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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ward, Frederick Charles (Fred) (1900–1990)

by Nanette Carter

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

Frederick Charles Cecil Ward (1900-1990), furniture and interior designer, was born on 26 July 1900 in East Melbourne, sixth surviving child and elder son of London-born Frederick William Ward, cutler, and his wife Lily Wilhelmina, née Breeze, born in Victoria. Fred grew up at the seaside suburb of Black Rock, where he loved to explore the natural world. He attended (1918-20) the school of drawing at the National Gallery of Victoria. On 2 April 1925 at St John’s Church of England, Toorak, he married Ellinor (‘Puss’) Roper Martin.

First a freelance illustrator and cartoonist for the Bulletin and Table Talk, in 1929 Ward worked at the Melbourne Herald. That year he began designing furniture for his newly acquired house in Heidelberg. According to Ellinor, their friends ‘came out in droves and bought things right and left, bought our seats from under us’. Devising his own training, Ward trawled the antique shops of Prahran and attended technical-drawing classes at night.

Ward admired the elegance of Georgian style and the sobriety of American colonial furniture. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement’s focus on function, he made joints a point of interest. He used mainly native Australian timbers and specified a natural waxed finish to highlight their grain and colour. In 1932, at 52a Collins Street, he established a shop and interior-design consultancy, where he displayed his furniture and the hand-printed linens of Michael and Ella O’Connell. Next year Ward moved to Little Collins Street. Influenced by European modernism, he developed designs using basic geometry, asymmetry and negative space. After transferring his business to his assistant Cynthia Reed, he continued to show his furniture in her house-furnishings gallery and to collaborate on interior-design commissions with Sam Atyeo. Ward exhibited his furniture for the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria and, in 1933, for the Exhibition of British Contemporary Art in Melbourne.

Having been invited by the Myer Emporium Ltd to manage its fine-furniture workshop in North Melbourne, Ward selected and trained young designers. At the first Building Industry Congress of Victoria’s Centenary Ideal Homes exhibition in 1934 he launched for Myer his ‘austere unit range’ of furniture. A modular system of individual pieces, it could be reconfigured for varied uses in different rooms. Its affordability during the Depression contributed to its success and consolidated Ward’s reputation as Australia’s leading modernist designer.

In 1942 the Department of Aircraft Production sought Ward’s advice on the manufacture of the timber-framed Mosquito bomber at Fishermens Bend. Ward later took charge of the plans and drawings for the Beaufighter aircraft, applying the continuous modifications sent from Britain. Appointed as a liaison officer, he worked with the Commonwealth government, and with the British, Australian and American air forces.

After the war Ward turned to industrial design. He converted wartime machinery into the Empress, an improved egg incubator for the poultry industry, and designed cooking ranges and, for the Victorian Railways, the interior of a new diesel train, the Spirit of Progress. Because of postwar timber shortages that inflated prices, in 1947 he developed the ‘do-it-yourself’ Patterncraft furniture patterns, marketed by Australian Home Beautiful. In 1948 he designed the popular first chair for ‘Fred’ Lowen and Ernest Rodeck, made in their then backyard factory (later Fler Co. Ltd).

Having lectured part time (1949-52) in interior architecture, faculty of architecture, at the University of Melbourne, Ward moved to Canberra after winning a competition for the design of the furniture and furnishings of University House, Australian National University. As the first head of the ANU design unit he oversaw campus planning, and furniture and interior design. He worked with the architect (Sir) Roy Grounds on the Australian Academy of Science building. Retiring from the ANU in 1961, he returned to private practice. Design consultant to the Reserve Bank of Australia, he also designed furniture for Admiralty House, Sydney, and the National Library of Australia. Robin Boyd commissioned him to design the furniture for the Australian pavilion at Expo ’67, Montreal, Canada.

Ward helped to establish the Society of Designers for Industry in 1948 (Industrial Design Institute of Australia from 1956) and the Industrial Design Council of Australia (1958); he received the council’s inaugural Essington Lewis award in 1964. He became committed to developing tertiary education for industrial designers throughout Australia. In 1970 he was appointed MBE. Tall and handsome with a toothbrush moustache, he was modest and genial. Predeceased by his wife (d.1989) and survived by their son, he died on 25 July 1990 at Queanbeyan, New South Wales, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  •   J. Phipps, Atyeo (1982)
  • M. Bogle (ed), Designing Australia (2002)
  • N. Carter, Savage Luxury (2007)
  • Craft Australia, Summer 1988, p 44
  • Canberra Times, 9 Aug 1990, p 2
  • A463, item 1962/4164 (National Archives of Australia)
  • ‘Puss’s Journal’, F. Ward archive (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nanette Carter, 'Ward, Frederick Charles (Fred) (1900–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

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