O. Noel Coulson furniture from The Lipshut House, Toorak


Original furniture designed by O. Noel Coulson from the Toorak house of Mary Lipshut will feature in our forthcoming 20/21C Art and Design Auction on Wednesday 30 July 2014.

In the 1950s and 60s, O. N Coulson (1905-c.1993) was one of the busiest and best known decorators in Melbourne, catering for a wealthy and sophisticated business clientele in Toorak and South Yarra, on a scale sufficient to break sales records with his suppliers. Prolific, industrious and independent, Coulson’s practice took on domestic commissions of enormous ambition and detail and yet his name is rarely mentioned in historical reviews of the design of the era.

The virtual disappearance of Coulson’s name in the writing of the history of design of the 1950s and 60s reflects 21st Century taste – for the innovative, the progressive and above all, for design with its roots in the International style. The range of work undertaken in interior design in the mid century was more diverse than we think. Coulson’s style might be perceived as too conservative, too luxurious, too elite to have attracted scholarly review. And yet aspects of his work were profoundly modern, chiefly his ability to put into practice the idea of a ‘total ‘design approach encompassing house, garden, furniture, soft furnishings and details, of which Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin would have been exponents familiar to him.

Like his contemporary in New York, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbing (1905-1976) whose classical revival furniture is echoed in the Lipshut house, Coulson turned his back on international style modernism, seeking inspiration in classical motifs and furniture design, especially as interpreted in the US. In Sydney, comparison is warranted with cabinet maker Paul Kafka (1907-1972) and in Melbourne, Schulim Krimper (1893-1971) but neither worked on the comprehensive scale of interior design projects as O.N Coulson.

Lipshut House

The Lipshut house at 211 Kooyong Road, Toorak was built in 1958 and the family moved in in May 1959. The house was designed by Edward Billson and Partners, involving two generations in partnership, Edward Fielder Billson (1892-1986), the eminent ‘Melbourne Prairie School’ architect and former assistant of Walter Burley Griffin, and his son, the newly qualified Ted Billson, who also undertook the structural engineering on the house. The Lipshut family were deeply involved in Melbourne’s rag trade, Mary as co-founder of knitwear firm Meredith and Philip at that time running Elastic Webbing Pty Ltd. Edward Fielder Billson had previously designed both the Elastic Webbing premises in Collingwood and the family home in St Kilda, both for Mary Lipshut’s father, Morris Plotkin. Billson did not get involved in the interior furnishings so Mary engaged O. Noel Coulson to design and furnish every aspect of the house. The furniture on offer at Shapiro dates from this original scheme, which remained in place in the Lipshut house until 1996, when Mary moved and the house was sold. Photographs from 1996 record an exceptionally intact, conservative, but stylish and enduring late 1950s interior. Typical of Coulson, the interiors were the result of a single, cohesive vision for the design of the house, seamlessly blended, according to their son, Peter Lipshut, ‘everything worked, everything belonged, everything was functional, there was never any need for any alteration because everything in the house was as it should be and worked well.’ The interiors were completed over time, possibly over several years, as was Coulson’s painstaking habit. The dining room was done first, including the buffet, table and chairs and also the study. The lounge room was the last completed, having been empty for a few years. Even though the project extended over several years, a nevertheless unified style prevailed owing to the single vision of Coulson. Every component of the interior of the Lipshut house came from the hand of O.N. Coulson, including all floorcoverings, wall coverings, fabric, lighting and furniture. The wall coverings included a mix of silk wallpaper, timber panelling and painted surfaces, with feature walls used subtly to provide a change of texture rather than for colour or gimmick. The furniture was custom made by S. Andrewartha, a multi-generational institution in Melbourne furniture making, at their workshop in Richmond. S. Andrewartha made furniture to order, whether simple or elaborate, for most of Melbourne’s interior designers and decorating firms. All the fabrics for upholstery, cushions, curtains and bedspreads were likely to have come from the Sydney firm Artistry, as Coulson made frequent trips to Sydney to select and order fabric and carpets there for clients, in large quantities. It is possible the carpets at the Lipshut house also came from Artistry, but Coulson also ordered carpets to his own design from the Melbourne firm of Fink.

O. Noel Coulson

Oswald Noel Coulson was born in Geelong in 1905, studied architecture there at the Gordon Institute of Technology and in 1923 became a pupil of the architect I.G. Anderson, responsible for several public buildings in Geelong. During the 1950s Coulson, known as Noel, established his own practice and focused on the complete domestic design service, covering houses, interiors, furnishings and gardens. The firm was called O.N. Coulson and operated from an office and studio at his home at 142 Powlett St, East Melbourne. He employed only one staff member, the formidable Miss Starr, his secretary, who arranged all orders and did all the administration work aside from the design and selection of interiors.

