Rose Seidler House guidebook
Rose Seidler House Wahroonga 1948-50Rose Seidler House was the first commission for internationally renowned architect Harry Seidler. It was built in 1948-50 for his parents Rose and Max, who lived there until 1967. The house retains a close relationship with two neighbouring Seidler houses on part of the original 2.6 hectare family estate of natural bushland overlooking the Ku-ring-gai National Park.
One of the finest examples of mid-century modern domestic architecture, the house contains a collection of original furniture by important post-war designers Eames, Saarinen and Hardoy.
Awarded the Sulman Medal in 1952, it has been a highly influential house, stimulating much social comment and intellectual debate. The house, contents and grounds have been carefully restored to the controversial 1950 scheme.
Mid-Century ModernThe outstanding feature of Rose Seidler House is that it is one of the purest examples of mid-century modern domestic architecture in Australia.
The term mid century modern refers to the work of the generation of young architects who emerged from American universities in the late 1940s. They were taught by the leading modernists of the 1920s Bauhaus: Walter Gropius, Josef Albers and Marcel Breuer. Among them was Harry Seidler who was imbued with the new philosophy when he designed Rose Seidler House in 1948-50. It combined the new architecture of space, the unity of arts and architecture, the new vision of abstraction in the visual arts and the new technology of structural engineering and industrial design.
This holistic design theory and practice determined the use of form, space, materials, colour, fittings, interiors and landscaping. Rose Seidler House should be viewed as a total sculpture based on the 'tensional opposition' of these elements. The sculptural form of the house, of interest from any angle, departs from the traditional notion of a house as a decorated box. We can imagine it as a cube, with a section cut away below and another cut from the centre to form the sun deck. The solid walls of the traditional house are replaced by glass, and this 'floating' skeletal form is anchored to the ground by slender columns and the 'tentacles' of the ramp, stone walls and louvre screen.These are all part of the total sculpture.
Open PlanningsThis need for flexibility and craving for spatial freedom has found its expression in what can be termed in a general way 'open planning', the free flowing flexibly subdivided floor space of a building (Harry Seidler 1954)
Rose Seidler House demonstrates the Breuer concept of a bi-nuclear floor plan. The house is divided into two distinct zones: the living or public areas (dining, lounge, kitchen) and the sleeping or private areas (bedrooms, bathrooms). These zones are linked by a flexible transitional zone of playroom, stairs and sun deck, which can be used to extend either public or private areas, depending on the occasion.
For example, the living and dining areas can be extended into the playroom and sun deck by opening the glass sliding door and the brown divider curtain and closing the bedroom sliding doors. Alternatively, the divider curtain can be drawn across to allow private movement between bedrooms and playroom, and the deck can be entered from the main bedroom.
This spatial freedom is reinforced by the use of other functional and flexible dividers to replace conventional walls. The kitchen servery, the fireplace and key pieces of furniture help to define the changing focus and function of a space. A traymobile and folding table add to this flexibility.
Inside-OutsideThe ample ground and a desire to avoid a single outlook only, resulted in a building which is freely exposed on all sides so that varying views of the surroundings become part of the interior (Harry Seidler 1954)
Seidler rejects the suburban convention of a house front facing the street. Rose Seidler is sited in the centre of the block. There are six external doors that give each room easy access to a related outdoor area: timber sun deck, flagged terrace, play area or service area.
Each room, with the exception of the main bathroom, has a view. In the functional service areas glazing extends up from waist height. In other areas, floor to ceiling glazing allows panoramic views of the surrounding bushland. These glazed walls appear as giant green murals during the day; hence no green colour is used in the house. At night they become giant black mirrors or textured walls when the curtains are drawn.
While external shades are provided on the northern windows, there is no doubt that Seidler, in his first Australian house, underestimated the need for protection from our summer sun. However, good cross ventilation is provided by the steel casement windows set into each glass wall.
Furniture and FurnishingsAll the furniture and furnishings in Rose Seidler House are arranged as Seidler designed them in 1950 to 1967. Most of the furniture is original, either bought from the New York showrooms of Herman Miller and Knoll International or designed by Seidler in Australia expressly for the house. It forms one of the most important post-war design collections in Australia.
