone, McLay explained that aircraft grade plywood intended for the DeHaviland-manufactured “Mosquito” aircraft was readily available after the war while most other raw materials were in very short supply.

In the mid-1950s (McLay was unsure of the date), he licensed the Kone chair to Descon Laminates where it was produced until 1960 when Descon ran into financial difficulties. McLay and his family went to England pursuing design work during this same period.

Roger McLay retired in 1987 after several years in a studio in Neutral Bay, a harbourside suburb in North Sydney.

Writers:

Michael Bogle
Date written:
2012
Last updated:
2014