GORDON ANDREWS: A Great Designer

Gordon Andrews, Lovett Bay, Sydney - photo by National Portrait Gallery

Gordon Arthur Andrews, known as one of Australia’s greatest designers, was born in Ashfield in 1914. He went to the Sydney Technical College, Ultimo to study engineering, and to the East Sydney Technical College to study art and design. Andrews’s father was a stonemason who, having studied mechanical engineering, later on, was also an inventor and designer. He was an inspiration to Gordon.

Photograph of Gordon Andrews checking a transparency of the layout for the $10 banknote, 1965 – photo by Reserve Bank of Australia Museum

Gordon Andrews worked in the 1930s for the advertising agencies Samson Clark Price Berry, and Sydney and Stuart in London where he gained his formative experience in graphic design. Upon his return to Sydney, he ran a personal practice in design, albeit, briefly. During World War II from 1939 to 1945, Andrews found himself working in the drawing office of De Havilland and later supervising an experimental hangar.

After the war, Andrews continued to work on his craft. In 1946, he showcased his paintings as well as his constructions, including contemporary furniture. The designs of some of his models featured then were copied by others later on. He then returned to London in 1949, taking his family with him. There, he set up a design office of his own. The office has been retained by the Design Research Unit, which continues to design exhibitions. Their works include exhibitions for the British Council, Peter Robinson, Ilford and the Tea Board. Andrews’s work also includes showrooms and exhibitions for Smiths Instruments and Olivetti.

In 1953, Andrews moved with his family to Turin, Italy where they stayed until 1954. It was during his stay in Turin that he designed an encyclopedia and styled a fountain pen. In 1954, Andrews produced an exhibition for Fiera di Milano. Having decided to return to Sydney, he turned down a three-year contract with Olivetti. Despite that, he still designed an office/showroom for Olivetti in Sydney in 1955. Back in Sydney, Andrews designed not only exhibitions but also showrooms, shops and even furniture for many notable clients including NSW government agencies, David Jones and the Commonwealth Bank.

Photographic print, colour, showing Olivetti showroom, Pitt Street, Sydney, designed by Gordon Andrews – photo by Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Aside from being one of Australia’s principal industrial designers, Gordon Andrews was also a designer of international renown, having worked in Italy, Britain and France. He became a Fellow of the UK Society of Industrial Artists and Designers in 1955, the first Australian designer to be inducted into the said society at that time. He was later made a member of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry as well as the Alliance Graphique Internationale.

The early 1960s saw a lot of Gordon Andrew’s interior designs. Andrews designed the interior of the Australian Pavilion in the 1960 Comptoir Suisse trade fair. The interiors of the New South Wales Government Tourist Bureau in Sydney and the New Zealand Government Tourist Bureau were also designed by Andrews in 1961 and 1965, respectively.

Gordon Andrews and the Decimal Notes

The year 1963 was perhaps one of the most notable for Gordon Andrews. It was in this year that he was invited to submit designs that would be used for the new decimal notes, designs for which he would later be well known for.

Between April to September 1963, the spotlight was focused on the Australian currency. Harold Holt, who was then treasurer, announced in April that Australia would be converting to a decimal system and, in September, announced that the new currency will be called the dollar.

Banknote, paper, $10, first issued 1966, Serial Number: SBR 972799, designed by Gordon Andrews for the Reserve Bank of Australia – photo by Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

A new currency meant new banknotes, so designers were invited to submit their designs. Aside from Andrews, George Hamori, Max Forbes and Richard Beck submitted their designs as well. Though all four sets were outstanding, the Advisory Committee chose Andrews’s designs with their subtle Australian feel. Andrews’s designs featured interesting yet familiar Australian subjects. Australia’s contribution to aeronautics, its unique environment, even its women and aboriginal culture were given prominence in Andrews’s banknotes. These banknotes became part of Australia’s national identity from the moment of their release.

Andrews’s designs for the $1, $2, $10 and $20 notes were released in February 1966. When it was decided that $5 and $50 notes would be needed, Andrews was once again engaged to design them. The designer was also part of the advisory panel when Australia replaced paper notes with polymer plastic notes used to this day.

Though Gordon Andrews was known throughout the world for his other works, the banknotes he designed were definitely one of his most popular.

Modern Australian Furniture: The Rondo Chair

Rondo chair by Gordon Andrews – photo by Artnet

Andrews designed not only showrooms and interiors but furniture as well. The designer believed that furniture should not only be aesthetically pleasing, but also comfortable and efficient. He observed that products of such quality also sell well. The most popular of Andrews’s furniture was the Rondo chair.

The Rondo chair was first designed in 1956. Its first appearance was in the showroom Andrews designed for Olivetti. The chair originally had a splayed-base. By the early 1960s, Andrews decided to change the design of the base. From then on, the Rondo chair featured a star-base instead of its original splayed-base. The pieces were manufactured by different firms after which Andrews assembled them himself.

The chair is known for its scoop shape and curved back. The first version of the Rondo chair was made from a pair of flat marine plywood put together and secured to a timber spine. The newer version, however, has a fiberglass shell. The foam seat is upholstered with wool fabric while the exposed spine that curves down outside the back and under the seat is made of laminated wood. The Rondo chair’s base is made of sturdy aluminium.

Currently, with furniture from the 60s and 70s becoming popular, the Rondo chair (as well as Andrews’s coffee tables) has been numbered among the most sought-after pieces of designer furniture, alongside those of Featherston, Snelling and Ward.

A Very Private Cultural Hero

Hexagonal Coffee Table by Gordon Andrews – photo by Artnet

Gordon Andrews’s career was comprised of work in industrial design (he designed cookware as well as furniture), graphic design and photography. His work on designing exhibitions and showrooms contributed to the development of exhibit concepts and designs. His work was recognised abroad as evidenced by his membership in the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry and the Alliance Graphique Internationale. He was also awarded a gold medal by the Design Institute of Australia in 1985. His furniture designs are sought-after and even copied by others. His endeavors were great, yet seemingly uncelebrated unlike those of his contemporaries. This may be because, unlike his contemporaries, Andrews possessed a temperament that is reticent, unassuming and private.

Without the prompting of friends and colleagues, A Designer’s Life (1993) may not even have been published. It is a book Andrews depreciatingly sees as a ‘scrapbook’ that shows a perspective on his achievements and endeavors beyond being an industrial designer. It shows Andrews as a painter, a maker of the most whimsical masks and a sculptor, among others. The book was published together with the retrospective exhibit featuring Andrews’s work at the Powerhouse Museum.

Andrews, according to his friend Alan James, “put Australian design on the world map” and that it was thanks to Andrews that “Australia ceased to be represented at world trade fairs by a pyramid of IXL jam tins and a huddle of moth-eaten stuffed koalas.” Rita Siow, General Manager of the Australian Graphic Design Association at the time of Andrews’s death, sees Andrews as a “cultural hero” deserving of a place with those represented in the banknotes he had designed.