18 February 2017

We’re happy little Vegemites ... as bright as bright can be!

The company Fred Walker & Co. was best known for creating Vegemite, a breakfast product that went on to become an “Australian cultural icon”. I am normally a bit wary of that expression. But I know that as soon as the men came home from WW2 and rationing ended, my own break­fast every day was a soft boiled egg in an eggcup, a slice of bread with Vegemite and yellow cheese, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

So how did it all start? Justus Freiherr von Liebig (1803–1873) was a German chemist who rev­olutionised agricultural chemistry in Hesse. He also founded the Liebig Extract of Meat Co. that produced the world's first beef bouillon cube. von Liebig had discovered that brewer's yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten, a technique that led to the product that was later to become Marmite.

In 1902 the Marmite Food Extract Company was formed in Staffordshire with Marmite as its main product. The by-product yeast needed for the paste was supplied by a local brewery. By 1907 the product had become successful enough to build a second factory in London.

Marmite vs Vegemite

And why did Australians, possibly the most loyal ex-colonials in the entire British Empire, not eat Marmite for breakfast? It appears that Marmite HAD been the yeast spread of choice across Australia from Edwardian days. But supplies imported from Britain were imperilled in WW1 shipping accidents. Even once shipping became safe again from 1919 on, Marmite was hard hit by the changes in world trade. 

So it was not until 1923 that Fred Walker (1884-1935) hired the chemist Dr Cyril P. Callister to develop a yeast extract product specifically for Australian fam­il­ies. After months of laboratory tests in Melbourne, the yeast could be concent­rated, processed and refined, thus becoming a very rich source of Vitamin B. Vegemite was manufactured in a two ounce amber glass jar shaped like a lighthouse, capped with a seal to keep the contents fresh. Labelled “Pure Vegetable Extract”, Vegem­ite was first sold in 1924 and quickly competed well with the very similar Marmite from Britain.

Walker began a partnership with American businessman James Kraft  to manufacture processed cheese in 1925. By 1928 Marmite was outselling its Australian rival and Walker decided to change the name of his product to Parwill. The name had been invented so that a new advertising campaign could be mounted based upon the slogan 'If Marmite, Parwill!' The name Vegemite was quickly brought back!!

By 1930 Walker was chairman of Kraft Walker Cheese Co, a slightly separate company from Fred Walker & Co. He was good at keeping the best staff by providing workers with a social club, morning tea breaks, first aid & canteen facilities.

Being a by-product of beer manufacture, Vegemite might not have been the basis for a great advertising campaign. But that did not matter - it was the taste that made Vegemite so appealing! This yeast vegetable extract was recognised as one of the world's highest food sources of vitamin B.

When Fred Walker sadly died in 1935, the American Kraft Co. absorbed its Australian co-partner. That could have been the end of catering to Australian tastes, but Kraft Foods understood the significance of Vegemite to Australians.

My breakfast throughout the 1950s - soft boiled egg and Vegemite soldiers

Luckily for Kraft, Vegemite was officially endorsed by the British Medical Association as a rich source of B vitamins in 1939. It must have been – the company began advertising in the British Medical Journal!

Just as WW2 erupted in 1939, Vegemite was included in Australia’s army rations! Its marketing strategy put Vegemite in 90% of Australian homes in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, emphasising the value of the spread to children's health. Leftover brewer’s yeast with vitamins became Our Favourite Food Product.

We’re happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be.
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For breakfast, lunch and tea.
Our Mummies say we’re growing stronger
Every single week
Because we love our Vegemite.
We all adore our Vegemite.
We’re growing stronger every week!

This Vegemite ad  first appeared in 1954 on radio and is remembered by every Baby Boomer in the entire nation. Note that TV did not arrive in Australia until November 1956!

In the sophisticated C21st, Vegemite is still produced at Kraft Foods’ plant in Port Melbourne, creating and selling 22 million jars per year. Largely unchanged from Callister’s original recipe, Vegemite still far outsells Marmite. And I assume a small bottle of Vegemite is still carried in the suitcases of Australian travellers, whenever they go abroad.

