‘Modest Luxury’ by Décor Associates: 1960s Hollywood Glamour comes to Sydney

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‘Understated elegance…bordering on opulence’

Opulence, glamour, quality and luxury were the bywords of Sydney interior design firm Décor Associates (1959-89). Although the names of Warren ‘Tom’ Harding and David Lorimer may today be largely forgotten, in 1960s Sydney, Décor was considered the decorating firm amongst stylish Eastern Suburbs and North Shore establishment families and the aspirational business and racing fraternity.

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Their enduring, influential style remains the heritage of contemporary decorators such as Greg Natale and John Young Coote. As Australian practitioners of 20th century ‘Hollywood Regency’ – including Noel Coulson, Holgar and Holgar and George Surtees - Décor’s decorating genre is now the subject of reassessment of by collectors and design scholars alike. A small but important collection of Décor’s Australian designed and made furniture, with provenance to a well documented house in Point Piper, will be amongst the first of Décor’s designs to reach the secondary market at Shapiro’s 20.21 Century Design sale on 28 February. The collection features unique custom designs by Harding and Lorimer that once formed part of a complete bespoke interior scheme with all the hallmarks of a Hollywood modern de luxe house.

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‘Antiques of tomorrow’

The collection consists of ‘pickled’ finished timber coffee, side, bedside and dressing tables, each designed specifically to enhance the rich, dark, moodily lit interior scheme of the house. Although working in a traditional idiom, Décor used luxury reflective finishes and limed timbers in a deliberate break from the dark mahoganies once associated with more conservative interiors.

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The lime-wash finish to the timber, and the gleaming mirrored surfaces contrasted luminously amongst the indigo mirrored tiles and dark forest green velvet upholstery of the Harrises’ living, dining and bedrooms. The ‘chain-link’ decorative motifs of the coffee and side tables were unique to the commission and drew on Greek and Regency revival patterns and compare with both American TH Robsjohn-Gibbings’ Hollywood furniture and the work of Englishman David Hicks in the mid 1960s.

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The Italian gilt wall sconces with Thai silk shades once lit the sweeping stair of the grand marble foyer of the Point Piper house, papered in silver and blue metallic. They were modern without being ‘modernist’ – a 20th century decorating style at last receiving long-overdue attention. Harding and Lorimer described their designs as ‘timeless…potential heirlooms, the antiques of tomorrow.’

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The ‘Décor look’ – perennial styles, luxurious colour, finish and quality

Décor’s principals were trained by Sydney design royalty, including Phyllis Shilitto at East Sydney Tech, who taught Lorimer her famous colour wheel and Clive Carney at Artistry, where in the 1950s both men gained valuable experience and the society contacts that formed the basis of their clientele for years to come. Artistry’s showroom was plush and glamorous, - luxurious carpets, velvet drapes and crystal chandeliers. An early job for Lorimer, working alongside June Carney, fresh from studying in New York, was the furnishing of the Royal Suite at Government House for the 1954 visit of Queen Elizabeth II. A close friend was new employee Tom Harding, who had previously worked for Merle du Boulay.

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Together they established Décor in 1959, first in glamorous showrooms in Edgecliff, later in Woollahra, where they displayed their furniture and exclusive wallpapers and fabrics imported from the US. As agents for Brunschwig & Fils, amongst others, this became an important part of their business, appealing to discriminating private and commercial clients, including Beril Jents’ boutique and the Elanora Country Club.

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Characteristic of their work was bespoke furniture, with a unique design for each client. These were known in the showroom by the clients’ name – such as the ‘Murdoch’ chairs. The furniture in the Shapiro auction was known as the ‘Harris’ coffee table, ‘Harris dressing table’ and ‘Harris cabinet’ – no others were ever made. Quality craftsmen underpinned their studio and Décor relied on Sydney cabinetmaker Stan Nelson, Jim McCloud for upholstery and Patrick Stokes, who made their soft furnishings. Fred Russell, who helped Marion Hall Best develop her signature wall glazes, was their master painter. Strong colour, used with skill by Harding and Lorimer and the placement of modern Australian paintings and European antiques, distinguished their style from more traditional designers.