Coulson was incredibly productive and busy, running two or three house design projects at once and responsible for every part of the design work himself, including drawing copious and detailed drawings for every element. Every detail of each piece of bespoke furniture warranted a drawing, one of which survives today, with annotations, for the custom made bedhead for the main bedroom of the Lipshut house. He also personally designed and commissioned carpets to be made, with intricate cut pile 'carved patterns.' He also designed the construction of the curtains, headings, blinds and soft furnishings, each unique to the requirements of the house, again with detailed drawings. His role extended to the design of cast iron gates, doors and hardware. This ambitious programme of total control over design, with only Miss Starr to assist, meant that commissions, such as the Lipshut house, sometimes took several years to reach completion, but always with the same cohesion resulting from a single design vision.

As a designer, he was in complete control, seen as a powerful figure and persuasive with clients. All good designers listen to their clients, nevertheless, this was not a collaborative process. Clients would continue to consult him on every detail over many years if they needed to update a fabric or even a door handle.

Coulson was unusual in Melbourne at the time in that as a trained architect, he had the skills to cope with every requirement of the client, with no need for separation between design structure, layout and the supply of soft furnishings, as was often the case at the time. His drafting skills meant he was able to design unique details on all the furniture, carpets and curtains for his clients. His skills enabled him to establish the hallmarks of his work: bespoke, unified, cohesively designed, a unity between architecture and décor with nothing extraneous or eclectic. When Australian House and Garden featured a new house in Toorak in August, 1964, they drew attention to the designer, the ‘noted architect Mr Coulson, who was in the pleasant position of being able to relate each piece of furniture to its room setting and determine its size, shape and function accordingly,’ and acknowledged his hand in the design of the house, décor, furnishings (lights, carpets, curtains, accessories, art) and garden, ‘ Like the the Lipshut house, this one had ‘elaborate carved furniture, oriental style accessories………luxuriously feminine master bedroom,’ with ‘den furniture scaled in proportion to the small room.’

House and Garden’s article provides a detailed record of the schemes of the 1964 Toorak house: ‘turquoise accented by different shades of gold, chartreuse, muted pink and grey, with touches of black and Chinese red…..off white buttoned upholstery with drapes a deep grey flecked with blue…………cigar brown upholstery and a side chair in deep Ming-blue, green-grey drapes and walls, sculptured turquoise carpet and paler turquoise ceiling….’

The variety of timbers used in this house impressed House and Garden, including teak coffee table and cabinetry with sculpted teak handles, natural maple built in TV and radiogram unit, black bean coffee table and blackwood bedroom furniture. The predominant timbers used in the house were ‘bleached and natural maple.’

This contrasts with the more restrained, muted palette of the Lipshut house, which ranged from pale greys to light olive greens and pale gold, though the use of limed timbers and carved and gilded furniture is consistent throughout Coulson’s work.

The Sydney firm of Artistry played a key role in the development of Coulson’s style, as did Coulson contribute to the growth of Artistry’s business nationally. A Sydney firm established in 1933 by Clive and June Carney, Artistry set up a Melbourne branch 1963 in Toorak Road, South Yarra. Artistry were major importers and suppliers of fabrics and carpets to the design and decoration industry. Coulson became one of their biggest customers; Artistry, through him, benefited from the large decorating projects generated by such clients as Victor and Lottie Smorgon. All the fabrics and soft furnishings were the best quality and made to last. Coulson favoured American and Italian woven and self quilted fabrics, self quilted fabrics. Miss Starr did all the ordering, bolts of fabrics in large quantity, such was the scale of his business and clients. If the Melbourne showroom didn’t have what Coulson required, stock was obtained directly from Sydney. As the 1960s wore on, Coulson’s taste for colour became more adventurous, with stronger shades such as peacock blues and lime greens. Commercially, Artistry sold more conservative fabrics in Melbourne than in Sydney. Coulson was seen as an exception, who pushed further than others for colour and richness in furnishings. His Jewish clientele drove this taste and were less conservative than others in Melbourne.

Whether Coulson was directly influenced by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings is not known, though there is an argument to made that the similarities in their work mean he may have been familiar with the American’s style. The recurrence of classical shapes in footstools, chairs and desks as well as in individual motifs – acanthus leaves, lion’s paws begs the comparison.

Furniture from the Estate of Mary Lipshut will be auctioned in our forthcoming 20/21C Art and Design sale on Wednesday 30 July 2014. 

The illustrated catalogue is available to view online by clicking here.


Interview with James Fisher (employed by Artistry in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1960s)

Interview with E.F. (Ted) Billson

Interview with Peter Lipshut and notes from Allan Lipshut and Rae Rothfield

Built Heritage Pty Ltd, ‘O.N. Coulson,’ Dictionary of Unsung Architects


‘Coordination is the Keynote of this Melbourne Home,’ Australian House and Garden, August, 1964

Loring, John, ‘T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Reviving Classical Forms for the Twentieth Century’, www.architecturaldigest.com

Goad, Phillip and Willis, Julie (ed), The Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Boyd, Robin, Victorian Modern, Robin Boyd Foundation 2011