New Zealanders also love Vegemite. Vegemite was made in New Zealand for 50 years (until 2006), and although New Zealanders eat less of it than Austr­al­ians, the spread is very popular. However many New Zeal­an­ders still prefer Marmite, made at the Sanitarium factory in Christchurch.

A fortnight ago, before I wrote this post, most of my grandchildren were together, behaving well and watching tv. I was delighted and said to them “you all look like Happy Little Vegemites”. How nostalgic is that?


Here is that iconic Australian song Land Down Under, sung by Men At Work (1981).

Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, "Do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

The song went to #1 in Australia in December 1981, topped the New Zealand and Canadian charts in 1982 and reached #1 in the USA, UK and Ireland in 1983.

14 February 2017

Marcel Breuer - modernist designer/architect in Germany, Britain and the USA

Marcel Breuer 1902-81 was born in Pecs, Hungary in 1902, son of a phys­ician. In 1920, when he was looking for a university, Breuer received a scholarship to study art in Vienna but disliked the Art Academy there. He started working in the studio of a Vien­nese archit­ect instead and soon became interested in cabinet making. In 1921 teenage Breuer departed for Bauhaus Academy in Germany.

Bauhaus combined teaching of the pure arts with training in modern funct­ional technology, exactly what Breuer wanted. He received a Bauhaus degree in 1924, then studied architecture in Paris and met Le Corbusier. In 1925, Bauhaus director/architect Walter Grop­ius enticed Breuer to return to Bauhaus (in Dessau), by offering him Young Master­ship of the furniture design workshop and a commission to design the int­eriors of the new Bauhaus buildings.

Tubular steel was affordable, well suited to mass pr­o­d­uct­ion, hygienic and provided comfort without spr­ings - all designs elements essential for modern liv­ing. Breuer’s Wassily Armchair 1925 had a chrome plated tubular steel frame, and the sloping seat & back were leather. Breuer’s Cesca Sidechair 1929 had chrome plated tubular steel frame, while the seat & back were cane.

 Marcel Breuer
sitting in a Wassily Chair that he designed
late 1920s

Breuer and his textile-designer wife eventually left Bauhaus in 1926 to begin a private architecture prac­t­ice in Berlin, emphas­ising prefab­ric­ated housing and the use of conc­rete. In this time Breuer participated in a number of designs, including the Elberfeld hos­p­ital.

Breuer could already be described as one of the most influential furnit­ure designer of the C20th. But he had only had time to be the sole arch­it­ect on one private house before leaving Germany: the Harnisch­macher House in Wiesbaden 1932. Note its contrasting mat­erials and distinctive interiors.

Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933 and the graduates were banned from architecture because of their so-called Bolshevism. So Jewish Breuer emigrated to Britain in 1935.

British Isokon/Isometric Unit Construc­tion Control Co was originally established in Hampstead to make flats, houses and furn­iture. The owner Jack Pritchard and the designer Wells Coates shared a common fascination with the problems of city living in the modern age; both had met Le Corbusier. In 1932 Coates was asked to build a block of service flats in Lawn Rd, Nth London (op­ened 1934), to be fitted out to a standard plan, using Isokon designed furniture. Walter Gropius got to England in Oct 1934 and became Con­troller of Design for Isokon, living in one of the Lawn Road Flats.

Just before he left for the USA in March 1937, Gropius recommended his old Bauhaus mates Marcel Breuer and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy for on-going jobs with Isokon.

Mod­ernism in Britain was different from the Continent. Britons loved trad­it­ional not­ions of comfort and decoration, and the intell­ec­tual side of cos­mop­olitan modernism wasn’t trusted. No extreme metal furniture! So Breuer rejected the tubular steel objects he’d produced at the Bauhaus. At Isokon, he designed laminated plywood pieces of furniture.


The arrival of the Bauhaus teachers in the USA and their training of a new gen­er­ation of American students helped spread Bauhaus design prin­cip­les. In 1937, Breuer accep­ted a Gropius invitation to join the School of Design at Harvard University in Boston to teach architecture. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe went to the Illinois Instit­ute of Technology in Chic­ago. 

Breuer also formed a part­nership with Gropius in Cambridge Mass from 1937-41. Their firm was engag­ed primarily in the design of private homes.

