This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Marion Esdaile Hall Best (1905-1988), interior designer, was born on 13 April 1905 at Dubbo, New South Wales, fourth and youngest child of Edmond Henry Burkitt, an English-born medical practitioner, and his Australian-born wife Amy Theodora, née Hungerford. Her sister Dora Sweetapple was a jeweller and painter. Marion attended Dubbo High School and Frensham, Mittagong. Connections she made there and on holidays at Palm Beach were to prove useful in later years. Nicknamed `Youngie’, she was influenced by the simplicity of life at Dubbo and by her mother’s use of colour in the home.
Burkitt trained as a nurse at the Coast Hospital, Little Bay. On 19 December 1927 she married (Sir) John Victor Hall Best, a dentist, at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point. In the late 1920s and early 1930s she attended classes in embroidery with June Scott Stevenson, who had lived in Chile, and in painting with Thea Proctor. Marion Best’s first decorating work was in 1929 at Farleigh, her mother’s Palm Beach house, where she combined white walls and yellow ceilings with furniture of her own design.
The success of her adventurous design (1937-38) at the Elanora Country Club led to work at the Queen’s Club, the Royal Exchange Club and the repatriation hospital Berida, at Bowral. She aimed at a three-dimensional translation of colour and was deeply impressed by the set designs of Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Best attended lectures in architecture at the University of Sydney in 1938 and completed a correspondence course in interior design from New York. The skills gleaned from these courses enabled her to achieve a more professional standard in design presentation, including coloured isometric projections. She later employed architects in her business.
Following her family’s move in 1934 to Queen Street, Woollahra, Mrs Best opened there a retail business, Marion Best Pty Ltd, in 1938, and added a small shop in Rowe Street, Sydney, in 1949. She won larger commercial commissions, the most significant of which was for the interiors of a new block of studio flats at 7 Elizabeth Street (1939). Commissions for the Lady Gowrie Child Centre (1941), Erskineville, and the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children (1942), Redfern, helped to keep the business viable during World War II. She also worked at the de Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd factory during the war.
For an exhibition (1941) held by the Australian Red Cross Society (New South Wales Division), Best designed `Classic Modern’ and `Young Modern’ rooms. With a hypothetical client, ample publicity and no budget restrictions, she presented her most experimental work and reached an audience beyond her usual clientele. After the war her work was featured in home magazines, reaching thousands of readers. She ran the David Jones Art Gallery in 1947-48; helped to found the Society of Interior Designers of Australia in 1951; and addressed a conference of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1956. Her domestic and commercial commissions completed in the 1960s and 1970s included the `XXth Century’ room for the Rare and Beautiful Things exhibition (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1961), Moonbah Ski Lodge (with Bill Lucas, 1961), the `Room for Mary Quant’ (1967), the `Room for Peter Sculthorpe’ (1971) and many interiors undertaken for her major client, the Crebbin (q.v.) family.
An adventurous and sophisticated use of colour was always the hallmark of Best’s work, which was influenced by Henri Matisse, the Fauves and, specifically, the colour wheels of Roy de Maistre. She believed that colour in interiors was uplifting and adapted the techniques of Justin O’Brien to develop a method of glazing for walls and ceilings. Travelling widely from the late 1940s in Europe, Asia and North and South America, she negotiated at international trade fairs for import agreements with the makers of furniture, fabrics, lighting, wallpapers and accessories including Marimekko, Knoll, Herman Miller, Noguchi, McGuire and Jim Thompson. She also used many Australian designers and artists.
Following the death of her husband in 1972, she closed her Woollahra shop in 1974. The Darling Point flat of her widowhood, decorated in hot pinks, reds and oranges, with Saarinen chairs and Marimekko fabrics, showed that even in her seventies, she still set the standard for avant-garde design in Australia. A slim, smartly dressed woman, she was vivacious and generous, with tremendous energy. Survived by her daughter and son, Best died on 26 June 1988 at Elizabeth Bay and was cremated. Examples of her work are held by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney, and the Australian National Gallery, Canberra.
Catriona Quinn, 'Best, Marion Esdaile Hall (1905–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/best-marion-esdaile-hall-12205/text21885, accessed 14 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007