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Snelling, Douglas Burrage (1916–1985)

by Davina Jackson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Douglas Burrage Snelling (1916-1985), architect and designer, was born on 24 February 1916 at Gravesend, Kent, England, only child of Albert Edward Snelling, bootmaker, and his wife Ethel May, née Burrage.  The family moved to New Zealand in 1926.  As a teenager living at Wanganui, Douglas developed a passion for Hollywood films and began to emulate fashionable American graphics.  He drew lively cartoon likenesses, dressed local shop windows and created street decorations.  By the age of 16 he was employing other boys in a design business.  In 1937 he travelled to Los Angeles, where he freelanced for film studios, sketching stars on set.  With his good looks and dapper dress sense (emulating Errol Flynn), Snelling was in demand socially.  Back in New Zealand in March 1938, he wrote and drew, hosted regular radio shows about his Hollywood experiences, and often gave short talks at cinemas.

In 1940 Snelling left New Zealand, sailing through Indonesia, and arrived in Sydney where he found employment as a publicist at J. Walter Thompson Australia Pty Ltd.  During World War II he worked in munitions factories and lived at Potts Point.  On 18 August 1945 at St Andrew’s Scots Church, Rose Bay, he married with Presbyterian forms Nancy Bear, née Springhall, a beauty consultant.  Assisted by her family money, Snelling began designing some of Sydney’s smartest shop fit outs, photographs of which were taken by Ray Leighton and published in local design magazines.  He developed a range of timber chairs with interlaced webbing seats and backs—said to be the first Australian-designed chairs of modernist style—that were marketed from 1947 by Functional Products Pty Ltd as the 'Snelling line'.  He and Nancy travelled in the United States of America; he was captivated by Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter camp at Taliesin West, Arizona, and later referenced its angled roof beams in a palatial house that he designed for the builder A. F. Little.

On his return to Sydney in 1948 Snelling met the American-trained architect Harry Seidler.  Unlike Seidler, who pursued American east coast modernist styles, Snelling adopted the west coast styles, influenced by Wright and Japanese traditions.  He gained legal registration with the Board of Architects, New South Wales, in 1952 and membership of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1953 (fellow 1967).  His first proposals for modest 1250 sq ft (116 m²) houses (the legal limit of floor area then), were published in the distinguished Californian modernism magazine Arts and Architecture and his succeeding houses and commercial buildings of the 1950s were favoured by the Melbourne-based progressive journal Architecture and Arts, which gave his Kelly House 1 in Bellevue Hill its 1955 house of the year award.  In addition to houses and apartment blocks, Snelling also designed buildings, refurbishments and interiors for businesses.  He was credited with conceiving Australia’s first spill-edge swimming pool in the mid-1960s.

Divorced in 1959, Snelling married with Presbyterian forms a Sydney socialite Patricia Anne Youdale, née Gale, on 4 June 1960 in her home at Bellevue Hill.  They had three sons.  In 1963-64 the couple took a three-month trip to Hawaii, Japan and Cambodia.  Snelling wrote two articles (Bulletin, 7 November 1964, and Architecture and Arts, July 1966) about the wonders of the ruined city, Angkor Wat, and began to collect and trade Khmer antiquities—mainly small carved stone heads.  On regular trips back to Cambodia the couple became friendly with Prince Sihanouk, which led to Snelling’s appointment as honorary consul (1970-75).  The Snellings often entertained Sydney’s diplomatic society in their palatial Bellevue Hill pool-garden.  He closed his office after a series of unsuccessful commercial developments on Pacific Island resorts.  His wife died in 1976 and, with his sons, he moved to Hawaii.  He married Marianne Sparre there on 24 September 1980.  He died of cerebrovascular disease on 4 September 1985 at Darlinghurst, on a visit to Sydney, and was cremated.  His wife and the sons of his second marriage survived him.  The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, holds several pieces of Snelling-designed furniture.

Select Bibliography

  • People (Sydney), 10 May 1950, p 25
  • Craft Australia, autumn 1988, p 61
  • Snelling biographical file (Royal Australian Institute of Architects, New South Wales chapter).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Davina Jackson, 'Snelling, Douglas Burrage (1916–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/snelling-douglas-burrage-15533/text26746, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 5 December 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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