Steven Kalmar

[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] (used with permission0

Steven Kalmar was [...] born in Budapest on 23 November 1909, Kalmar trained as an architect and [...] emigrated to Australia in 1939 [1]. During the war he worked in optical munitions at Sydney University and in the second half of the 1940s began to build a career designing commissioned furniture and interiors. In 1949 he opened Kalmar Interiors in Sydney’s narrow Rowe Street (demolished in 1972 to make way for the MLC building), a fashionable enclave of art, craft and design shops, galleries and cafes frequented by many in Sydney’s European community. In this tiny studio and showroom, barely four by six metres, Kalmar operated a highly successful interior design and furniture business until 1955.

Drawing his ideas from books and magazines on contemporary Scandinavian and American design trends Kalmar created a range of furniture and homewares designed to be purchased individually or as complete room suites. Consistent with the decreasing size of houses and a shortage of imported materials in post-war Sydney Kalmar’s furniture was light, compact, functional – some of it multi-purpose – and relatively low-cost. Much of it utilised local coachwood, a honey-coloured rainforest timber, and was marketed to young home owners through catalogues and regular advertising in magazines, principally Australian House and Garden and in the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Shop Detective’ section:

Kalmar originals are designed to go well together, piece by piece. Faithfully built in solid coachwood they are finished in wax and can be purchased on terms if desired. [2]

The furniture was made in factories in Parramatta and later Glebe. Kalmar also operated an interior decorating consultancy and in the early years of his Rowe Street business even invited customers to get creative for themselves:

Design your own furniture! After all you are going to live with it. You know better than anyone else what you like, what you need. Put your ideas on paper in the form of a rough sketch and bring it to us. We will discuss with you the practical and functional aspects and will plan your furniture to be an individual expression of your personality. [3]

Perhaps not surprisingly this entrepreneurial marketing strategy was not repeated in subsequent advertising, but it did indicate Kalmar’s sensitivity to the individual needs and the adventurous tastes of some of his more creative customers. While much of Kalmar’s Rowe Street furniture can be identified today through a ‘Kalmar Interiors’ stamp or the line drawings of his frequent advertisements, the designer’s unpretentious seagrass-seated dining chairs and his chunky bentwood-armed easy chairs, both from the early 1950s, are distinctive records of his role in introducing a modern aesthetic to post-war Sydney.

Kalmar closed the Rowe Street shop in 1955 and opened slightly larger premises at 55 Castlereagh in the city, but in 1957 decided to end his retail business and concentrate on design commissions for interior schemes. These included, notably, the Indian Tea Centre in Pitt Street, restaurants and cafes in the city such as the Café de Paris and the Vienna Café, dining spaces for Anthony Hordern’s and the Cahill’s chain and a number of hotel interiors for businessman Len Plasto. Some of the furniture Kalmar designed for these interiors was made by Paul Kafka.

During the 1960s and 70s Kalmar became something of a design ‘guru’ in Sydney, writing a popular weekly page on interior decoration for the Sunday Telegraph from about 1959 and from 1971 to 1986 writing regularly on design matters for Womans Day.

In 1964 Kalmar published You and Your Home [4], now an important record of some of the more adventurous domestic architecture and interiors in and around Sydney in the early 1960s. Featured were houses by Douglas Snelling, Ken Woolley and Neville Gruzman as well as interiors by Marion Hall Best and Leslie Walford. Above all the book was intended as a practical and inspirational ‘how to’ for the modern homemaker, a theme consistent with Kalmar’s emphasis on functional and affordable modernity in his Rowe Street furniture enterprise in the 1950s. Kalmar died on 26 September 1989, just a few years after ceasing to write his influential women’s magazine design page.

[...]Kalmar’s [story] and those of the other European-born designers and architects with whom [he was] professionally or personally linked, contribute an important chapter to Australian history, one that has yet to be fully explored.

Drawing on [...] emerging international design trends, as with Kalmar, [he] played a significant role in the spread of modernist design concepts and helped strengthen Australia’s growing recognition of its need to connect more actively with the rest of the world in the post-war era. Inextricably linked to the beginning of Australia’s emergence as a vibrant, multicultural society, [...] Kalmar’s furniture survives as tangible evidence of the unique contribution of Sydney’s European immigrants and the cultures, skills and ideas [he] introduced.

  1. ^ Kalmar’s biographical details are drawn from an interview with Kalmar by the author in 1985 and Judith O’Callaghan’s interview with Kalmar’s widow in 1990.
  2. ^ Australian House and Garden, January 1955
  3. ^ Art and Design, first number, 1949, p 78.
  4. ^ Steven Kalmar, You and Your Home, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1964

Michael Bogle
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