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Douglas Burrage Snelling (1916–1985) was among the most significant 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.
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.
In the history of Asia-Pacific (especially South Pacific) architecture and design, Snelling was:
1. Britain's 'missing' expatriate antipodean practitioner of California modern design and architecture.
2. A key 1960s and early 1970s pioneer of a uniquely Asia-Pacific strand of modernism, called 'indigenous modernism' -- pseudo thatched huts with tiki-style interiors and landscaping—exploited particularly for palatial residences and resorts ... culminating in the Amanresorts (designed by others after Snelling's death).
3. The key South Pacific interpreter of California modern design and architecture innovations from the 1930s to the 1970s.
4. Creator of the world's second (and Asia-Pacific's first) infinity (spill edge) swimming pool, using technical advice from the originator, John Lautner (early to mid-1960s).
5. NZ's most accomplished expatriate 20th century architect and multi-disciplinary designer.
6. The first Sydney architect to build houses (1950-52) inspired by Wright's organic modernism concepts following the 1935 departure from Australia of Wright's former students Walter and Marion Griffin (they designed Canberra).
7. Neglected designer of the largest residences, prestigious commercial buildings and interiors in Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s.
Douglas Snelling built some of Sydney's largest mansions of the 1950s and 1960s, two substantial late 1960s residences in Nouméa, as well as several factories, office buildings and blocks of home units. He also designed several unbuilt residential and commercial compounds for sites in Vanuatu and Fiji.
His major work of the 1950s, the Frank Lloyd-Wright-inspired Kelly House I in Bellevue Hill, won the 1955 House of the Year Award bestowed by Melbourne-based magazine Architecture and Arts; this earned it a substantial colour pictorial feature in The Australian Women's Weekly. This and several other significant Snelling houses have been included in several exhibitions and magazine surveys of the best 1950s and 1960s Sydney architecture – but are absent from the most important books and articles on that period, written by post-1970s scholars, notably Jennifer Taylor.
All of his buildings were strongly inspired by Wright's early 20th century architecture and Japan-inspired philosophies of organic (integrated with nature) design – and by certain mid-century buildings and aesthetic strategies by one of Wright's followers in Los Angeles, Richard Neutra.
Snelling's residential architecture was built between 1950 and 1970 and his houses can be categorised in three general styles. The early years, until 1956, were obviously devoted to interpreting the greatest aesthetic strategies and structural achievements of Wright (who died in 1959). From 1957 to the mid-1960s, Snelling's work became noticeably more Scandinavian (functional) in style and his formerly rough brickwork became smoother and lighter in colour. During this phase he built two blocks of home units; his most important works of this period. From 1964 until his practice closed in 1972, Snelling returned to his earlier love of Wright's original architecture but he also added flamboyant, pseudo-thatched roofs inspired by traditional huts seen on his earlier travels through Cambodia, Melanesia and Indonesia.
The later residences and resort designs, and his domestic interiors, gardens and swimming pools, were some of the world's most splendid examples of the glamorous, hedonistic, mid-20th century 'fantasy island' lifestyle theme known today as 'the tiki style'.
Here is a list of his architectural projects:
Assef House, 20 Bulkara Road, Bellevue Hill, NSW, 1964.
Blau House, 8 Ciprian Street, Chinaman’s Beach, Sydney 1959-62.
Bolin House, Lot 12, 298 Scenic Highway, Terrigal, NSW, 1972-75.
Brauer House (Akolele), 306-308 Bermagui Road, Wallaga Lake, NSW, 1959.
Falkner Guest House, Haddon Rigg, near Warren, western NSW, late 1950s.
Fullarton House, 26 Parr Avenue (corner Playfair Street), North Curl Curl, NSW, 1949-51 (never built?)
Hauslaib House, Lot 33 Heights Crescent, Harbour Heights, NSW, drawings 1949.
Hay (Richmond) House, 32 Killeaton Street, St Ives, NSW, 1949-53.
Kelly House I, 24a Victoria Road, Bellevue Hill, NSW, 1953-55.
Kelly House II ( Tahiti), 22d Vaucluse Road, Vaucluse, NSW, 1965-66.
Learmont House, 36a Crescent Road, Newport, NSW, drawings 1950.