The plywood and chrome dining and lounge chairs were designed in 1945 by Charles Eames and manufactured by Herman Miller. Eero Saarinen designed the two styles of upholstered chairs, which were manufactured by Knoll International. The Grasshopper chair has an all-in-one seat supported by curved plywood arms and legs. The womb chair of 1948 is one of the earliest uses of moulded fibreglass in furniture construction.
The canvas sling Hardoy chairs, designed by Ferrari-Hardoy in Argentina in 1938, were mass produced by Knoll International in the 1940s. The black and white original was brought to Australia by Seidler; the others were the first of many to be reproduced here and grace Australian patios. All other furniture, including the dining table, coffee table, traymobile, desks, cabinets and sofa, were built to Seidler's design by Viennese-born craftsman Paul Kafka.
The furnishings have been reproduced from original samples. Some sections of the original asphalt tile floor in the playroom are intact; others are vinyl replacements. The Brussels weave carpet has been specially dyed. The curtains are made from a triple-pleated polyester rayon designed to give a translucent effect under light, and the scatter cushions are of the same material. The bedspreads are made from an Australian fur fabric.
Design for LivingRose Seidler House demonstrates the modernist axiom that technology can improve the quality of life by functional and flexible design that reflects modern lifestyle. The house as built in 1950 incorporated many examples of modern domestic technology, labour-saving devices, low-maintenance materials and mass-produced products new to Australia (electrical appliances, light fittings, built-in-wardrobes, ironing board and radiogram). The uncluttered interior, lightweight furniture and hard surfaces are easily cleaned, an important feature in the modern servant-less house.
In 1950 the kitchen was one of Australia's best equipped. The very latest model refrigerator, stove and dishwasher were supplemented by waste disposal unit, exhaust fan and Mixmaster. Even the Gents plastic wall clock and the Flint utensil set were the latest in industrial design.
While such kitchens became the norm in subsequent decades, they were beyond the reach of most Australian homemakers in 1950. Indeed at the time it cost more to fit out the kitchen than the rest of the house.
ColourPeople who lead complicated lives (and most of us seem to) cannot be comfortable in a highly colourful interior. (Harry Seidler 1954)
Meticulous attention has been given to reconstructing the original 1950 colour scheme of Rose Seidler House. It is an ideal demonstration of the modernist philosophy of counterpoint and abstraction. It owes much to the influence of Josef Albers whose drawings are the only artworks in the house.
The mural, designed and originally painted by Seidler himself, provides a colourful decorative contrast to the minimalist house interior. But the mural is also a clever code to the colour scheme throughout. The neutral background of light grey (walls and joinery) and mid grey (carpet, windows, bedspreads, playroom wall) is intersected with black lines (wall cabinets, desks, kitchen benches, Hardoy chair frames). These neutrals are counter-pointed with strong accents of: dark brown (asphalt tiles in playroom, kitchen, bathrooms; feature walls in foyer and bedroom, dining room door, playroom divider curtain, upholstery on sofa, lounge chairs and Hardoy chair) and the primary colours (red for the front and kitchen doors and cushions; yellow for the playroom door, curtains, cushions and Hardoy chair; and the blue for the studio wall, curtains, bedspreads and cushions)
To Seidler and other modernists, 'decoration should be of a thing, not on a thing'. Like an abstract painting, the interior scheme of Rose Seidler House is the composition and counterpoint of all its forms, colours and textures, not the embellishment of any one of them.
Garden and GroundsWhere does nature stop and architecture begin, and vice versa? (Harry Seidler 1949)
The unique character of the Rose Seidler House site has been created by the interplay of three seemingly contradictory forces.
Native BushlandThe indigenous cover of the upper slopes of the Ku-ring-gai valley is still evident in large sandstone outcrops, tall stands of eucalypt and bracken and native shrubs. This has suffered more in the 1991 storms than it has in the past forty years.
Modern LandscapingThe driveway, stone retaining walls and manicured lawns were moulded to the architect's design. Bitumen replaced gravel in the 1950s, otherwise the original landscaping remains.
Rose Seidler gardensThe influence of Rose is clear in the area between the bush and the lawn. Over seventeen years she almost single-handedly evolved the eccentric layers of naively built rockeries, exotic plants and flowers, fruit trees and vegetable gardens still evident today. Much of this area has been reclaimed from lantana and privet infestation.
