DOUGLAS SNELLING: A Prodigy and a Pioneer

Douglas Snelling inspects plans in his home office, Sydney (circa 1964) - Photo by Max Dupain |

Douglas Snelling was born to bootmaker Albert Edward Snelling and his wife Ethel May, née Burrage on the 24th of February 1916 at Gravesend, Kent, England. The couple with their eight-year-old son then moved to New Zealand in 1924.

Growing up in Wanganui, Snelling had a passion for films from Hollywood. The teenager soon outdid the fashionable American graphics with his own drawings of wonderful cartoon likeness. At 16, he already had a design business and was employing other boys. He worked creating street decorations and dressed local shop windows.

Douglas Snelling – Photo by DOCOMOMO AUSTRALIA/ICOMOS

Snelling fulfilled his dream and travelled to Los Angeles in 1937, where he worked as a freelancer for film studios, doing sketches of stars onset. He also worked as the Wellington publicist of Warner Bros. Aside from his artistic talents, Snelling had a dapper fashion sense reminiscent of Errol Flynn that made him quite popular.

Upon returning to New Zealand in 1938, he continued to write and draw, becoming popular as a writer and cartoonist. He would also host a regular radio show where he talked about his experiences in Hollywood as well as Hollywood movie culture.

Snelling in Sydney

Snelling moved to Sydney in 1940 where he would live most of his life. During the Second World War, he worked for J. Walter Thompson Australia Pty. Ltd. as a publicist and worked in munitions factories while staying in Potts Point.

He married beauty consultant Nancy Bear, née Springhall in August of 1945 and began designing some of Sydney’s shop fit-outs. Photos of his designs taken by Ray Leighton were published in a few local design magazines. He then developed a range of furniture with chairs made from timber with interlaced webbing backrests and seats. These chairs were considered the first modernist chairs designed by an Australian. The range was called the “Snelling Line” and was sold by Functional Products Pty. Ltd. in 1947.

Arts and Architecture, a distinguished Californian modernist magazine, featured his proposals for modest 1,250 sq. ft. houses. His 1950s houses and buildings were favoured by Melbourne-based progressive journal, Architecture and Arts. Snelling continued to design apartment blocks, houses, and buildings. He also did refurbishing and interiors for businesses.

Snelling’s Infinity pool – Photo by State Library of NSW – NSW Government

He became legally registered with the Board of Architects, New South Wales in 1952 and was inducted in 1953 into the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. Snelling was then briefly employed by Douglas Honnold, a Beverly Hills architect. He also built Australia’s first spill-edge or infinity pool with the technical instruction of John Lautner.

After divorcing Nancy in 1959, he married Sydney socialite Patricia Anne, née Gale in her Bellevue Hill home in 1960. The couple would later tour Hawaii, Japan, and Cambodia. His visits to the latter became frequent, which led to his two articles about the ruined city of Angkor Wat featured in Bulletin 7, Nov. 1964 and Architecture and Arts, July 1966, respectively. The Snellings’ frequent Cambodian trips led to a friendship with Prince Sihanouk, and later on to Snelling’s appointment as honorary consul from 1970 to 1975.

Towards the end of his career, he built a pair of houses in Noumea in the early 1970s. Some of his final designs include thatched hut modernist waterfront property schemes in Fiji and Vanuatu, which were left unbuilt.

Snelling had to close his offices after the commercial development in the Pacific Island resorts continued to be unsuccessful. He and his sons moved to Hawaii shortly after his wife’s death in 1976. A few years later, he married Marianne Sparre. On a visit to Sydney in 1985, Snelling succumbed to an aneurysm.

The Wright Inspiration

In Snelling’s visit to the United States, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, West Arizona Winter Camp captivated him. The West Arizona Winter Camp’s angled roof beams were referenced in the palatial home he designed for A.F. Little. This led him to become Sydney’s first architect to use Wright-influenced styles in designing and building houses after World War II. He quickly became known as one of Sydney’s most outstanding Wrightian architects of the 1950s.

AF Little house at Clareville, Sydney. Mid 1960s – Photo by Max Dupain |

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, architects and designers often favored Scandinavian modernism, British “new brutalism”, or Australian themes of nuts and berries. In contrast, Snelling preferred the California-Polynesian tropical paradise themes, also known as the “tiki style” movement. Snelling became the forerunner of pseudo-thatched roofs or the “indigenous modern” movement. The indigenous modern style became a preference in luxury resorts as well as residences in Asia-Pacific.

Snelling was also inspired by Wrights apprentices, with Gordon Drake, Harwell Hamilton Harris, and Richard Neutra being the most notable.

The Snelling Line

Douglas Snelling designed Australia’s very first range of mass-produced modern furniture, which included lounge seating, storage, and dining room furniture. Sydney’s Anthony Hordern department store was the first to sell the range in 1946. The furniture line began to be manufactured and sold nationally in 1948 after Snelling joined a four-director partnership, led by managing director Terry Palmerson.

Snelling supervised the building of the factory located in Princess Highway at St. Peters and designed the advertisements and product placements in home decorating magazines. This move together with the wholesaling to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne retailers made Functional Products Pty. Ltd. prosperous.

Apart from a series of modular shelves that referenced Charles and Ray Eames’s 1940s rectilinear designs, Snelling’s storage pieces, and tables had a stylish feature: the “California splay” legs.

saran chair and stool by douglas snelling – Photo by Artnet

The most sought-after of Snelling’s furniture were the chairs and two-seater sofas. Unlike most chairs and sofas of that time, Snelling chairs didn’t have upholstery or fabric covers and were pretty much bare. The pieces looked like what the usual chairs and sofa would look like without the layers of padding. Wide cotton strips or synthetic parachute webbing were interwoven to form the backrest and seat. The design resembles the poolside lounge chairs one could find at resorts.

The Snelling line chairs are made of Australian hardwood frames and interwoven cotton strips. These models were the first copies of Jens Risom’s early 1940s wartime chairs in Australia. They were also the most successful, commercially. Knoll was the one who made Risom chairs in New York. But since carpenters in the United States and Australia could not successfully replicate the exquisite handcraft traditions of Scandinavia where both designs were referenced from, the pieces by both Risom and Snelling were sawn into more workable or ergonomic shapes.

Snelling Legacy

Douglas Snelling was perhaps the most notable interpreters of California modern design in the Asia-Pacific. His innovations in architecture from the 1930s to the 1970s were very influential and inspired the popular luxury lifestyle themes in Palm Springs and Beverly Hills.

Snelling’s indigenous modern style continued to thrive and peaked from the 1970s to the 1990s, with the Bali hotels and Aman resorts by Peter Muller and Kerry Hill. His designs also influenced Sydney residences in the 1980s to the 1990s, as seen in the corrugated steel tribal-style roofs made by Peter Stutchbury and Richard Leplastrier.

Douglas Snelling two-seater saran sofa, Lot 219 – Photo by Shapiro Auctioneers

Despite his genius, Snelling’s architectural and design achievements were snubbed and dismissed by those who supported his younger rivals during the 1970s and even after his death. Nevertheless, he was best known by design enthusiasts for his timber furniture line. During the 1990s, replicas and second-hand Snelling line chairs and tables were immensely popular with young urban Australians.

Douglas Snelling’s legacy in architecture, design, art, and writing can be rediscovered at the Douglas Snelling website. Design promoter Davina Jackson has published her Ph.D. thesis about Snelling and will be releasing a book that features an illustrated portfolio of the architect’s works.