With his well-groomed full beard and neatly barbered hair Clement Meadmore looked like a hipster. Except this was in 1950s Melbourne. In the photograph he is sitting on a mid-century modernist chair, one of his earliest designs, the steel rod and corded dining chair created in 1951.
“Clement Meadmore: The art of mid-century design” at the Potter Museum of Art is a survey exhibition about Meadmore as a designer rather than a sculptor for which he is better known. Dean Keep and Jeromie Maver’s exhibition starts with Meadmore entering Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) and ends in 1963 with the last chair he designed, his leather Sling Chair, and his moving to NYC to do abstract sculpture. It focuses on Meadmore’s furniture design along with his interest in jazz and his early sculpture development.
It is also a look at how modern Melbourne was created. Meadmore’s design of the Legend Espresso and Milk Bar at 239 Burke Street, chairs, lamps and decor. Including seven large abstract paintings by Leonard French that glow with radiant colours. French also designed the matchbooks, menus and cups for the Legend. This exhibition is a must-see for anyone enthusiastic about the early Australian jazz scene. Meadmore had more than just a passing interest in jazz, a photo of him playing the washboard in 1952 with thimbles on his fingers. A wall of record covers that he designed for Swaggie Records.
Meadmore’s designs were practical and pragmatic both for the designer, manufacturer and the consumer. It was important for the designs to be practical for the manufacturer because often he and his wife were making the machine-made modern aesthetic by hand out the back of their shop. It was an efficiency and pragmatism that he continued with his sculptures that could be transported in shipping containers.
NYC was the right place for Meadmore to go as it had jazz and abstract art whereas both were still derided in Melbourne. It was the attitude of conservative figurative artists, including Blackman, Boyd, Brack, Dickinson, Perceval and Pugh who provided additional incentive to leave. If Meadmore was living in Melbourne today I’m sure that he would not have left as he would be able to have an international career as an abstract sculptor and be enjoying the jazz scene.