LESTER BUNBURY: Iconic Australian Designer

Sideboard Attributed to Lester Bunbury - photo by Charles Nodrum Gallery

On June 15, 2018, the Design Institute of Australia inducted seven designers into its Hall of Fame. Among the seven was a posthumous inductee—furniture, interior, industrial and exhibition designer Lester “Bun” Bunbury. Born in 1916, Bun was a noted designer in the 1930s to 1970s. His name appears alongside such icons as Grant Featherston and Clement Meadmore, as one of those who ushered in the era of Mid-Century Modern design in Australia. It speaks of the importance of his work that he is being inducted with today’s designers almost two decades after his death in 2000.

Depicted here, the Industrial Designer Lester ‘Bun’ Bunbury (1916 – 2000) – photo by InstaHats

Described by his own daughter as colourful and flamboyant with a rebellious streak, Bun is recognised as a pioneer and leader in establishing Mid-Century Modern design locally. He has been called “one of the most spirited industrial designers Australia has produced” by influential architect Robin Boyd. Compared to his contemporaries Featherston, Meadmore, Fred Ward, and others, there is not much information about him. Design enthusiasts would do well to get to know more about this significant personality in the development of the design profession in Australia.

Early Design Career

Bun was born into a military family and did not have a formal design education, but that did not stop him from having a successful four-decade career as a designer. He got his start by working under Fred Ward’s design unit at the Myer Emporium in the 1930s. World War II halted this stint. After the war, Bunbury was one of the product designers who sought to introduce contemporary modern design to the popular market. His stint with Ward was clearly enough to establish his reputation because, in 1947, the Australian Army asked him to assist the British Commonwealth Occupational Forces in Hiroshima. Here, he gave design lectures and helped with the post-war reconstruction effort, as well as meeting with Japanese designers on a personal basis.

Private Practice: Design Technicians

A rare modernist sideboard designed by Lester Bunbury for Doyle Productions, C. 1950s – photo by Instagram Saver

Back in Melbourne, Bun established his private practice, Design Technicians. One of his employees was Kevin Borland before the latter became a prominent architect. In 1953, Bun won first and second prizes in the Guild of Furniture Manufacturers Design Competition for his Dining and Lounge suites for Doyle Productions. He designed exhibitions and furniture and interiors for public and private clients. His exhibitions included the Herald Atomic Age Exhibition (1948) as interior designer and the Australian Fashion Fair (1950) as chief designer. The latter had more than 40,000 visitors. He also did the Royal Robes travelling exhibition (1954) and the Chemex exhibition (1956), among others. His geodesic dome for the Chemex exhibition earned high praise from Robin Boyd.

Some of his prominent public projects included hospitals for Buchan, Laird and Buchan and the Arbitration Courts with Stephenson and Turner. As a result of the latter, he became an in-house designer for William Latchford and Sons in 1959.

Interior of the Arbitration Court designed by Lester Bunbury, Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1958 – photo by National Library of Australia

Bun moved to Sydney in the early 1960s and worked for CEMAC and Framac. His important work at this time included interior design for Bankstown Square in 1966, at the time Australia’s largest shopping centre; Gold Fields House in 1967, one of Australia’s earliest high rises and considered a 1960s icon; and Australia Square in 1968, a landmark building in Sydney designed by Harry Seidler.

Aside from private practice, he passed on his knowledge by teaching and writing on design. The institutions he lectured at were RMIT, Melbourne University Architecture Atelier, the National School of Design and East Sydney Technical College. He was a founding member of the Society of Designers for Industry (SDI) in 1948.

His practice covered not only furniture and exhibitions but products and corporate branding as well. He was passionate about design even in personal life, engaging friends in lively discussions and reflecting style in his personal dress and choice of vehicle. Bun retired in the late 1970s and died in 2000, but his contributions to design continue to be appreciated today.


The National Gallery of Victoria exhibition featuring furniture from Mid-Century Modern masters including Lester Bunbury – photo by m2matiz

As mentioned earlier, Bun was inducted into the Design Institute of Australia’s Hall of Fame on June 15, 2018. In May to October 2014, the National Gallery of Victoria held an exhibition featuring furniture from Mid-Century Modern masters, including Fred Ward, Grant Featherston, Clement Meadmore, Fred Lowen, Douglas Snelling, Schulim Krimper, Gordon Andrews and, of course, Lester Bunbury.