POST WAR AUSTRALIA - BOYD'S FEATURISM
Boyd began describing his return to Australia by air in the late 1950s
with the sun’s rising over the Arafura Sea:
route to the east coast, the passenger passes
Never-Never is “hard, raw, barren, and blazing” yet “deceptively
soft about its water-colour tints of pinks and umbers”; its trees are
“blue-grey” on a “red” field. The red centre blows “a wind of
oven intensity” into the cities, just as the outback “colours all
folk-lore and the borrowed aboriginal mythology”.
had not ended his second page of The
Australian Ugliness before shifting to his theme. At Darwin
terminal, he sighted
defined Featurism as
simply a decorative technique, it starts in concepts and extends upwards
through the parts of the numerous trimmings. It may be defined as the
subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected
Boyd went on to survey
the sprawl of Featurism during the post-war years, spicing his narrative
with moral injunction and aesthetic condemnation. His strengths in this
book were to carry his analysis beyond design and style across to
Featurism’s sources in the economy, the human condition and nature,
all as experienced in Australia. His handling of each element in this
triad limited his effort to show how the three interacted.
Boyd had had to learn
his way into recognising Featurism. His F-word had not appeared in Australia’s
Home in 1952 when he once or twice used “feature” in its
everyday sense, grouping these examples together as “Stylism”, or
relating them to “Eclecticism” as a design principle.
Architects had provided precedents, whether cast-iron lacework or
veneer. In Australia’s Home,
Boyd had emphasised the cultural import of the veneer saw, which, after
1867, encouraged a surface appeal in place of the qualities of solid
Yet, he did not integrate that material practice with Featurism as a
mentality. Instead, he played with words, linking the good and the true
with the beautiful: “Most of the Australian veneer has been applied in
the name of beauty, and most of it gave to its designer and owner a
brief moment of pleasure, like any bad habit.”
Despite such side-stepping, Boyd broke from his previous notions. A less
fertile intellect would have reduced Featurism to a moment within
Stylism or Eclecticism.
Two days later, Howard
Joseland addressed the Architectural Section on “The Grotesque in
Modern Developments of the Picturesque”. Joseland confined his remarks
to Australia’s domestic architecture, condemning its “bride-cake”
flaunting of wealth. As in the Renaissance, a “grotesque of
‘unrest’ and confusion of styles” had “run riot”. For him, the
picturesque pleased the eye without aspiring to grandeur. “The ease
with which the more ornamental features of a building may be
multiplied” meant that many suburban houses looked as though an
amateur had tried to fit “a variety of features”, “fads” and
“eccentricities” into a kind of plan before working “in some pet
bit of design”. Joseland called on his unhappy profession to recognise
that “architecture … should be a natural expression, not only in
general conception, but in detail, of the requirements of the times in
which we live”.
At the 1902 AAAS
Congress, John Sulman carried Joseland’s disgust at the
“indiscriminate piling up of features” into “a tilt at the
ordinary drawing-room, which is crammed with knick-knacks … It is
inartistic, as the eye is absolutely confused and bewildered by the
multiplicity of petty objects” available in “the era of cheap
frivolities”. Sulman called on Australians to emulate the Japanese,
“the most artistic race of the world”, by displaying one work of art
at a time.
decoration’s sake on the exteriors of individual buildings had
provoked Nagle and Joseland. The President of the Institute of
Architects of New South Wales, J. B. Barlow, feared a loss of inner-city
precincts, such as the picturesqueness bequeathed to Sydney by its
“narrow crooked streets”. He proposed the appointment of experts to
a Council-General of Public Buildings, as in Paris.
Thirty years on, in
1929, the arbiters of visual taste in Melbourne picked up Barlow’s
concern about streetscapes. A number of new city buildings were neither
sympathetic to their environs nor in keeping with English traditions.
The painter Arthur Streeton joined in dismissing the State Theatre, on
Flinders Street, as a
“Confection in Saracenics”. The “advertising
cupidity” of the cinema proprietor combined with the “individual
caprice” of the architect to spoil an entire block. The facades and
interiors of Movie Palaces complemented the excess of emotion that made
people such as Streeton scorn motion pictures, especially from
Hollywood. Once more, the solution was to call for the rule of experts
who, by this time, were shadowed by Mussolini’s subordinating the
Greek ideal of individualism to the Roman concept of community.