Little House (Yoorami), 3 Riverview Road, Clareville, NSW, 1964-65.
Mueller House, 24b Victoria Road, Bellevue Hill, NSW, 1958-63.
Mulholland House, 146 Tunstall Avenue, Kensington, NSW, 1961-62.
Nawa (Jean) House (Bettina Paradise), Mont Mou foothills, Nouméa, New Caledonia, 1968-69.
Nawa (Louis) House, Rue Michelet and Cote de l’Amiral Halsey, Nouméa, New Caledonia, 1968-69.
Palmerston House, 8 Killeaton Street, St Ives, NSW, 1951-54.
Smith (Keith) House, 39a Parriwi Road, Mosman, NSW, 1955-58.
Smith (Paul) House, 23 Conway Avenue, Vaucluse, NSW, 1971.
Snelling House I, 9 Corrabin Road, Northbridge, NSW, 1949-55. (Renovations by Alexander Tzannes in 1996.)
Snelling House II, 84 Kambala Road (corner Sheldon Place), Bellevue Hill, NSW, 1957-61.
Bibaringa, 347 New South Head Road, Double Bay NSW, 1962-63.
Roslyn Gardens Bachelor Flats, 76 Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay, NSW, 1963.
Armco Steel Co Factory, 127 Bath Road, Kirrawee/Sutherland, NSW, 1953-56.
Functional Products Factory, 243-7 (now 241) Princes Highway, St Peters, NSW, 1947.
Hartford Fire Insurance Company, 46 Margaret Street, Sydney, 1952-53.
Honeywell Headquarters, 63 Ann Street, Surry Hills, NSW, 1963-64.
JH Liddle & Epstein Headquarters, 55 Macquarie Street, Sydney, 1954-56.
JH Liddle & Epstein, Adelaide HQ, 202 Franklin Street, Adelaide, 1959-1961.
Woollahra Council Toilet Block, Rushcutters Bay Park, New South Head Road, Rushcutters Bay NSW, late 1960s.
Woolworths, 441 New South Head Road, Double Bay, NSW, 1966-67.
Bourgeois Family Compound, Erakor Lagoon, Vila, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), 1970.
Erakor Lagoon Development, Vila, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), about 1970.
Bowes House, 9 Riverview Road, Clareville, NSW, 1965.
Dili City Centre, possible concepts for a waterfront development, early 1970s. (Drawings not discovered.)
Gage House, 113 Stuart Street, Blakehurst, NSW, after 1958. (Not built to Snelling’s design; documented by John Hunt.)
Ginaghulla House, 18a Ginaghulla Road, Bellevue Hill, NSW, 1965-66. (Another architect completed the scheme.)
Nawa and Kut(n)er Project House, Nouméa, New Caledonia, 1968.
Hotel Likuri Lei, Likuri Island, Fiji, 1970.
International Market Place, near Nadi, Fiji, 1972.
J Farren-Price Jewellers, shop fitout, Ipswich, Queensland, drawings 1950.
Nadi Commercial Development, Queens Road, Nadi, Fiji, drawings 1972.
Quonset Hut House, Blue Mountains, Sydney, one sketch mid-late 1940s.
Rolling Hills Subdivision, near Canberra, 1972. (Initial proposal in text format only.)
Tassiriki Park Estate, Vila, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), 1970-71.
Timber Trend Home, competition scheme for Timber Development Authority, 1962.
Walker-Smith House, 15 (formerly Lot 13) Lake View Drive, Narooma, NSW, 1970.
Garden House, unknown site, model and drawings published in Australian House & Garden, April 1951.
Palm Beach House, model of a ‘build as you earn’ house, in People, 10 May 1950.
Small House for a Mid-Suburban Lot, model published in Australian House and Garden and Arts and Architecture (US).
During and after the Second World War, Douglas Snelling was one of Sydney's most in-demand interior designers. Using his skills (self-taught in New Zealand and Hollywood) in cartoon drawing, poster graphics, shop window display and publicity exhibits and 'stunts', he began painting lively, cartoon-style murals on the walls of fashionable Kings Cross restaurants.
After the war, from 1946 until his second six-month trip to Hollywood in late 1947, and then during the late 1940s and through the 1950s, he designed and constructed several dozen shop, restaurant, showroom and office fitouts around the centre of Sydney – interpreting the latest California modern (especially Googie-style) retail interior design tactics and trends with his own imaginative flair.