His hillside Breuer House in Lincoln Mass 1939 displayed the daring use of the cantilever. Breuer had been experim­ent­ing with using frame walls as truss-like members, and here this potential inherent in wood frame construction was exploited to the utmost. The building cantilevered from its whitewashed concrete base in four directions.

House in the Garden, 1949 
outside Museum of Modern Art, New York
The architect was Marcel Breuer

Examine the home Breuer designed in Salt Point NY in 1941. This Wolfson Trailer House had many Breuer characteristics: cantilevered living space, central fireplace made of native stone, and natural wood finishes.

In 1942 the Federal Works Agency commissioned Gropius and Breuer to economically design 240 mod­ern, but unobtrusive, rental units for Alcoa employees in New Ken­sing­ton Pa. Aluminum City Terrace 1942 became significant because most war communities, des­igned by not­ab­le architects like Louis Kahn, were later demolished as socialist.

In 1946 Breuer moved to NY to establish an office. The num­ber of commissions began to grow, and it was then he designed his own home in New Canaan Ct. He developed a design to meet the living requirements of modern families by creat­ing functional areas for separate activities.

Breuer's architectural reputation was greatly enhanced in 1953 when he and two others were commissioned to design the UNESCO World Head quarters in Paris. And in 1963-4 Breuer began work on what is perhaps his best-known project, the Whitney Museum of American Art in NY. Bec­ause the mus­eum was located on a very small corner site, the design had to max­im­ise space via concrete cantilevered upper floors and small framed windows.

Stillman II, 1965
The architect was Marcel Breuer
Note how the expanses of glass connect the interior to the lawns and trees

Yet of all the important commissions coming to Marcel Breuer, I wanted to see the Stillman houses. In 1949 Rufus Stillman, CEO of a manufacturing company, saw the house that Breuer created outside NY’s Museum of Modern Art and decided that he had to have a Breuer home for his own family. From 1950 on, Breuer went on to design a number of Litchfield projects - Stillman I, II, and III - for that family.

Stillman II was designed in 1965 by Breuer to epitomise the perfect blend of art, design and luxury. Restored with great sensitivity towards its origins, Stillman II integrated every C21st comfort without affecting the spirit of Breuer's original mid-C20th vision.

Its floor plan, its efficient use of space, and the use of natural materials remain. Note the local stone that formed the foundation and which extended into the interior, patinated brick floors and white Mediterranean stucco walls. In combination with the posit­ioning of the house, 3.7 metre ceilings and vast expanses of glass, Breuer created a seamless connection between the interior and the surrounding landscape.

This 5 bedroom residence was located in a serene and natural 9.5 acre setting alongside an additional 37 acres protected by the beautiful Litchfield County Hills Ct land-trust. Amenities now include a canti­levered guest cube, fancy kitchen and butler's pantry, heated pool and attached garage with storage built-ins. Stillman II was and is an archit­ect­urally significant home that was built for form, function and comfort.

Breuer donated many of his professional papers and architectural plans to the Syracuse University library in the late 1960s. He died in 1981.

11 February 2017

Melbourne's Winter Masterpieces 2017 - Vincent van Gogh

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was known in art history as soc­ially isolated, mentally unstable and having an extremely emot­ion­al response to his environment. Growing up in his parents’ home at Etten in The Hague, van Gogh had taught himself to paint by copying prints and studying drawing manuals. His first aim was to master drawing in charcoal and in perspective, but in any case, he was totally reliant on his brother for financial sup­port. And as he died in his 30s, van Gogh enjoyed a very short career.

In April 2017, the National Gallery of Victoria will put on Van Gogh and the Seas­ons. After long negotiations with overseas mus­eums, this exhibition will feature works lent by international museums, includ­ing the van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, the Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, the Von der Heydt Museum Wuppertal and Triton Found­ation, all in The Netherlands, The National Gallery London and The Armand Hammer Museum of Art Los Angeles. Curated by the former Head of Collections at Amsterdam’s van Gogh Museum, the NGV will walk visitors through 50 works by van Gogh in four separate sections, each devoted to one of the four seasons. Additional documentary material, including works from Van Gogh’s own art coll­ection, will show his deep interest in literature and nature.

van Gogh
Garden at Arles, 1888
A spring scene

The seasons had great meaning for van Gogh, representing the circle of life within nature – birth, bloom, maturity and death that he represent­ed in his dramatic, expressive and colourful works. For Vincent, this ongoing cycle represented the greatness of nature. So he rep­eatedly painted scenes that richly evoked the sensory influences part­icular to each season: spring had bloss­oming orchards and flowering meadows; summer had fields of ripe wheat shimmering under the hot sun; autumn gave abundant harvests; and winter depicted with peasants digging potatoes out of frozen fields, or sharing miserable meals. Seeing a van Gogh up close will be an exciting first for many Australians.