“No junk” cried G.
H. Garnett in the September 1929 Gibsonia Gazette when promoting “Colour in Furnishing and
Decoration”. Since he dismissed “futuristic accomplishments”,
Garnett accepted that Australians were stuck with styles left over from
the Victorian era. Despite this starting point, he rhapsodised about a
Californian bungalow “with a grey, black and orange living room,
touched with emerald green, and from there into an emerald green, black
and white sun parlour; and through the opposite doorway into a brilliant
blue, black and canary dining-room.” Two more paragraphs exulted in
the owners’ disposition of colour to compensate for the want of good
pictures. Colour accents could dispel mediocrity only after a clearing
out of bric-a-brac and
curiosities: “the clutter of trivial and futile objects are mute
declarations of the insincerity of their creator’s pretensions to good
taste and refinement in other decorations”. The Japanese – “our
artistic peers” - showed the way by highlighting one object at a time.
whether indoors and out, were not peculiar to the years between the
writing of Boyd’s two books. Indeed, In October 1949, the organizers
of a design exhibition entitled “Yesterday, To-day, Tomorrow” could
poke fun at a floral toilet from the 1890s but “had the greatest
difficulty in filling even the ‘To-day’ sections with inoffensive
products”. What was different
about the 1950s that helped Boyd move from stray remarks about
“features” to crystallising “Featurism”?
The short-hand answer
is that do-it-yourself building, fibro and plastics created a new
context. One half of all new homes were built, in part, by their owners.
One half of all new dwellings completed in New South Wales during 1956
were of fibro. Some householders had neither the time nor the money to
add features of any kind. Others applied features to distract from their
“often utilitarian and unimaginative” designs..
When they did so, plastics materials were both inexpensive and offered
more and stronger colours. Even with a growth of installment credit from
£70m. in 1950 to £472m. by 1959,
Australians could not afford all of the private affluence of
Galbraith’s society until after1962, by which time import controls had
of “Featurism” owed more to these material factors than to the
opinions of his architectural predecessors outlined above. Even his
bower-bird researches seem not to have attracted him to these
controversies. Rather, the strands of prior criticism raise a more
intriguing question: to what extent had several decades of meretricious
construction and mendacious design taught the public to embrace a
disjuncture between structure and surface as a mark of aesthetic
have suffered the fate that he warned lay in await for all radical
ideas. Hence, “kitsch” has been reduced to a synonym for vulgar,
just as Boyd’s Featurism was soon equated with ugliness and
Greenberg in 1939 was
drifting away from an equalitarian politics towards an hieratic
aesthetic. Despite Boyd’s often acerbic, though rarely cynical
judgements, he never surrendered the democratic impulse apparent in his
newspaper advice for small homebuilders. He always wanted for as many
Australians as possible the designs that he took to be the best.
“Why?” is always a
tougher ask than “what?” or even “how?” Because Boyd knew that
he had to respond in terms of time and place, he offered a three-part
invention: first, a booming economy; secondly, the European settlers’
reaction to a hostile environment; and thirdly, an existential
maladjustment to the previous pair.
Boyd avoided several
difficulties in his treatment by slipping back and forth between the
three, covering his tracks with a prose Featurism. For instance, he
concluded The Australian Ugliness
by declaring that Featurism began “with fear of reality, denial of the
need for every day environment to reflect the heart of the human
problem, satisfaction with veneer and cosmetic effects. It ends in
betrayal of the element of love and a chill near the root of national
self-respect”. This flourish cannot conceal - let alone bridge - the
gap between Lawrence’s psycho-social and Stephensen’s spirit of
Boyd’s Featurism was
not confined to his prose style. His campaigns for “good design” had
opened his Stegbar windows for the Featurists. Foremost had been his
commitment to pre-fabrication in domestic architecture; secondly, he
championed innovative house plans against municipal building inspectors;
thirdly, he designed a brightly coloured “Sunshine” house for a
Homes show in 1951; finally, his Japanese aesthetic could be turned into
Featurism, from an avant-garde purification to an overcoat of kitsch.
Boyd remained utopian
about the factory-made house as he advocated ever more of the
standardisation that had allowed decent dwellings to become affordable,
thereby overcoming the shortages and slums that had been the prime
target of urban planners during his formative years.
Yet this simplification continued to deprive more workers than cabinet
makers of fulfilling labour, thus laying the foundations for the
repackaging of individual creativity as a glamourous personality.
