Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Sellheim, Gert Hugo Emmanuel (1901–1970)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Gert Hugo Emmanuel Sellheim (1901-1970), architect and graphic designer, was born on 31 December 1901 at Viljandi (Vil'yandi), Estonia, then part of the Russian Empire, son of Bruno Sellheim, medical practitioner, and his wife Helene, née Moritz, both of whom were of German descent. Gert fought in the White Army in the Russian Civil War in 1918-20. After studying architecture in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Graz and Paris, he arrived at Fremantle, Western Australia, in December 1926. Because his architectural qualifications were not immediately recognized, he worked as a farm labourer near Pingelly. Registered as an architect on 21 May 1929 in Perth, he joined R. H. Alsop and F. J. Glennon as a site architect for the University of Western Australia.

In 1931 Sellheim moved to Melbourne. He practised as an industrial and commercial designer, and began producing posters, principally for the Australian National Travel Association. His most famous posters—'Australia Surf Club' (which showed stylised figures hauling a surf-rescue line) and 'Corroboree Australia' (which featured black stick-figures with Aboriginal markings)—were hard-edged, coloured lithographs that revealed his European training and the influence of cubism. They marked a striking contrast to Percy Trompf's and James Northfield's work in the more conventional illustrative tradition. Trompf and Northfield embellished the Australian landscape; Sellheim represented it, sometimes using photomontage in his compositions. The three of them came together at the Art Training Institute, Melbourne, which marketed their talents. Sellheim's 'dynamic treatment of colour' enabled him to uphold 'the best trends in modern design'.

At the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Melbourne, on 15 January 1938 Sellheim married Sally Irene Evans, a fashion model. He won the 1939 Sir John Sulman prize for his decoration of the interior of the Victorian Government Tourist Bureau's building in Collins Street. Sellheim designed a sundial and painted murals for the Newburn Flats, Queens Road, South Melbourne, in 1941. From the mid-1930s he had worked with the publisher Oswald Zeigler on a variety of commemorative books, including Australia 1788-1938 (Sydney, 1938), a lavish mix of text, image and photomontage, with line drawings by Sellheim featuring Aboriginal images. Its successor, This is Australia (1946), was revised and reprinted a number of times.

Sellheim pioneered the use of Australian Aboriginal imagery, not as a straight copy, but as a motif in his posters, interior decoration and book design. As an A.T.I. prospectus put it: 'Sellheim has proved that out of this country's strange and wonderful past can be drawn endless inspiration'. Interned as a Nazi sympathizer in May 1942, he claimed to abhor Hitler's views. Following his release four months later, he lived in Adelaide, applied for Australian citizenship in 1944 and moved to Sydney in 1945. His flying-kangaroo logo for Qantas Empire Airways Ltd first appeared on the airline's new Lockheed Constellations in January 1947. Sellheim's winning entry in a stamp-design competition became in 1948 the two-shilling stamp celebrating Aboriginal art. In 1963 Qantas sent him overseas to produce posters and brochures on some of its major ports of call, including Singapore, London and Rome.

Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, Sellheim died of myocardial infarction on 3 January 1970 in his Lane Cove home and was cremated with Anglican rites. Posters and books designed by Sellheim are held by major public galleries and libraries in Australia. One of the country's most influential graphic designers in the twentieth century, he produced work that continues to influence the way artists imagine and depict the continent and its people.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Spearritt (ed), Trading Places (Melb, 1991)
  • R. Butler, Poster Art in Australia (Canb, 1993)
  • Art in Australia, Nov 1940
  • Walkabout, Nov 1957
  • A11797, item WP6419 and D1915, item SA10941 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Sellheim, Gert Hugo Emmanuel (1901–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sellheim-gert-hugo-emmanuel-11655/text20821, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014