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Modern life

By the 1920s Sydney had become Australia’s commercial heartland. The economic boom after World War I provided new opportunities for artists beyond the studio, in areas such as magazine illustration, fashion photography and interior and industrial design. Artists made significant contributions to the new Sydney-based magazine of modernity, The Home, and to the look of the burgeoning ‘cathedrals of commerce’ – department stores like the fashionable David Jones.

Applying modern aesthetics to everyday life, artists assumed the role of the city’s new tastemakers. The terms ‘decoration’ and ‘design’ featured increasingly in artistic discussion. ‘Decoration’ did not simply mean ornament or embellishment, but a strong sense of design and stylisation. Margaret Preston insisted that decoration was the cornerstone of art, claiming: ‘I’m trying all I know to reduce my still lifes to decorations.’ Artists, including Thea Proctor, became strong advocates for the application of art to everyday life, championing ideas of ‘taste’ and ‘style’, and incorporating design principles into art instruction.

Questions and activities

  • Compare shopping habits from three different time periods – the first decade of the 1900s, 1920s and now. List the pros and cons of each era. Design a poster to advertise the time period you think has the most to offer to consumers.
  • Collect examples of magazine covers from the early 20th century to today. Identify their similarities and differences. In what ways do they reflect their particular era? Consider the relationship between text and image. What is the effect of using an illustration for a cover image rather than a photograph?
  • What is your opinion of the role of the artist as designer? Discuss the words ‘decoration’ and ‘taste’ and how their meanings and connotations shift in different contexts and at different times. Do you think artists still consider these words appropriate to art practice? Find examples of contemporary artists and works that explore these ideas in art practice today.