Hall Best was an interior design legend in her own luridly coloured lifetime.
Her legacy, it seems, is beginning to gain value over time. The modernist designer, entrepreneur and artists’ friend has been recognised on the State Heritage Register, with the listing of Wollongong’s Regent Theatre and the foyer she created in 1957.
The foyer has her signature deep pink, chartreuse and aquamarine glazed paintwork, works by artists such as Douglas Annand, Gordon Andrews and her sister Dora Sweetapple, and back-lit rice paper pressed with real butterflies.
Murray Brown, from the NSW Heritage Office, says the listing is the first to commemorate the designer, who did very few commercial interiors.
“The Regent Theatre really was her major piece of work and this is the only such listing,” he says. The Friends of the Regent Theatre, which lobbied to have it protected, say it is the only surviving commercial interior by Hall Best.
Friends member Margie Rahmann says the art deco building was an empty shell throughout the 1940s and ’50s until its owners asked Hall Best to make it “draw the crowd and be a financial success”.
The designer, who is fondly remembered for her wild Woollahra shop, was known to stick to her guns. She proudly proclaimed she could not stand the colour beige and brought bold Marimekko fabrics, colourful Kosta Boda glass and fine furnishings by Charles and Ray Eames to Australia.
She also championed local creative personalities such as Andrews – who designed Australia’s first decimal currency – as well as Clement Meadmore and Grant Featherstone. Her dazzlingly coloured designs were not popular with everyone, and her commercial interiors for the Elanora Country Club and the Elizabeth Arden Salon were redone within 18 months of commission.
Hall Best even wrote: “I used to cry at night about it. They said, ‘Marion puts spinach in the paint.’ I was desperately hurt, but I never doubted what I was doing.” She created a business empire importing international design objects and designing residential interiors for Sydney’s wealthy set.
According to The Best Style, a biography by Michaela Richards, Hall Best studied architecture and was one of the first professionals to call herself an interior designer rather than a decorator.
Bryan Fitzgerald, a mid-20th-century-design collector and part owner of Chee Soon Fitzgerald, says Hall Best was Australia’s first truly international designer.
“Up until she came along, everyone wanted something English. She not only brought international design to this country, but also promoted Australian art and design,” he says. “She was also very well connected in Sydney society, so people thought it was very special to have a Marion Hall Best interior.”
Her little shop in Sydney’s bohemian retail quarter of Rowe Street – which was an adjunct to the large Woollahra store – was once a hive of artistic activity courtesy of the art students she employed to serve customers.
Artist Antonia Black, who now lives in London, but worked in the Rowe Street store in the early ’50s, says: “Ma’am created the most wonderful shoe box of a shop with red wallpaper and white Japanese calligraphy.”
The shop, which she ran with her sister Dora, was next door to the fashionable coffee shop Galleria, “and we had an interconnecting door so we could get our iced coffees”, Black says.
“We had no idea that we were selling such wonderful things – we sold Italian glass, Aboriginal artefacts and painters that became very famous later on. Mrs Sweetie [Sweetapple] commissioned me to do a mosaic mural and I would work on it in the store and serve customers in between – it was all rather amusing.”
Fitzgerald is the vice-president of the Rowe Street Society, which is trying to preserve memories and objects from the section of Rowe Street in Sydney’s CBD, where the MLC Centre now stands. He says Hall Best was an example of someone who could marry craft and design to art. “Rather than it all just being something you sell, it makes it something more. The art is really important,” he says.
The Gateway City Church now owns Wollongong’s Regent, and although the church initially opposed the heritage listing, it is happy for design connoisseurs to pay a visit.
“We want to do the grand old lady justice, and plenty of people are inundating us to come and have a look-see,” church spokesman Jonathan Jooste says.
He says there will be an opening ceremony later in the year – which the public can attend – but everyone is welcome to visit the regular Sunday church services at the Keira Street building.
This article was first published in Sydney Morning Herald.