The story of Fred Ward’s design legacy proves that genius and vision will never stay hidden for long. Born in Melbourne and based in Canberra, Ward had a national reputation in the 1930s–1970s as a furniture and interior designer. He was practically forgotten at the time of his death in 1990, but his work now enjoys renewed interest among collectors and the general public.
Ward was considered a pioneer by fellow designers. He created simplified, useable furniture when ornate designs were still the norm. He demonstrated the beauty of unstained native Australian timber when others were imitating the look of European wood. He was creating furniture that took ergonomics into consideration way before it became a fad.
While some of his designs, furniture and even life history have been lost or undocumented, his work is enjoying a comeback. He is an acknowledged icon of modernist design in Australia.
An Unplanned, Successful Career
Born on July 26, 1900, in Melbourne, Frederick Charles Cecil Ward trained at the school of drawing at the National Gallery of Victoria from 1918 to 1920. He then worked as a freelance illustrator and cartoonist for magazines. In 1925, he married Ellinor Roper Martin, with whom he had one son. When he started designing furniture for their house, the result was serendipitous: Friends loved the pieces, even buying “seats from under us.” With this, Ward embarked on a successful new career in furniture design.
Ward developed a training program, including visiting antique shops and attending technical-drawing classes. His influences then were Georgian style, American colonial style, and the Arts and Crafts movement. He put up a furniture and interior design business in 1932. Becoming a follower of European Mid-Century Modern style, he made use of geometry, asymmetry and negative space. He carved his own path, though, by eschewing the trend of imitating heavy European timber using dark stains. He used native Australian timber such as white gum, blackwood, fiddle-back, myrtle and coachwood, seeking to highlight their grain and colour.
His designs have been described as having a simple beauty, pleasing to look at yet streamlined and functional. They seem to have reflected him—quiet and modest with a sense of humour.
His assistant, Cynthia Reed, took over the business, with Ward as her main designer for a time. Their Melbourne group was known as the Heide Circle, consisting of well-known modernist painters, designers and other artists. This connection helped establish Ward as a designer. He showed his furniture in Reed’s gallery and collaborated with other artists, such as painter Sam Atyeo and fabric designers Michael and Ella O’Connell. His furniture was exhibited in art events in Victoria and Melbourne.
He also managed the furniture workshop of Myer Emporium Ltd. In 1934, he launched his ‘austere unit range’ of furniture for Myer. It was a modular system whose pieces could be reconfigured for different uses. It was affordable and a hit during the Depression, making Ward one of the top modernist designers in Australia.
He put his talents to good use during the second world war by helping in the design and manufacture of aircraft. He served with the Department of Aircraft Production on the manufacture of the wood-based Mosquito bomber. He took charge of the plans for the Beaufighter aircraft following specifications from Britain. He also worked with the Commonwealth government and with Allied air forces as a liaison officer.
An important post-war designer, he applied his innovative mind to meeting the needs of the era. That period saw material and labour shortages and inflated prices. From wartime machinery, he developed an improved egg incubator for the poultry industry, as well as cooking ranges. He designed the interior of a new diesel train for the Victorian Railways. To address timber shortages, he created the DIY Patterncraft furniture patterns in the late 1940s, which were available by mail order from Australian Home Beautiful. By following the patterns and using only basic skills and materials, Australians could have affordable yet stylish furniture. Ward also designed the first chair for the famous furniture company Fler Co. Ltd.
Ward lectured in interior architecture at the University of Melbourne from 1949 to 1952. He won the design of the furniture and furnishings of University House, Australian National University (ANU), in Canberra in 1952. As university designer, he had oversight over campus planning as well as furniture and interior design.
After retirement from the ANU in 1961, Ward continued his private practice. Among his clients were the Reserve Bank of Australia, Australian embassies, Admiralty House, Sydney and the National Library of Australia. Australian architect Robin Boyd also commissioned some pieces from Ward.
Organisations and Recognition
Committed to developing and improving the design industry in Australia, Ward helped found the Society of Designers for Industry (1948, renamed Industrial Design Institute of Australia) and the Industry Design Council of Australia (1958). In 1964, the latter awarded him the inaugural Essington Lewis award. In 1970, he was awarded the MBE for his contributions to industrial design.
Sadly, at the time of Fred Ward’s death in 1990, appreciation for his work had waned. The ergonomic revolution was at its height in the 1980s and 1990s, and Ward’s furniture was marked down and sold off to make way for the new designs. At the same time, the trend had turned to loud, bold, flashy pieces. Ward’s clean and functional lines seemed underwhelming and old-fashioned.
Another reason that Ward’s designs faded into the background was that his pieces were created mostly for institutions such as the Reserve Bank, libraries and universities, whereas some of his contemporaries’ products were mass-marketed.
However, his friend and colleague, the designer Derek Wrigley, says that the pieces they designed for the Australian National University were already ergonomic, way ahead of the ergonomic revolution and thus without the label. Wrigley was the head architect at the ANU at the time Ward was the chief designer. In designing furniture, they took into account the needs of the body, such as by adding footrests, lowering the height of desks and modifying chairs to reduce the strain on a person’s legs. According to Wrigley, there had been no need to dispose of the furniture he and Ward had installed—people had been carried away by the so-called revolution. Wrigley has written a biography of Ward entitled Fred Ward: Australian Pioneer Designer, 1900-1990.
Two decades after Ward’s death, collectors and antique lovers are rediscovering the beauty of his style. Its simplicity belies an inventiveness that was decades ahead of the current design. He showed the beauty of unstained Australian timbers. As Wrigley wrote, “Fred’s design ethic was aesthetic honesty, rather than ‘stylish’ or imposed. He created his own designs which are still, after more than half a century, unique to Australia, based on functional need, carefully selected materials, requiring only commonly available machining techniques (necessary for competitive tendering for contracts) and simplicity of appearance and construction.”
Ward’s popularity has grown so much that dealers sometimes wrongly assume wooden furniture from Canberra to be his and sell them at high prices. In 2013, the Gallery of Australian Design held an exhibition of three decades of Ward’s work, while Wrigley also published Ward’s biography. Both developments highlighted an important but undervalued pioneer in Australian modernist design, bringing out the beauty of his streamlined, functional and innovative furniture.