Most of his late 1940s projects were photographed by Ray Leighton and appeared in the short-lived Sydney trade magazine Decoration and Glass. The more stylistically mature and technically accomplished projects of the 1950s were photographed by Max Dupain and some appeared in daily newspapers and architecture journals of that time (particularly Architecture and Arts magazines published from Melbourne).
His (known) interior projects were:
American Express Travel Service, Berger House, 82-92 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, 1957.
American National Club, 129 Macquarie Street, Sydney, 1947.
Arrow Electronics Hi-Fi Shop, Royston House, 342 Kent Street, Sydney, 1960-61.
Audio Engineers Hi-Fi Shop, 422 Kent Street, Sydney, mid-1950s.
Berk Car Showroom, 72-76 William Street (corner Riley Street), East Sydney, 1951.
Bruck Fabrics Showroom, 181 Clarence Street, Sydney, 1953-54.
California Chocolate Shop, 49a Castlereagh Street, Sydney, 1949-50.
Dasi Pen Shop, 135 Pitt Street, Sydney, 1947.
Etam glove shop, 74 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, 1946-47.
Edels Music Stores, 88 King Street, City, and 87c Macleay Street, Kings Cross, mid to late 1950s. (Others possible.)
Fletcher Jones Shop, Queen Victoria Building, 457 George Street, 1961.
Fletcher Jones Drycleaning, 2 Cunningham Street (off Goulburn Street), 1960.
J Farren-Price Jewellers, L4, St James Building, 109 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, 1948.
Hairdressing Salon, unknown name, Ryde shopping centre, late 1950s.
Hartford Fire Insurance Company, interior fitout in a Snelling-designed office building at 46 Margaret Street, City, 1951–53
La Bodega, Spanish 'quick lunch' bistro, 7 El.izabeth Street, City, early 1960s
MacKellys Department Store, 45 Prince Street, Grafton, 1950.
Matson Line Booking Office, Berger House, 82-92 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, 1955-56.
Master Sound Hi-Fi Shop, 400 Kent Street, Sydney, late 1950s.
Max Factor Hollywood Salon, corner Castlereagh and King Streets, 1966.
Max Factor Seminar Centre, 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, NSW, 1967.
Music Masters Shop, address unknown, Brisbane, 1956.
Pam Pam Coffee Shop, Macleay Regis, 12 Macleay Street, Potts Point, 1951.
Pan American Airways Booking Office, Berger House, 82-92 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, 1955-56.
Stardust American Food Service Cafeteria, Pangas House, 15-17 Hunter Street, Sydney, by 1963.
Sydney Snow Salon, Pitt and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 1947-48.
Tourgelis Fish Shop, Bay Street, Double Bay, 1975.
US Information Service, library and auditorium fitout in the Hartford Fire Insurance Company building, 46 Margaret Street, City, 1951-53.
US Navy Enlisted Mens Centre, (Maramanah), corner Macleay Street and Elizabeth Bay Road, Kings Cross, 1944-45.
Vacuum Oil Reception Room, Kembla House, 58 Margaret Street, Sydney, 1948.
Woolworths Executive Suite, Market and Pitt Streets, Sydney, 1963-64.
RESIDENTIAL INTERIORS AND RENOVATIONS
Allen Alterations, Crescent Road, Newport, NSW, drawings 1950.
Audette Alterations, 130 Wolseley Road, Point Piper, NSW, 1950-53.
Cohen Additions, 4 Sheldon Place, Bellevue Hill, NSW, 1968.
Dally-Watkins Alterations, 83 Bulkara Road Bellevue Hill, NSW, about 1958.
Gale Alterations, 78 Kambala Road, Bellevue Hill, NSW, early 1960s.
Gale Entry Foyer, (Huntly), near Woden, ACT, early 1960s.
Herman Alterations, 15 Boambillee Avenue, Vaucluse, NSW, 1970.
Hermitage Alterations, 22 Vaucluse Road, Vaucluse, NSW, 1965-67.
Pelly Alterations-Additions, 22 The Crescent, Vaucluse, NSW, 1970-71.