Boyd’s commitment to prefabrication helped him to understand that
patterns of consumption followed the dictates of mass production. Hence,
he argued that the ugliness of Featurism would be combated more by
exemplary design than through attacks on “taste”.
Secondly, Boyd enthused at Sidney Ancher’s 1947 victory over the Warringah Shire Council, which had wanted to conceal a flat roof in order to maintain the “pleasant and pleasing” character of its suburb. Boyd attacked this wish to uphold individualism as a kind of conformity to a social environment rather than as display of inventiveness. Excited by “the rights of the individual to roof according to his conscience”, he ignored the opportunities that the court case gave to those individualists, personal or corporate, who wanted to flaunt their egos or decorate a pure form for a quick return on their investment. His fondness for Ancher’s and Harry Seidler’s clean Modern designs overwhelmed his apprehension that what he was up against was not bad designs but corporate promotion of them.
Our understanding of
the interplay between developments towards flatness in fine art and
their mass production in home decoration is not likely to be advanced by
chasing after which came first, or pronouncing which is the more
meretricious. The spirit of the time feeds off a material reproduction
of its hieratic elements. Greenberg’s kitsch
installed a visual demotic from which more artists accepted his avant-garde
precepts as the norm; succeeding generations could carry them further,
whether into Minimalism or POP. Meyer Shapiro appreciated the
disjunctures that mark the making of art and taste in any period:
The third stimulus that
Boyd gave to Featurism was the riot of primaries in the “Sunshine
House”, which he had built for the Jubilee Better Homes and
Housekeeping Exhibition in Melbourne in 1951:
is a vital factor in the home which is totally ignored in the vast
majority of cream-lined houses.
course, the “Sunshine House” colors offend … because they are
strong and determined and express a point of view instead of a neutral,
you don’t like any of the sometimes startling colours in this house,
do not immediately reject the principle of using colour in strength.
Rather, consider the same room decorated with some of your favourite
colours at the same tonal strength.
Boyd’s reviling of the Cream Australia policy blinded him to the possible consequences of giving the seal of good housekeeping to a bazaar of colours which merchandisers could exploit when “loose coins in every pocket jingle eagerly to be spent on novel, exciting surface effects”.
contribution to his despised “Featurism” was even less intentional.
On the one hand, the habit of Victorian clutter had instilled a
preference for adding bits to pieces, which led to living room
Featurism. On the other, the proffered antidote of a Japanese aesthetic
could justify the home decorator’s sticking one treasured object in a
prominent place, thereby creating a higher-form of Featurism.
Place and Transition
After the Second World
War, material shortages obliged homemakers to grab at whatever goods
became available, a transitory circumstance which supplied the austerity
in Boyd’s vision of Australia as “Austerica”. The backend of that
neologism pointed to the affluence flaunted from across the Pacific.
Lawrence had left
Australia for the United States in 1922 obsessed with a threat from the
masses, whether coloured or white. Boyd flew back to Australia in the
late 1950s fearful that the worst of U.S. commercialism would swamp the
best of Australian creativity. In Boyd’s 1967 Boyer Lectures, Artificial Australia, he announced that he “would rather a
first-hand Australian failure than another second-hand success”.
In the floodtide of assimilationist policies, few Australian residents
doubted that they could recognise what was “Australian”. Boyd was
less sure that those accepted definitions dealt in realities. He had
rounded off Australia’s Home
in 1950 by lamenting that the Wild Colonial Boy was selling used cars.
The musical Reedy River in
1953, like Russel Ward’s The
Australian Legend in 1958,
read the funeral rites over the bush Australian they celebrated.
Modernisation moved ever more jobs to the cities. In Summer
of the Seventeenth Doll (1955), Roo had to chase work in a paint
factory because he was over the hill as a cane-cutter.
Recurrent squeezes on
credit from panics over the balance of payments meant that the 1950s
were a boom only if compared with the fifty years after the bust of the
1890s. Boyd reported that that earlier expansion had been expressed in
“equally intense, but heavier, richer colours in wall paper and gilded
He did not ask why two booms summoned different treatments of colour and
décor. He could have done so by bringing in other elements with which
he was familiar, namely, mass production and prefabrication. In the
1950s, these technologies operated within different economic structures
from the boom of the 1880s. More of the commodities were becoming
available to a larger portion of the populace. In Australian
Ugliness, he alleged that “[s]trident colour is a direct popular
cultural expression of easy living. It is a reflection of the money in
the modern pocket”.