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American influences, absorbed through membership of US professional organisations and frequent travel to New York and Los Angeles in the 1960s, resulted in a style whose defining characteristics place it historically amongst the ‘Modern Baroque’ or ‘Hollywood Regency’ genres. This luxurious, opulent style reached its peak in the large scale homes of clients such as Lady (Mary) Fairfax at Barford, Bellevue Hill in 1968. Décor partnered with charity committees to decorate the Trocadero for the Black and White Ball and through their Society of Interior Designers exhibition rooms for Mrs William McMahon (1971) and glamourpuss Hollywood star Anne Baxter (1962), where metallic wallpaper provided the star with a ‘glossy’ background for her life. Both of these rooms featured obelisk cabinets similar to the Harrises’. Fantasy rooms came to life when Décor decorated a suite at the Australia Hotel in 1965 for Marlene Dietrich, where she stayed during a season at the Theatre Royal. £5000 was spent on Japanese grass papers, velvet upholstery in shades of champagne pink, beige and peppermint and furnishings custom made for the star to create ‘an international atmosphere.’

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The Harrises’ new home: ‘no expense spared’

If the Fairfaxes represented Décor’s large establishment clientele, Barford’s next owner, Melbourne car dealer Emmanuel Margolin represented another aspect of their practice in the 1960s.

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Betty and Keith Harris were part of a circle of clients in Sydney’s racing fraternity – including George Moore and Darby Munro who commissioned opulent interiors as spaces to entertain and impress friends and colleagues. Harris, whose electronics business had made his fortune, became a long standing committee member at the Sydney Turf Club and, by 1962, wanted to build a home commensurate with his wealth and status. Aspiring to the houses they had seen amongst the Eastern Suburbs establishment, they bought a block of land in Point Piper for £12000 in 1962 and engaged society’s darlings – architect John Suttor and Décor Associates – who worked closely and collaboratively. A Japanese garden by Gordon Sykes completed the Hollywood-styling. The project was extravagant, with no expense spared and cost considerations secondary to the desired luxury, driven by the clients’ expectations. The Harrises, whose taste was relatively unformed, looked to Harding and Lorimer for guidance and left the scheme entirely to Décor.

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Although many Décor schemes were elegant and understated to suit the client, others showcased the hallmarks of ‘Hollywood Regency’ or ‘Modern Baroque’ interiors – de luxe bathroom, mirrored surfaces, gilt detail, metallic wallpaper, plush carpeting and Greek and Regency revival patterning. Décor believed in the psychology of decorating and aimed to express their clients’ personalities in each scheme. The Harris house interiors reflected this, matching Keith Harris’ colourful personality and the couple’s goals and personal style. As Lorimer told Babette Hayes in 1978, ‘The most exciting are those who have flair and dash themselves, as are the very flamboyant.’

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As design historians and collectors continue to extend their interests in 20th century interiors beyond the Bauhaus inspired International style or Scandinavian furniture, the significance of Hollywood or Modern Baroque will grow and its high glam, timeless furnishings will become more collectible. Harding and Lorimer, who ran Décor for thirty years, are part of a linear heritage in this genre, with designers such as Frank Grill, Phillip Silver and John Young Coote all starting their careers under their influence.

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Catriona Quinn for Shapiro Auctioneers, Woollahra

With thanks to David Lorimer for his interview with the author

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Photography

Interiors - David Beal, with thanks to David Lorimer

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Further reading

Warren T. Harding and David Lorimer, Australian Décor, Nelson, 1971

Babette Hayes, Design for Living in Australia, Hodder and Stoughton, 1978

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Catriona Quinn, “Noel Coulson and the Lipshut house, Toorak, 1959,” RMIT Design Archives Journal Vol 4 No2 2014

Judith O’Callaghan, “Modern Baroque: the designs of George Surtees” DHub Unpacking Design 2016

Simon Reeves, “Gold Plated Doors if you want them: Holgar and Holgar and the Architecture of Opulence” Proceedings of SAHANZ 33 Gold, 2016

Michael Bogle, Interview with David Lorimer 2013, Décor Associates file, Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums