Australian industrial and furniture designer Roger McLay was among the first generation of Australian designers taught by the Australian technical colleges during the early to mid-20th Century. His contemporaries include Grant Featherstone, Francis Burke, Alister Morrison, and Gordon Andrews.
Childhood and Early Education
McLay was born in North Sydney, Australia in 1922. At the age of 15, he was apprenticed by John Sands, a greeting card manufacturer. At his apprenticeship, McLay learned lithography, a printing method, which was his first foray into design. During the same time, he also attended an Australian technical college, one of the first to do so, where he studied painting and drawing. Among his instructors at the technical college were Charles Meere, Noel Kilgour and William Dobell, renowned artists at the time. McLay apprenticed by John Sands and studied at the technical college from 1938 to 1941. His education, however, was put on hold by the coming of the Second World War.
World War II and Afterward
When the Second World War began in 1939, Roger McLay was still in school. He left school in 1942 to enlist in the Royal Australian Air Force or RAAF. He saw service in both North Africa and Europe until the end of the war. It was during this time in the RAAF that McLay got interested in industrial design. The story goes that, while he was on his way to Europe to join the RAAF in 1942, he had a stopover in New York. There, he saw in the foyer of one of the museums in the city a display of industrial designer Raymond Loewy. What McLay saw was the famous Studebaker motor car revolving on a lighted pedestal. After the war, McLay went back to school and completed his education in 1947.
Soon after the end of World War II, McLay started freelancing as a designer. It was during this time that his talent for designing and constructing came to fore. However, post-war 1940s was a tough time for emerging designers. While the talent pool during that time was large, the opportunities for new designers were few and far between. Still, McLay opened his first studio known as the Gloucester Street Studio. To cut costs, he shared the studio with two other artists/designers: Alistair Morrison and Dennis Gray.
The only work that was available for designers in post-war Australia were mostly freelance, and McLay took what he could get. In the early years of his career, McLay mostly worked for advertising companies. On one of his freelance jobs, he met Douglas Annand, a graphic artist and designer who was also having a hard time getting clients during the said period.
In 1948, McLay started to get recognition, mostly for the chair he designed called the “Kone” chair. Initially, the said chair was developed and sold through his Gloucester Street Studio. It was an instant hit with the Modernist community at the time, and its popularity quickly spread. In 1950, the “Kone” chair won an award from the Interior Design Society. The win made the chair more popular than ever, and demand increased as more and more commercial retailers wanted it. This chair cemented Roger McLay’s status as one of the greatest Australian designers of the time.
Move to England
In the mid-fifties, with the “Kone” chair’s popularity in full swing, McLay licensed the design to Descon Laminates. The company would produce the chair until it closed in 1960 due to financial difficulties. At the same time, Roger McLay and his family moved to London, England to pursue more design work. He and his family stayed in England until they returned to Australia in 1960.
Back In Australia
When McLay came back to Australia from England, he set up his design consultancy. From the time he came back until his retirement in 1987, McLay had many clients and did a great variety of jobs. Those jobs included the interiors for the Sebel Townhouse and the Commonwealth Bank, the design of the logo for the AGC Insurance company. He also designed packaging for a hardware company, and he also did some landscaping. He worked with a lot of companies during the span of his career, often anonymously.
Roger McLay retired from design work in 1987 after working for years in his Neutral Bay studio situated in the harbourside suburb of North Sydney, Australia. He passed away in 2000.
The “Kone” Chair
Roger McLay’s “Kone” chair was the most celebrated of all his work. Designed in 1948, the chair was made from a single piece of aircraft grade laminated plywood molded into a conical shape and attached to a metal base. The legs were also made from metal although some versions had wooden legs. The chair was a marvel of post-war design, using many materials and techniques that came about during the war. The plywood used in the initial designs were the same kind intended for use with the “Mosquito” aircraft made by the De Havilland company. Initially, it was sold only from McLay’s Gloucester Street Studio, but it became so popular after it won the 1950 Interior Design Award that it later became commercially available. It is still in production to this day. The “Kone” chair has now become an integral part of contemporary furniture design.
Roger McLay was not only a designer; he was also a builder. He had remarkable technical skills that he used to build the designs that he made himself. This gave him a lot of freedom in his creations. He was also very versatile both in his use of materials and his designs. He is well-known for his use of different materials like glass, wood, aluminum, steel, and concrete in his creations. Often, he would not limit himself with one material, but mix and match them to make new ways to design and create. He was a product of his time though, as all his contemporaries were doing the same. He started his career during a time when new materials and new techniques were just coming out, and he made good use of them.
Roger McLay may not be as prominent a figure as some of his contemporaries like Grant Featherstone, but he did leave his mark on the Australian design landscape. His “Kone” chair was well-received and is still well-regarded to this day. In fact, Kone chairs are still in production and perhaps will be for a long time to come. Roger McLay’s designs have been archived at the Powerhouse Museum in Australia, preserving his legacy and making it available for the generations to come.