Hence, he knew that Featurism had not emerged fully formed from
When Boyd perceived the
Featurism as “a symptom of maladjustment in modern society’,
he was pointing to some canker in the social order, not a pandemic of
personal flaws. Yet he did not adopt a coherent critique of either
modern society, or any of the maladjustments it generated.
He gave little attention to whether the needs of oligopolising capitals
were displacing satisfaction with the superficial. Greenberg had picked up enough historical materialism from the
swirl of radical ideas across 1930s Manhattan to assert that the
dynamics of capitalism had erased the conditions for making folk
culture. Businesses responded to the cultural vacuum that had been
created under the mechanising of work by supplying commodity culture as
diversion. Kitsch could be “turned out mechanically” as “an
integral part of our productive system”. Boyd’s Fabianism offered no
comparable guide to capitalism, especially in the Cold War atmosphere of
1950s Melbourne. He had been very daring to be as critical as he was of
consumerist values and U.S. influences.
During Boyd’s first
study tour overseas in 1950 he had learnt that “[e]very country has
its own special habits in vulgarity”, the Scandinavians included.
This recognition meant that he had to ponder why Featurism flourished
“more than ever at this place?” By way of explanation, Boyd slid
from one supposed universal, that of a human condition, to another, that
of humankind’s place in the natural world, though he attached this
universal to Australian elements:
Instead of challenging
the Dead Heart or the Red Centre, the settlers had perched on the
periphery, clinging to the littoral for living space, but dependent on
the Outback for their mythopoeic. Demographic fact found its equivalent
in decorative flaw. By treating physical reality as a metaphor, Boyd
blocked his explanation rather than advancing it.
For Boyd, nature was a static external, not the subject of labours that
transformed those who worked on it.
The soft spots in
Boyd’s account of Featurism become clearer by bringing into single
focus his discussions of nature and of paints and plastics.
Despite giving numerous instances of how plastics provided vehicles for
colour as the standard bearer of Featurism, he never articulated its
linkages to what the trade welcomed as “pretty polly”.
When he was not taking the connection between colours and plastics for
granted, he seemed overwhelmed by “the horror, the horror”, as in
his portrait of an Australian home where bright plastics had a room of
their own in which to go feral:
By 1967, Boyd was
Artificial blooms were
nothing new. Their novelty as
plastics was to intensify the hues and extend the durability compared
with paper or fabric ones. Boyd never considered that
roses and lawns were also a mark of Featurism in his sense of
challenging nature only to the extent of prettifying it. The tidiness of
the 1920s garden path was as much an instance of settlers’ bowing down
before the untamed continent as was their “Faith in paint”.
To criticise Boyd for
not delving more deeply into the sources of Australia’s 1950s
Featurism cannot deny his achievement. Boyd was out there, almost by
himself, even in his own profession, which the academic architectural
historian, J. M. Freeland, characterised for its “anarchy” and “no
philosophy” in the early 1950s.
Australia was not an intellectual desert, yet the watering holes were
still few and far between, especially for anyone who wanted to examine
the middle-class on its own terms.
On that terrain, novelists such as his uncle Martin were still a rich
source, though kept pure by the censors. Boyd had no Lewis Mumford
against whom to sharpen his perceptions. In asking a jovial English
visitor, John Betjeman,
to pen the “Foreword”, Boyd preferred a “second-hand success” to
a “first-hand failure”.
Robin Boyd became less
certain than many Australians that first-hand successes were likely
beyond the playing fields. While he was deploring Featurism in 1960,
Prime Minister Menzies could assure a reporter for Time that “[w]hen I was a boy there was a distinctly colonial
flavour to Australia. Now we are developing an outlook peculiar to
Australia. We are becoming more significant”.
In the same week, an immigrant correspondent for several European
publications, Egon Varro, alleged that Australians measured such
significance by proving that everything they did was the biggest in the
Australian Ugliness appeared, a new round of creativity was being
headlined by Johnny O’Keeffe, Patrick White, Judith Wright and Sid
Nolan. During the Sixties, literature, performance, film and fine music
budded, even blossomed, until commentators spoke of a New Nationalism.
