• Reupholstered 464 armchair (National Gallery of Victoria).

Designed 1945–49, marketed 1946–56

Snelling’s first-known pieces of built furniture were a series of timber-framed, armless, desk/dining chairs with seats and backs of interlaced cotton webbing. These were derived from chairs designed by Jens Risom in the early 1940s, for New York manufacturer H.G. Knoll, and Risom was inspired by early 1930s bentwood chairs by Bruno Mathsson and Alvar Aalto in Scandinavia.

Snelling's chairs were used in his first retail interior fitout, the Etam glove shop in central Sydney (1946). According to an article on that project in Decoration and Glass, the chair frames were silver ash and the webbing was powder blue plaited cotton. The same chair style was used in his Dasi Pen Shop (1946) and various other Snelling interiors during the late 1940s.

Snelling perceived a retail market to sell various styles of chairs, independently of his commercial interiors, and he persuaded the Anthony Hordern and Sons department store to stock a broader range, titled ‘the Snelling line’, from 1946. He designed and printed a small color brochure that promoted his ‘Snelling line Project 464’ with three tick symbols to denote key modernist advantages—‘form, function, structure’. The typographic style of these ticks was similar to his illustrations of the graceful shape of the chairs’s side frames.

The first models advertised were an armchair and rocking chair (similar to 1944 designs by American architect Ralph Rapson, whose chairs were produced by H. G. Knoll in New York); an armless version; a style with curved arms (inspired by Swedish designer Bruno Mathsson’s laminated wood and webbing ‘working chairs’ of 1932 and 1941), and two- and three-seater settees. Text on the Snelling line brochure promoted his chairs as contemporary furniture for the machine age: ‘simplicity is of paramount importance … here is straightforward modern design with no trimmings … an integral part of the contemporary plan … a truly post war chair’. The manufacturing messages were ‘scientifically designed jointing’, ‘new plastic glues’, and ‘rugged, honest Australian timbers’.

  • Directors of Functional Products in the late 1940s (courtesy Sue Collins).

Snelling switched to a more ambitious system of manufacturing in 1947, when he and three partners (radio cabinets builder Terry Palmerston, as managing director, Snelling as design director, and accountants Doug Davidson and Robert Shaw) set up Functional Products Pty Ltd, to manufacture and market his furniture designs nationally. Snelling supplied cutting patterns and fabrication blueprints so carpenters at the factory could make the dining chairs, several styles of lounge chairs, sofas, footstools, and various tables and desks.

Popular items were the 464 lounge chairs, including a rocking chair, versions without arms or with cantilevered arms or curved arms (imitating steam-bent plywood), and either padded upholstery or webbing backs and seats.

The tables, desks and footstools, made with tops in various shapes and sizes, featured splayed and tapered legs. The dining chair, identified by Functional Products as the DBU style, also came in several versions: one with two exposed back rails, one with its seat upholstered over the sides of the frames, another with its seat upholstered within the side frames, and another with webbing seat and back. A low-backed, high-legged bar stool was also offered.

Snelling’s furniture was made in various woods, mostly silver ash and Queensland maple, which were more readily available during Australia’s post-war austerity than other species. The standard cotton webbing colors initially were cyclamen, creole brown, catalina blue, and cactus green. Fawn was added in the early 1950s.[

  • Armchair concepts by Snelling in Calvacade, 1945.

Following Snelling’s six-month trip to the United States in 1947–48, he designed more models for Functional Products, including a series of splay-legged storage cabinets that could be made to order in maple or silver ash, a choice of louvered or plain drawers, and either solid doors or sliding glass doors. According to their lengths, these were called the Series 300 (3 ft), the Series 600 (6 ft), and the Series 464 (4 ft 6 in). All heights were 2 ft 9 in, including 9-in legs, and depths were all 15 in, allowing the cabinets to be fitted together in various visually cohesive ways. Initially, storage cabinets formed part of the Snelling line, but from 1949, they were sometimes advertised separately as ‘the Snelling module’. Advertisements carried an asterisk to advise consumers that ‘Module means recurring fixed dimension’, and some used the phrase ‘ad infinitum’ to indicate the limitless possible combinations of arranging these cabinets. Cabinets with glass sliding doors could be internally ‘lacquered in contemporary colours’.