During a critical two-year (1886-1888) stay in Paris, van Gogh met Impressionists, saw their works and particularly loved Paul Seurat’s experimental brushwork and Paul Gauguin’s colours. The Melbourne exhibition includes works that depicted places in the Netherlands that were the setting for the critical events in the artist’s chaotic life eg the Dutch region of Brabant, where van Gogh was born and raised. But it also includes the paintings from France done in the late 1880s eg Arles, where the artist exper­ien­ced his greatest creativity; Saint-Rémy de Provence, where he was treated for mental illness in an asylum; and Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh committed suicide in 1890.

I am assuming that being in Arles in 1888 had a significance for the artist; it was from Provence's nature that all of his strongest colours evolved. Think of brilliant van Gogh sunshine and the earthy, fertile, sun-baked Provencal region of France everyone loves. This was where van Gogh best discovered that colour was a perfect expression of a love of nature. Even his letters, written in Arles, expressed colour verbally “my house here is painted out in fresh butter yellow, with raw-green shutters, and it sits full in the sun on the square where there is a green garden, plane trees, pink laurels, acacias. Inside its completely white-washed and the floor is red brick. And the intense blue sky above!’

van Gogh
Poppy field, 1890
A summer scene

In all the world’s art galleries and private collections, there are only 800 paintings signed by Vincent van Gogh. Yet even that was a remark­able achievement as van Gogh suffered from depression and died when he was only 37 years old! So his life’s work was basically produced in only a decade, the last three years of his life proving the most product­ive. This was when his observations of the seasonal changes within the natural world were most profound.

In one sense Vincent van Gogh’s letters to Theo suggested the artist was a rel­ig­ious man who saw the hand of God everywhere in nature. But did he believe these seasons were like the cycles of life: birth, youth, maturity and old age were like spring, summer, autumn and winter? And did he find spirituality in changing moods and colours of the seasons? NGV curator Ted Gott said yes: it was the linkage to emotion, vigorous brushstroke and religious expression of colour that made van Gogh a unique artist. The viewer can see the energy and dynamism of the artist’s distinct brushstrokes, which almost leap off the canvas with vitality.

I have problems with this analysis. Firstly I am not at all sure that Vincent saw himself as a religious man, at least in the trad­it­ional sense. And secondly will Australians be as aware of the changing seasons as residents in the Netherlands are? Of course I know we swim in summer and put a jumper on in winter, but even our evergreen trees look unchanged throughout the year. And if an Australian viewer has never seen snow, can he “find snow beautiful and burning sun beautiful etc”, as Vincent wrote with excitement?

van Gogh
Two Peasant Women Digging in Field with Snow, 1890
A winter scene

In the end, it didn’t matter. During the final van Gogh era, 1888–1890, his paintings were on show at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris where they attracted attention. And in 1890, his works were exhibited in Brussels, with some success. So when van Gogh assessed his artistic legacy as of only secondary import­ance in 1880, despite his works having begun to attract critical attention, perhaps he was being unduly modest. Or perhaps he was too depressed to appreciate it all. 

It is difficult for modern viewers to understand how hard he struggled to earn a living from his passionate art. Already, during the first decade after his death, Vincent van Gogh’s name had become integral to the modern world as he inspired the next gener­at­ion. I can only hope the Fauvists, artists who redefined pure colour and form as means of communicating the artist's emotional state, thanked van Gogh properly.

van Gogh and the Seasons, the NGV's Winter Masterpieces season, will run from Apr 28-Jul 9, 2017. See the NGV's home page for the some of the paintings. The exhibition will be acc­omp­anied by a scholarly catalogue, a children’s publication, talks and tours.

Many thanks to Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016, and to Urban Melbourne.