The Powerhouse is the perfect museum for ‘The 80s Are Back’. After all, the museum is itself an artefact of the 80s, one of Sydney’s major statements of ‘the design decade’. Its interior and exhibition design displayed a level of sophistication and consistency unprecedented in an Australian museum.
‘The 80s Are Back’ includes some pieces which were on display when the PHM opened in 1988. These include the Carlton room divider/bookcase designed by Ettore Sottsass, founder of the Memphis design collective.
The photo shows this signature statement of postmodernism in the ‘Style’ exhibition in 1988, together with Sottsass’ Treetops floor lamp, which also features in ‘The 80s Are Back’. The ‘Style’ fit out was designed by Iain Halliday, then barely out of design school, one of several young designers whose reputation was boosted by work at the new museum. As part of Burley Katon Halliday, he is now one of Sydney’s design eminences, with a portfolio which expanded from interiors to complete buildings.
Also on display in ‘The 80s Are Back’ is a credenza (or sideboard) designed by Halliday for the PHM boardroom on the top floor of the museum building.
Unlike the Memphis works, this piece of 80s flamboyance has not been seen before in public. Together with a large meeting table, the credenza was intended to complement the decorative boardroom interior designed by project architect Lionel Glendenning. As well as being a talking point, the table was to be democratic, not creating any sense of hierarchy among those meeting around it.
The furniture was typical of 1980s design in being expressive and sculptural as well as highly crafted, and combining a range of exotic and prosaic materials. These included silver ash, birch, Macassa ebony veneer and marble as well as aluminium, steel and brass. However when installed in the boardroom, the commissioned furniture quickly became a source of controversy. The surface of the table was damaged at its first meeting, and the Knoll chairs purchased for the boardroom did not interact well with the table.
More generally, the size (more than six metres long) of the table made it impractical to move, meaning that the boardroom could not be used for larger functions or meetings.
By August 1988 a Liberal government had been elected in NSW,new trustees had been appointed to the Museum board andTerence Measham had been appointed as Acting Director. According to Measham,
the Board of Trustees loathed the Halliday board room table with a passion and immediately ordered me to get rid of it…The Trustees were unanimous. Not even the art/design Trustees defended the table… I was a very new Director and dragged my feet over this matter but at the next meeting they were incensed at my falure to carry out their wishes and made it clear that the matter was urgent and not negotiable. As a newly appointed Director I was aware that my terms of employment required me to carry out their orders. Publicly, I wore the blame…
[Communication with the acquiring curator, December 2009]
After a few months use, the furniture was disassembled and placed in storage. Plans were made to display it in the ‘Style’ exhibition, but curators refused to acquire it into the collection, hoping that it would be returned to its original purpose.
The furniture’s banishment resulted not from a failure of its design, which created the ‘jewel’ furniture sought by the brief. Similarly, the museum’s management was facing the challenges posed by the first major multi-disciplinary museum launched in Australia for decades, a status which tested the new building against a new set of practicalities including the need to gain revenue from hire of theatres and other spaces. The boardroom was not the only space to undergo change as a result.
Over two decades, the boardroom furniture gained something of a mythic reputation, an artefact of the heady 80s when the museum was a pioneer of the possibilities of museums and a high profile promoter and product of the best of Australian design. In 2009 I decided to acquire the furniture into the collection, and hopefully to display it in ‘The 80s Are Back’.
No photos could be found of the furniture during its stay in the boardroom. Its reassembly at Castle Hill store produced some surprises notably that the credenza was a larger piece than realised. The lower section consists of two refrigerated spaces beneath a row of drawers, but it was found that the credenza also featured an upper section containing a set of glass shelves within a curved Craftwood wall and intricate folding doors.
The brass mesh enclosure creates the impression of a postmodern Kalgoorlie safe.
Beautifully made, controversial and striking, the boardroom credenza is back.