• Douglas Snelling inspects plans in his home office, Sydney. Photo Max Dupain (circa 1964).

  • Douglas Snelling won a lighting award for his innovative installations around the AF Little house at Clareville, Sydney. Mid 1960s photo by Max Dupain.

  • Alvar Aalto's sinuous curves inspired Snelling's late 1940s interiors for the Sydney Snow Frock Salon. Photo Ray Leighton (from Decoration and Glass magazine).

  • Aerial perspective drawing by Douglas Snelling for Tassiriki Park, an unbuilt Pacific Island resort concept (circa 1971).

Our Hero

Douglas Burrage Snelling (1916-1985) was one of Asia-Pacific's most significant interpreters of California modern design and architecture innovations from the 1930s to the 1970s -- particularly luxury lifestyle themes popular in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs.

Inspired by a stream of apprentices from Frank Lloyd Wright – notably Richard Neutra, Harwell Hamilton Harris and Gordon Drake – he was briefly employed by Beverly Hills architect Douglas Honnold and received technical instructions from John Lautner on how to build the southern hemisphere's first 'infinity' (spill-edge) swimming pool.

Snelling was a fore-runner (from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s) of the 'indigenous modern' (pseudo thatched roofs) thrust in luxury Asia-Pacific resorts and residences. This movement peaked with Peter Muller and Kerry Hill's hotels in Bali and Amanresorts from the 1970s to the 1990s and included Sydney residences with tribal-style roofs in corrugated steel by Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury during the 1980s and 1990s.

Snelling can be regarded as 'the missing link' practising architecture and multi-disciplinary design in Sydney between the departure of Wright's former students Walter and Marion Griffin in 1935 and the 1950s career beginnings of a new generation of organic modernist architects and designers who later became known as 'The Sydney School'.

Snelling was the first Sydney architect to design and build houses in Wright-influenced styles after the Second World War and became one of the most outstanding Wrightian architects working in Sydney during the 1950s. But he was not 'in the club' of younger, post-Wrightian practitioners who interpreted British 'new brutalism' (raw concrete), Scandinavian modernism and Australian 'nuts and berries' themes from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s. He did not appreciate literary allusions to the 'bush spirit' of Australians; his sentiments aligned with the California-Polynesia tropical paradise lifestyle movement known as 'the tiki style'.

Snelling also is likely to be recognised as New Zealand's most accomplished expatriate architect/designer from the 1940s to the 1970s. Born in England and raised in NZ's lower North Island from 1924 to 1940, Snelling was a popular writer, cartoonist and broadcaster on Hollywood movie culture during the late 1930s. After a six month working holiday sketching Hollywood movie stars in Los Angeles in 1937-38, he became a Wellington-based publicist for Warner Bros films, then moved to Sydney in 1940 and built Sydney's largest organic modernist houses of the 1950s and 1960s, a range of mid-priced modern furniture, shop fitouts, towers of home units and office buildings. Towards the end of his career in the early 1970s, he built two houses in Noumea and designed several unbuilt 'thatched hut modernism' schemes for waterfront properties in Fiji and Vanuatu.

Snelling recently was the subject of a PhD thesis written by controversial Sydney author/design promoter Davina Jackson, enabled by a scholarship from RMIT University, Melbourne. Wrongly failed by two of the three external examiners (assessing it on post-modern theory rather than modernist history criteria and claiming the writing was sub-standard), the thesis now is with the Snelling archive in the State Library of New South Wales and has been reviewed by curators at the National Library of NZ and leading scholars of California modernism in Los Angeles. This prevents other Australian mid-century modernism scholars from appropriating Jackson's extensive original research and strengthens her attempts to prevent supporters of Snelling's younger rivals from continuing to deny his significance to architectural history.

Douglas Snelling's biography (from the thesis) is here

Davina Jackson's site is here

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