Two other Seidler-designed houses, the Julian Rose House 1950, and the Marcus Seidler House 1949-51, (the latter having a continuous family occupation) were also built on the original 2.6 hectare site. With Rose Seidler House they demonstrate an innovative concept in communal housing and reflect the aspirations and lifestyle of the Seidler family re-united in post-war Australia.
Life in the HouseRose and Max Seidler moved into the completed house in late 1950 after a long construction period due to scarcity of building materials and disagreements with Council. Family recollections are of two very different but equally determined individuals. Max was a businessman in the clothing trade, while Harry fondly remembers Rose as ambitious, fastidious and interested in 'visual and environmental things'.
They faced as architect, an equally determined son, who admits he 'wouldn't allow my poor mother to have anything in the house not consistent with the religion: modernism'. Viennese furniture was sold as unsuitable for the modern home, most of the contents of which Harry had bought in New York before his departure. However, Rose insisted on several Viennese items being retained in the house: an ornate silver cutlery service and a decorated tea set that had pride of place on the traymobile Harry designed to her specifications.
Rose Seidler herself was a modern woman. A superb cook and hostess, she welcomed the house's mod cons when entertaining family, friends and those Harry invited to the architectural functions constantly held at the house. Rose and Max also faced a regular invasion of uninvited visitors who lined the driveway to stare through the glass walls given notoriety by the extraordinary amount of media attention paid to the house: ' house of glass', 'houseful of sunshine', 'houses with legs frighten Sydney homeseekers' and 'all that glass' raved the popular press in the 1950s.
In the mid 1960s Rose became ill and she died in 1967. Shortly after, Max moved to a retirement home where he lived until his death. Thus 1968 marked the end of a seventeen year period of remarkable stability in the character and lifestyle of Rose Seidler House.
From 1968 changes were made in the interior decor as the house underwent several phases of occupancy: from 1968 to 1971 a young family were tenants, and from 1972 to 1980 the tenancy was held by a family member, Elizabeth Evatt.
Discussions began in 1985 with the Historic Houses Trust and the Department of Planning to open the house as a museum. In January 1988 Harry and Penelope Seidler generously gifted Rose Seidler House and its contents to the State as a house museum to be managed by the Historic Houses Trust.
Since 1988 the Historic Houses Trust has undertaken extensive research on Rose Seidler House, compiling physical, pictorial, and documentary evidence. A comprehensive Conservation Plan was prepared in November 1989 detailing this research and outlining a conservation policy and schedule of works to preserve, restore and reconstruct Rose Seidler House as built in 1950 (as this was the condition of greatest cultural significance). An exhaustive program of conservation works has succeeded in restoring the house to its 1950 character as a gem of mid-century domestic architecture in Australia.
Harry SeidlerRose Seidler House was a milestone in Harry Seidler's career, marking the transition from his American training to his Australian practice. He has had a continuous relationship with the house, as architect, interior designer, supervisor of all building work, owner, landlord and honorary consultant to the Historic Houses Trust's restoration.
Harry Seidler was born in Vienna in 1923. The Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938 led him to join his brother Marcell in England where he completed a building course. The outbreak of war in 1939 saw him and his brother interned as 'enemy aliens' and shipped to a Canadian camp.
In 1941 he was released to study at the University of Manitoba where he obtained a Bachelor of Architecture degree with first class honours. After a year of mundane architectural work in Canada he won a scholarship to the Harvard School of Design where he studied under Walter Gropius, former head of the Bauhaus. He left Harvard's 'electrifying atmosphere' with the 'feeling that we were destined to play our part in transforming the visual man-made world'. This commitment to modernism was reinforced by his attendance at the 1946 summer school at Black Mountain College where he studied with Josef Albers, former design teacher at the Bauhaus.
In 1946-48 Seidler was Chief Assistant to Marcel Breuer in his New York office. It was at this point in 1948 that he was enticed to Australia by his mother to design and build Rose Seidler House. He came to Australia via Brazil and contact with the flamboyant Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer.
Seidler arrived in Australia to a family reunion, his first architectural commission (rapidly followed by others), wonder at the Australian landscape and horror at its suburban 'architectural wasteland'. These factors led to his permanent commitment to Australia as home and creative challenge.