Douglas Snelling

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Douglas Burrage Snelling (1916–1985) was an Australian architect. He is known for his work as a Asia-Pacific interpreters of California modern architecture and design innovations from the 1930s to the 1970s. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and his follower Richard Neutra, and briefly employed by Los Angeles architect Douglas Honnold, Snelling completed more than 70 buildings and interiors in Sydney and Nouméa, and earlier was a notable graphic artist, exhibition designer and journalist in New Zealand and Los Angeles.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Born in 1916 in Gravesend, Kent, England Douglas Snelling arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, with his parents in 1924. A sole child who was creative, athletic and popular during his schooldays in several small towns of the lower North Island, he began his own graphic arts and shop window design business in Wanganui during the mid-1930s. Gifted as a cartoonist, he freelanced as a sketch artist of movie stars in Hollywood during 1937-38, where he met Errol Flynn and began to emulate his style of grooming.

On return to Wellington, NZ, he became a writer, broadcaster and (Warner Bros) publicist of new movies and stars from 1938 to 1940, when he took a cruise ship to Indonesia during the first months of the Second World War.

Resident in the eastern suburbs of Sydney from 1940 to 1977, Snelling's first wife was expatriate NZ heiress Nancy Springhall (1945-1956). In the early 1960s, he married Patricia Gale (daughter of a wealthy Sydney property developer and grazier), with whom he raised three sons and her daughter by a previous marriage.

After Patricia's death in 1976, he moved with his teenage sons to Honolulu, where he married Swedish artist Marianne Sparre in the early 1980s. In 1985, he was concerned enough about his failing health to suddenly book a flight back to Sydney, where he died several days later of a brain aneurism.


From 1946 to 1948, Snelling designed Australia's first range of mass-produced modern lounge seating, dining room and storage furniture. These pieces were first sold at the Anthony Hordern department store in Sydney during 1946, but by 1948 Snelling had joined a four-director partnership, led by Terry Palmerston as managing director, to manufacture and nationally sell his furniture.

After Snelling supervised building of a factory on the Princes Highway at St Peters, Functional Products Pty Ltd prospered by marketing the furniture with Snelling-designed advertisements and product placements in 1950s home decorating magazines and by wholesaling to retailers in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

The tables and storage pieces mostly featured fashionable 'California splay' legs (apart from a series of modular bookshelves interpreting 1940s rectilinear designs by Charles and Ray Eames in Los Angeles).

Snelling's most appreciated pieces, the chairs and two-seater sofas, generally were stripped of all upholstery or fabric covers. Their backs and seats were formed by nailing to the frames interwoven strips of wide cotton or synthetic 'parachute' webbing (a construction element normally concealed under thick layers of padding by traditional upholsterers).

These models were Australia's first and most commercially successful copies of early 1940s (wartime) chairs designed by Jens Risom and made in New York by Knoll. Risom's original designs were themselves technically inferior versions of the graceful early 1930s steam-bent plywood webbing chairs designed by Alvar Aalto in Finland and Bruno Mathsson in Sweden. Scandinavia's exemplary handcraft traditions could not be successfully emulated by carpenters in either the United States or Australia, so the curves of the Risom and Snelling pieces were sawn into 'ergonomic' shapes.

Second-hand and replica Snelling line chairs and tables became widely popular among young urban Australians during the 1990s.


Douglas Snelling's few wartime years with the Kriesler electronics factory in Newtown, Sydney, gave him up-to-date knowledge of cutting-edge electrical technologies that were later used to develop consumer radio, hi-fi and television products from the mid-1940s through the 1950s.

His design flair allowed him to design fashionable cases and cabinets for these home entertainment systems, beginning with one of Kriesler's first post-war radios – a Sealed Midget 'sound all around' model.

His later designs for houses and executive boardrooms almost always included custom-designed cedar cabinets containing the latest hi-fi and television equipment.


During the Great Depression of the early 1930s, Douglas Snelling was a bright, creative young teenager who was fascinated with Hollywood movie culture. There was a movie theatre in his isolated New Zealand west coast town of Wanganui and he began to paint movie marketing-style posters and small displays, and taught himself how to draw cartoons of famous Hollywood, Royal and political leaders of the day. Before he was 16 years old, he had set up a successful graphic and exhibit design studio in rented premises, employing other boys of his own age.


Douglas Snelling appears not to have entered his works for the annual awards of his professional body, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA). (The usual explanation for architects avoiding the awards system is that they don't expect to be treated fairly in the often political judging processes.) In the mid-1960s, he won awards from the Illumination Engineering Society for his theatrical lighting of the Little House, Clareville, NSW.

In 1997, Sydney architects Alex Tzannes and Associates won the RAIA Wilkinson (NSW) and Boyd (national) housing awards for its conservation and addition to the first Snelling House at Northbridge, originally built in the early 1950s.[2]

Further reading[edit]

Bogle, Michael. 1998. Design in Australia 1880-1970. Sydney: Craftsman House, pp. 127, 134.

Bogle, Michael. 2002. Designing Australia : readings in the history of design. Annandale, N.S.W.: Pluto Press. pp. 157–160. ISBN 1-86403-173-5.

Jackson, Davina. 2007. Douglas Snelling: Pan-Pacific Adventures in Modern Design and Architecture. PhD thesis for RMIT University, in the Snelling archive at the State Library of New South Wales.

Jahn, Graham. 1997. A Guide to Sydney Architecture. Sydney: Watermark Press.

Kovac, Johan Andrew. 1999. Three Houses by Douglas Burrage Snelling 1947-1955. B.Arch dissertation for the University of Technology, Sydney, in the Snelling archive at the State Library of New South Wales.

Pemberton, Gary J. 1984. Douglas B. Snelling: A monograph of his works. B.Arch dissertation to the New South Wales Institute of Technology, in the Snelling archive, State Library of New South Wales.

Snelling, Douglas. Circa 1966. 'Letter to the Editor: Sydney Opera House'. Located by Snelling biographer Davina Jackson in the family archive of Drs Abe and Olga Assef. First published in Stephen, Ann, Andrew McNamara and Philip Goad. 2006. Modernism & Australia: Documents on art, design and architecture 1817-1967. Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press.

Trevillion, James. 1993. The Adventures of Douglas B. Snelling. B.Arch dissertation for the University of Technology, Sydney, in the Snelling archive at the State Library of New South Wales.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ [Citation details Davina Jackson, 'Snelling, Douglas Burrage (1916–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 January 2014. This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012]
  2. ^ "AA - Robin Boyd Award for Housing - November/December 1997 Architecture Australia". Retrieved 4 April 2011.