Shirley Martin was a female industrial designer based in Sydney who had a long and illustrious career as a post-WWII Australian textile and ceramic designer. She is best known for designing the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games towel, but there is much more to her remarkable design industry success story.
We acquired the Shirley Martin collection as a result of a simple donation offer during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games of a 1956 Olympic Games towel. When following up this offer, I met Shirley and her family and it became clear that her story was much bigger than that of the Olympic towel design. The Museum now holds a small but growing Shirley Martin design archive.
Russell Drysdale’s drawings
From 1944 to 1946, Shirley was a young art student attending classes on Fridays and evenings at East Sydney Technical College. During this same period, Shirley embarked on one of her very first jobs. She took on the technically challenging role of translating Australian artist Russell Drysdale’s paintings and drawings into multi-coloured designs for screenprinted furnishing fabrics. At the time, she was just 17 and working in the Design Department of Silk and Textile Printers (STP) in Darlinghurst.
Shirley helped realize Russell Drysdale’s artwork under the direction of Mary Curtis, head designer at STP. The project provided her with a challenging formative experience which no doubt stood her in good stead for the remainder of her career as a female industrial designer.
Drysdale’s ‘Tree Forms’ was created from drawings taken from a sketchbook and arranged informally to complete a full screen. On completion, ‘Tree Forms’ was considered suitable for furnishing fabrics and was produced as a 12-colour print on heavy wool for furnishing with tan as a dominating colour, and also a monotone print.
‘Stone and Wood’ used a Drysdale motif to create a repeat on a large scale. The design employed a central motif enclosed by a ‘rock-like form’ as a large pattern covering a full screen for curtains using 10 colours on heavy cotton and light wool fabrics. The process was neither simple nor straightforward:
‘Several screens are used in the printing of a multi-colour design; one colour imposed upon another gives a third, so that in the finished product there may be more colours than the number of screens used. Seven or more screens may be bought to the printing room.’ (CM Foley, 1947, p 3).
Surprisingly for the time, women artists represented approximately one third of the artists featured in STP’s ‘Modernage Range’. Just before leaving STP, Shirley also helped prepare and install the ‘Art in Industry’ Modernage Fabrics display in the ballroom of the Australia Hotel in Sydney. This exhibition later travelled to the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne.
Career following STP
From 1947 to 1949, Shirley worked as a ceramic designer with Modern Ceramic Products in Redfern, and as a textile designer at Tennyson Textile Mills in Gladesville. From 1950 to 1951, she worked at Coverings & Co in Mascot, where she produced complex multi-layered designs for jacquard weave furnishing fabrics, including the ‘Roses’ and ‘Poppies’ designs.
After each employ, Shirley received a letter of commendation, each stating that she was ‘leaving on her own choice’. She was highly regarded by all her employers, with Coverings stating that it was ‘with sincere regret that we lose her services’ (letter, 23 November 1951). It was during this time that she married John de Vocht, a photographer with the Dutch Air Force.
1956 Olympic Games Dri-Glo towel design
From 1951 to 1959, Shirley’s last major industrial employment was with Dri-Glo Towels in Five Dock. While there, Shirley was invited to create a towel design for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games (the image at top of this post). The brief stated that the design was to include the Olympic Torch. Shirley added the Olympic Rings, a map of Australia, and ‘because I love Australian animals so much, I was determined that I would have them on the towel’ (newspaper article, 2000).
The towel was produced in green and yellow, colours Shirley felt she may have helped introduce to represent Australia. The red and white version of the towel (illustrated above) was produced for her own personal use. After the games, the torch on the towel was replaced by a surfer to extend the design into a marketable product.
Shirley was the daughter of an Australian Aboriginal father and grandfather. During her career, she held numerous positions, always seeking more technically challenging projects and producing many marketable product designs, some incorporating Aboriginal motifs and symbols. Her freelance textile designs feature Australian flora such as native heath, flannel flowers and wattle. Her work was selected for international exhibition and for inclusion in numerous competitions.
Shirley de Vocht continued to work as an artist after the 1960s, painting flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the native cat, the quoll and the snowy numbat, onto mass-produced ceramic plates. Shirley passed away in 2003. You can see more of Shirley’s vibrant designs in an earlier post, in which we detail how her fabulous gouache collection has been conserved at MAAS.
Post by Anne-Marie Van de Ven, Curator
I am indebted to Shirley de Vocht and her daughter Nicolle Drake, and MAAS archivists Jill Chapman and Paul Wilson, for their assistance piecing together biographical information.
Letter, To Whom it may concern, A. Haigh, Coverings & Co Pty Ltd, 23 November 1951
C.M. Foley, Supervisor, STP, ‘Art in the Textile Printing Factory’, in A New approach to Textile Designing by a group of Australian Artists, Ure Smith Publication, Sydney, 1947, p 3
Shirley de Vocht, ‘My mother loved to hear the bellbirds’, Australian Women’s Weekly, May 15,1974, pp 114-117
Newspaper article, ‘Ay, there’s the rub’, interview with Shirley de Vocht, c2000