1. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.
Extract from ‘The Other Moderns: Sydney’s forgotten European design legacy‘ edited by Rebecca Hawcroft.
What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.
— The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
The country we end up being born in dictates many of our opportunities and freedoms. There is a plaque on the border of Italy and France, in the Alps on the Col de Cerise, that reads ‘Through this pass, in September 1943, hundreds of Jewish people from all over Europe came and sought, often in vain, to escape from anti-Semitic persecution. You who pass freely, remember that this happened, and remember that not everyone enjoys the same rights as you do.’ And yet we forget. Today refugees from Africa and the Middle East are routinely stopped at that same border. They come hoping for a better life but they are sent back.
All countries, to begin with however, are somewhat of an accident. Our sovereign borders are drawn on top of what was the ancient supercontinent, Gondwana, and before that Pangaea, and possibly many other supercontinents before that. Bits of land pushed around by eruptions and collisions and then much later by people with power drawing lines on a map. In that sense, borders seem to have very little to do with the humans that live inside them. But humanity, through customs and genes, finds its way across those borders – to merge and change and swell.
As a first generation Australian these thoughts resonate with me. My father, Anastasios, arrived in Australia in 1963 from the small beach town of Katerini in Greece. He first went to Forbes in New South Wales and then moved to Australia’s capital, Canberra. This is where he met my mother, Mary, who had emigrated a few years after him from Rhodes, Greece. If he hadn’t made this trip my life would be a very different one.
At our hotel in Canberra, Hotel Hotel, the story of many is a story we relate to. We worked through many ideas with many friends to make this place. Today, it continues as a site to explore new and old ideas. The process is messy and iterative and authorship is difficult to trace.
What is clear is that it would not be as rich without these influences and multiple interventions.
This book tells the myriad stories of a specific group of immigrants – highly skilled but almost unknown modernist designers, photographers, architects and manufacturers who came to Australia to flee Hitler’s Europe during and after WWII. It traces their lives, their work and their legacy. Their arrival had a profound impact on what was at that time a very Anglo-centric nation. They helped shape Australian culture from the 1930s to the 1960s and onwards – during the postwar building boom, when the suburbs exploded and cities evolved in a high-rise motion.
We spend a lot of our time publishing our own stories about the people and ideas that have shaped and continue to shape Hotel Hotel. Beyond aesthetics and an appreciation for design, our spaces and furnishings speak of people, traditions and divergent ways of thinking. Stories of migration to Australia are also ones we tell. The Salon and Dining rooms, where food and drink are served on the ground floor, are our loving salute to the often over-the-top living rooms of Greeks and Italians who arrived here post WWII. In these rooms we have collected a number of mid-century furniture pieces. Central to the space is the work of European cabinetmakers of the likes of Paul Kafka and Michael Gerstl. We acquired these pieces through our close friendship with Ken Neale who spent the last 25 years on an object and furniture hoarding spree that took him all over Australia and New Zealand.
As custom-made pieces without a label or maker’s mark, their origins were not easy to trace. Through much research however their stories have unfolded. They tell of the postwar homes they once occupied, but also of the craftspeople who made them. We are drawn to these pieces for their familiarity as well as their craftsmanship. We like how they morphed, slightly awkward, to take on ‘Australian’ attributes – as an animal might evolve over time when taken from its natural habitat and placed into a foreign environment. These pieces seem odd when compared to those from Europe. Their oddity makes them beautiful – you can see the hand of the maker; they aren’t machine-made carbon copies. They are imperfect and uniquely human.
Through The Other Moderns, we have learnt more about this furniture, its patrons and producers. We are proud to support this valuable resource in a field where so little information has previously been available. These stories of European designers working in Sydney we believe will be an Australian design reference – the first contribution to what we hope will be a growing body of knowledge.
Reading the The Other Moderns I cannot help but think of the enormous contribution migrants make to our society. While the book comments on a specific subset of our migrant population, the same is true of arrivals from all countries and of all vocations. A timely message as we push to welcome a new generation of migrants and refugees to Australia.
For when we share, we have more.