After 1950, Snelling took little part in the activities of Functional Products because he was focusing on his architectural practice. But in July 1955, the company advertised ‘two more 1sts’ in Australian Homemaker and Handyman magazine. One was the arrival of Saran nylon webbing for the Snelling line chairs. This material was more durable and less prone to frayed edges than the cotton webbing and was offered in six colors: black, red, lime green, dark green, blue, and yellow. The second first was a new Snelling storage concept: the BSF style of a ladder-sided modular shelving unit or room divider. It could be made in various sizes by clipping different types of cupboards and shelves into predrilled holes in the open frame. Areas could be left open to allow views to continue through a room.

Snelling’s BSF idea was inspired by several modular systems developed by Charles Eames during the 1940s. At Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940–41, Eames collaborated with Eero Saarinen on modular storage and seating designs which won the ‘Organic Design in Home Furnishings’ competition staged in 1941 by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1946, he and Ray Eames planned another style of modular storage that was published but not commercially produced. Then in 1948–49, they conceived their ESU (Eames storage unit) system of steel frames allowing insertion of various types of timber cabinets interspersed with cavities.

From 1947 to 1957, Functional Products successfully marketed Snelling’s furniture nationally. Its retailers, including Andersons and J. C. Guest in Melbourne, Levy’s, E. G. Glass & Co, and Nock and Kirby in Sydney, as well as Wests and Olsen and Goodchap in Brisbane, often advertised Snelling pieces separately from the regular Functional Products advertisements in major design journals.

  • Second side of Snelling's first trifold furniture brochure, 1946.

During the mid-1950s, however, conditions began to sour for both Snelling (whose marriage dissolved in 1956) and Functional Products (which became a public company around the same time and lost its three original minority directors, including Snelling). In Terry Palmerston’s later-recorded recollections, Snelling designed one last product, a desk, which assisted the company’s move into office furniture. After 1956, Functional Products did not advertise the Snelling line.

In the late 1950s, Australian consumer tastes began to shift toward more refined and newer styles of Scandinavian (Danish or Swedish Modern) teak furniture characterized by rich red rather than blond woods, finely tapered and vertical round legs (not splayed rectangular sections), and removable cushions instead of webbing or fixed upholstery. A new manufacturer, Parker, catered for this change of taste. Recalled Palmerston:

After a while they [competitors] left us. Parker put round, tapered legs on, fancy handles, but we didn’t move. But then Snelling bought us the design of a desk with a couple of variations. Then we more or less tapered off domestic furniture and went into office furniture, which was the right move at the right time. I started looking around for designers of office chairs … I got hold of a couple of good upholsterers. In the end the office side was the dominant side by far.

Snelling line furniture remained out of favour in Australia for almost thirty years, until the mid-1980s, when his styles began to be reassessed by a young generation of dilettantes and designers. This was part of a trend to collect then-underpriced ‘designer originals’ of the 1940s and 1950s. As a response to these impulses, a Melbourne manufacturer, Gordon Mather Industries, began to reproduce the original 1945–46 Snelling webbed dining chair for several years from 1987. More recently, other Australian furniture retailers, notably Matt Blatt, Sokol, Glicks Furniture, and Milan Direct, have promoted chairs like Snelling’s as ‘replicas’ of the early 1940s models, by Risom and Rapson, which he had adapted.

Sources

—Australian Homemaker and Handyman, 1955, ‘Two more ‘1sts’’, July, p. 16.

—Australian House & Garden, 1949, ‘The Snelling module’, November, p. 81.[

—Collins, Sue. 2004. Personal communications. 10 January.

—Decoration and Glass, 1947, ‘Etam retail glove shop’, March–April, pp. 16–17.

—Grant, Kirsty. 2014. Mid-Century Modern. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, p. 55.

—Palmerston, Vicky. 2002. Personal communications, 1 October.

—Sydney: State Library of New South Wales MLMSS 8801/01/05, contains all research material so far located about Snelling's furniture designs.

—Sydney: SLNSW MLMSS 8801/01/Box 5, including copies of Snelling’s fabrication blueprints for Functional Products side and coffee tables.