Point Piper Flat, address and client not known, 1950-51.
Snelling Alterations, 4025 Black Point Road, Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii, late 1970s/early 1980s.
Sparnon Alterations, 41 Darling Point Road, Darling Point, early 1960s.
Zalapa Renovations, (El Retiro), Old Northern Road, Castle Hill, NSW, mid-late 1940s.
Douglas Snelling was a Sydney follower of Frank Lloyd Wright's principles of organic modernism – integrating landscapes with buildings rather than modernism's European alternative philosophy of separating (elevating) buildings above their natural terrains.
Like Wright, he was inspired by traditional Japanese garden design. Regular features of his residential gardens were compositions of large stones, amoeba-shaped fishponds stocked with expensive koi carp, indoor-outdoor ponds (flowing under window glass), waterfalls over rock retaining walls, mood lighting at night via concealed and sculptural lamps, gas flares, and trios of Melanesian totem poles.
Swimming pools were often a central highlight of Snelling's residences. He built the southern hemisphere's first 'infinity' (spill-edge) pool for the Kelly House II ('Tahiti') at Vaucluse in 1965 – only a couple of years after Los Angeles architect John Lautner built the world's first infinity pool. (Lautner advised Snelling by mail on the technicalities of his water recycling system.)
Admitted to the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects shortly after it was founded in the late 1960s, Snelling sketched his landscapes in 3D pen and ink perspective formats, with recognisable species of plants artfully composed. These sketches were faithfully realised by his landscape contractors. One of his preferred plants experts was Verner (Wern) Kuchell.
Almost all of his architectural projects and many of his commercial interiors included gardens but he also completed several small individual landscape compositions. These, like many of his larger landscapes, still are in good condition today.
LANDSCAPE DESIGN (small ensembles)
Clayton Fishpond, 27 Wallaroy Road, Double Bay, NSW, 1967.
Hesky Pool, 53 Headland Road Castle Cove, NSW, 1969.
K13 Memorial, Pennant Hills Road near Carlingford Rail Station, Carlingford NSW, 1963.
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.
During his six months sketching stars on Hollywood film sets in 1937-38, Snelling discovered the magical potentials of theatrical lighting. He tried avant-garde illuminations during his film 'exploitation' phase in Wellington 1938-40 and learned more about the technologies during his Sydney work with the Kriesler electronics factory in Newtown during World War II.
(During the war, Kriesler produced electronic parts for Mosquito plywood aeroplanes. Towards the end of the war, Snelling encouraged his employers to transfer their technologies into 1930s Streamline-styled, two-tone, bakelite radio cases. In his personal portfolio of work, there is a studio shot of a Kriesler radio which it is assumed he designed. The radio's style was notably more innovative than the styles of American radios which began to be sold in Australia after the end of the war.)
During his post-war design and architecture career, Snelling regularly included dramatic, often indirect, lighting features and systems in his interiors and gardens. These were designed to create moody atmospheres and deliver direct light to highlight specific objects or human tasks such as cooking or reading. Again, his lighting strategies were strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's early 20th century precedents.
His interior and garden lighting at the Arthur F. Little residence on Clareville's waterfront won him a distinction in the 1966 Awards of the Illuminating Engineering Society of New South Wales. Until that time, Australian-educated architects were mostly uneducated about either the technologies or artistry of theatrical lighting.
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.
At various times in his career, Snelling wrote for the media – first for the New Zealand press about his experiences in Hollywood. Then he appears (by the tone and content of articles) to have written descriptions of his commercial interiors for Decoration and Glass and other Sydney design trade journals in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Later he wrote occasional articles on domestic design issues for Sydney newspapers.
After discovering Cambodia’s ruined city of Angkor Wat in 1963, he wrote two long articles about its wonders for The Bulletin and the American magazine, Arts and Architecture. Later he wrote a (probably unpublished) letter to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, strenuously criticising Jørn Utzon’s performance on the Sydney Opera House.
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.
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.
- [Citation details Davina Jackson, 'Snelling, Douglas Burrage (1916–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/snelling-douglas-burrage-15533/text26746, accessed 25 January 2014. This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012]
- "AA - Robin Boyd Award for Housing - November/December 1997 Architecture Australia". Retrieved 4 April 2011.