Schulim Krimper Furniture from The Landau Collection: A Rare Sydney Provenance

How did a Carpathian woodcutter’s son and a doctor’s daughter from Macksville NSW come to assemble one of the largest and most varied collections of furniture by Schulim Krimper at their house in semi-rural St Ives in the 1950s?

Krimper Book Case

Behind this important collection is the story of Janek and Joyce Landau, their house, their paintings, their relationship with Krimper and their friendships in Sydney’s world of artists and émigrés.

Janek (1899-1971) and Joyce (1916-2001) Landau came from disparate backgrounds but shared a self-educated path to their interests in art and design. Like Krimper, Janek was a Jewish immigrant from a humble background, born near Dolina in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire. Restrictions on Jews meant his transient studies took him from Vienna to Brno where he graduated in chemical engineering.

Despite his humble background, Janek built a successful timber company in Trieste between the wars and, after immigrating to Australia in 1939 started again. His mill at Blackwattle Bay in Sydney, the Annandale Timber and Moulding Co, imported Oregon to supply the weatherboard for Australia’s post war housing boom. Janek and Joyce met through another European émigré called Adolf Kupfermann, then married to Joyce’s sister and the couple started their family in a flat in Kings Cross before moving to Greenwich in the early 1950s.

His success enabled Janek to support other émigrés in various ways that influenced his collecting and expanded the couple’s interest in architecture and design. His generosity led to commissioning Harry Seidler to design a weekender for the family at Whale Beach in 1952. The house was decorated with Eames and Saarinen furniture specified by Seidler as well as pieces by Landau’s friend Paul Kafka, another beneficiary of the timber merchant’s success.

By 1957 the Seidler house was sold as redundant, as the Landaus had moved in 1955 to acreage in St Ives, with an existing gabled house designed by traditionalist John Suttor. The new house and its interiors were in sharp contrast to the Seidler house and reflected the Landau’s more eclectic taste.

By the mid 1950s the Landaus had become serious art collectors and mixed in a circle of friends in Sydney that included Janek’s closest friend, art dealer Rudy Komon and Frank and Thelma Clune. Every Wednesday Komon came for dinner and each Sunday, large parties of European émigrés gathered at the house to play cards and tell exotic stories of their experiences before the war. The Landaus displayed paintings by Australians William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Elwynn Lynn and Sali Herman in a 40-foot picture gallery at the house. Alongside were treasures brought from Europe and sold to them by refugees needing financial support, including paintings by Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Maurice Vlaminck. Both Janek and Joyce loved to read and learn; they surrounded themselves with artists and art dealers. Joyce in particular absorbed the sophisticated interests of the older, more affluent Europeans in their circle of friends.

The Landaus met Schulim Krimper on one of their frequent trips to Melbourne, where they had many friends and knew all the gallery directors. They may have seen his exhibition at Georges in 1951, been introduced by Robert Haines, curator at the NGV, or stopped by the shop in St Kilda during the 1956 Olympics.

Krimper was not Joyce’s first choice to furnish her new house. She had seen a suite of 18th century Venetian furniture for sale in a copy of The Connoisseur magazine, but by the time she had written to London, the pieces had been sold. So convenience, as well as fashion and aspiration played a role in approaching Krimper. Either way, this was a meeting of minds. Clients did not choose Krimper, Krimper chose them and evidently Janek and Joyce met with Krimper’s approval. Joyce was known for her natural instinct for fashion and style, an eye for beautiful interiors. Janek was less involved, but respected Krimper’s standing as an artist/craftsman and the couple allowed him freedom to make furniture for the house, with Krimper’s wife Elspeth the intermediary salesperson.

Krimper Chair

The extraordinary interior scheme Joyce Landau created in the St Ives house contained 50 to 60 pieces of Krimper furniture, one of his most extensive commissions. The scheme was a success, with the children experiencing a relaxed and modern way of living: comfortable, solid and stylish furniture with no room or chair too precious to be used and enjoyed. Each child had a desk, chair and bedhead with adjustable side tables. Janek’s desk was in his book-lined study. Joyce’s desk was a chess table – when you dealt with Krimper, you got the furniture Krimper sent. The large house had several living areas with dining suites, sideboards, traymobiles, couches, easy chairs, nesting side tables and occasional tables. A chess table and chessmen was lent to the 1959 retrospective at the NGV. There were abundant small accessories such as the handcrafted bowls, vessels, lidded jars and lamp bases Krimper loved to make. Joyce lent these to the NGV’s memorial exhibition in 1975. Many of the pieces in the sale are made from teak, which Krimper first used in 1954 and thereafter was his preferred material, in combination with more exotic timbers.

It is open to question whether the Landaus saw themselves as collectors of Krimper in the same way as they were collectors of Dobell or Drysdale. After all, they were primarily furnishing a large family house. However, the way they decorated and collected reflected everything Haines had been trying to achieve in educating the public – a synthesis of furniture and art in a domestic interior, placing Krimper on the same level as fine artists.

Krimper is strongly associated with Melbourne cultural identity, but little is known of his Sydney clients and it is unusual for a Sydney provenance to come to the market. The Landau collection is a rare instance of a single owner family collection with a fully documented, researched provenance linking Krimper to the Sydney art world, Jewish émigré community and one of its keenest art collectors. No story of the provenance – history of ownership and context – of any Krimper furniture has been published until now.

Individual items in the sale are of museum quality. The bookcase, which once displayed the Landau’s collection of Meissen and Soviet revolutionary porcelain, is similar to all four of the bookcases in public collections, including those in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and the Powerhouse Museum. Though these bookcases have significant provenances, having been owned by Robert Haines, Constance Stokes, Dr Ewan Murray-Will and Krimper himself, it is the Landau bookcase that has a place in Australian cultural history stemming from its association with the patronage of enlightened European émigré clients, without whom Krimper’s business as a bespoke cabinetmaker could not have survived.

Catriona Quinn for Shapiro

20/21C Art and Design

Auction Tuesday 20 November 6pm

On View Sat 31 Oct - Tue 10 Nov 11am - 5pm

View the full catalogue online

Further reading

Catriona Quinn, ‘The prism of provenance: the Landau collection of Krimper furniture,’ Australiana, November 2015

Rina Huber, Letters to My Father, Sydney Jewish Museum, 2013

Terence Lane, Krimper, Gryphon, Melbourne, 1987