Australians published more about ourselves, from The
Lucky Country (1964) onwards. De-dominisation proceeded through the
Menzies years until his 1964 wish to call the decimal currency “the
Royal” appeared preposterous.
“Home” no longer meant the United Kingdom. Bernard Smith proposed
that the hand-me-down failure, the “Queen Anne” villa, be re-branded
a first-hand success as “Federation Style”.
The British Garrison of bishops, editors and headmasters, which
Stephensen excoriated, had mostly departed, although the professoriate
remained British, when not North American.
Instead of emulating
Vance Palmer’s cool reappraisal in 1957 of the legend of the Nineties,
Robin Boyd let fly at the 1960s with his nightmarish The
Great Great Australian Dream (1972). The “world conscious
Australian”, Boyd recorded, knew that his fellows were not searching
for a national identity but were in flight from its reality as “a
protruding beer belly and a receding brain”,
characteristics that Max Harris disparaged as Ockerism.
Here Boyd was close to Lawrence’s view of Australians as empty.
Boyd’s earlier critique of suburbia had coincided with the satire of
Barry Humphries. Sandy Stone’s Cream-and-Green Australia policy gave
way to an era of plastics well before Edna’s dress sense epitomised
Featurism. If Boyd became angry because Australians would not learn
quickly enough to resist the vile aspects of mass production, Humphries
turned nasty because they absorbed them so quickly. Boyd voiced
frustrated hope against the resentful nostalgia of Humphries.
Boyd, Australian Ugliness,
p. 22; see my article on Boyd, Age,
2 February 2002, Extra, p. 6.
19 October 1929, p. 7; see
Ross Thorne, Picture Palace Architecture in Australia, Sun-Academy, South
Melbourne, 1976; in the 1930s, cinemas became a means of introducing
Australians to art deco.
January 1959, p. 12; Boyd, Australian
Ugliness, chapter 5; see also Gilbert Herbert, The
Dream of the Factory-Made House, Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann,
MIT Press, Boston, 1985.
is among the Formalesque’s contributions to both kitsch and
Featurism. If art is genuine only when it imitates the effects of
art, then once those effects are detached from representation they
become more readily available for purposes that Greenberg despised.
Equally, one could ask whether Featurism was Post-Modernism avant
Meyer Shapiro, Romanesque Art,
Chatto & Windus, London, 1977, pp. 2-3.
30 October 1951, p. 7. Although Boyd confined his attack to the
misuse of colour as a Featurist device, it is possible that his
architectural training and Modernist preferences left him suspicious
about the worth of colour. David Batchelor has documented how colour
has been associated with the primitive and the cosmetic, from Plato
to Le Cobusier, Chromophobia,
Reaktion, New York, 2000.
 Boyd, Australian
Ugliness, p. 113.
 Boyd, Australian
Ugliness, p. 44.
Boyd, Australian Ugliness,
p. 23. Neither Boyd nor Australians were unusual in turning to
Nature to avoid explaining cultural experiences in terms of social
conflict. Long before the Pathetic Fallacy of the Romantics,
philosophers and poets had resorted to biological analogies for
social organisations which were seen to mimic the life of plants or
the stages of human development from infancy to maturity. The latter
metaphor pervaded Australian economic policy with cries to protect
“infant industries” while Gallipoli marked the “birth” of
the national consciousness. MARILYN
 Stephen Jay Gould
examined the contribution of metaphors to scientific inquiry, Time’s
Arrow Time’s Cycle, Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of
Geological Time, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.,
Ugliness, p. 17. Plastics plants were on sale here by 1951, AP,
October 1951, p. 11.
 The Australian Ugliness appeared in the same year as R. M. Crawford’s slender Australian Perspective (1960) which promoted the contribution of the middle-classes. Although sociology was under a cloud at the University of Melbourne, Boyd could have made more of the publications by its social researchers, or S. J. Butlin’s reinterpretation of nineteenth-century Australian economic history away from pastoralism and mining towards the dynamics of urban construction. Otherwise, analysis and history were mostly at the essay stage, for example, The Australian Way of Life (1953), J. D. Pringle’s Australian Accent (1958), A. A. Phillips’s The Australian Tradition (1958), and Australian Civilisation (1962). Horne cobbled together pieces of his journalism for the The Lucky Country (1964).
 For Boyd’s
appreciation of Betjeman see Serle, pp. 208-09.