Suburbia arrived full force in Australia at the same time as Federation. No more tiny terraces in inner city slums, the better suburbs now demanded detached Queen Anne bungalows on block 60 by 180 feet (1:3 ratio) = a quarter acre.
Tens of thousands of subdivisions had the same arithmetic, a house of 10 squares (10’ x 10’ is a ‘square’ or standard room of the time), that is 100 square feet, lost in 1000 square feet of private open space. Some of it was soaked up by vege gardens, some by garages when cars arrived, and the odd men’s shed (for odd men).
But the rest was grass, acres and acres of green blades of Kikuyu, Buffalo or Couch. And it was kept in shape by this: a ‘reel push mower’.
Reel push mower
No fitness gym needed if this was your spring and summer workout, pushing and pulling one of these around the house. The hand push reel mower endured until WW1 (no wonder our ANZAC’s were fit), when motorised versions appeared. Heavy and cumbersome, the trick was to hire a student to do the work.
That was Gerry Richardson’s source of money for Uni in the early 1950’s, using his dad’s clunky powered reel mowers. Dad, aviation aficionado and engineering design wiz Mervyn Victor Richardson, set out to make a better, less cumbersome, machine. He based his idea on the Mowhall mower of 1948, a design that was ingenious but had failed as it needed two men to use it. Using various spare workshop bits, including a jam tin for fuel tank, he created a rotary bladed mower in 1952.
MV Richardson with an early model Victa mower in !955.
Demand from locals soared, improvements were made, and a name was needed: a corruption of his middle name to Victa. One more small step in the great Aussie tradition of mis-spelling in home and hardware products.
The original ‘Peach-tin’ prototype and a later model Victa mower.
By 1953 Mervyn had left his day job and was managing Victa Mowers Pty Ltd, and 5 years later the company had moved to a new factory at Milperra NSW where its 3,000 employees built 143,000 mowers a year for export to 28 countries.
A range of Victa mowers, from early to late, where safety becomes an issue.
Reel lawn mowers were still used for fine lawn cutting on golf courses and cricket pitches, but everywhere else throughout the land it was the real lawn mower to ‘turn grass into lawn with a Victa’. The rest, as they cliché say, was history.
Late model Victa mowers, including the ride on.
MV Richardson was already well off from his engineering ventures, even though his automobile design (the Austin Wasp sports car) and car sales business collapsed in the Depression. By 1941 he was living in a house he had designed for his family in suburban Concord, as a successful engineering salesman. But the success of the Victa put him in the millionaire’s stratosphere, which the flamboyant Mervyn, and his exceptionally clever wife Vera, quite enjoyed.
What to do next? In 1955 he bought a steep block of waterfront land at Careel Bay in Pittwater, and in another stroke of genius chose a local, relatively unknown architect to design his holiday home. Peter Muller had just completed a home for himself up the hill at Whale Beach, a remarkable interpretation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s site related architecture, which he had studied closely in the USA.
The resulting house, Kumale, completed in 1957, is a tour-de-force of organic architecture. Based on a repetitive circle in columns, rooms and roofs, it spreadeagled at an angle along the cliff top before descending in a vertical shaft to the water’s edge. A key feature of the house was a swimming pool that was both indoors and outdoors, passing through the huge round columns.
Peter Muller’s plan for Kumale for MV Richardson.
The inspiration for the design was reputedly a round water tank on the site. Really? A house for an industrialist who made his fortune in a rotary design, and that didn’t influence the totality of the circles? Muller’s biographer and cataloguist Jacqueline Urford says it isn’t so. And she would know. But we much prefer the urban myth, hoping that the ever-charming Muller, now 92, won’t be offended.
Kumale seen from the water
How good is the house? Gobsmackingly good. This is 1955, yes Wright’s Guggenheim is under way, but his public building magnum opus, the Marin County Centre, with which this house resonates, is still 3 years away. We proselytize another urban myth: that child is father to the man and the master learnt from the student. You can’t prove it wasn’t so – Muller is better than Wright in our eyes.
Muller sold the house in 1966 and a succession of owners made stupid changes, losing the translucent sectional fibreglass roof along the way. But the house is especially good now, as much of the earlier silly alterations were swept away in a 2012 restoration. Our photos were taken prior to that resto, nevertheless, here’s a taste:
The ‘plane / boatshed’ on the adjacent land at Kumale.
MV Richardson was a keen aviator, having developed a light plane prior to WW2 with his brother and developing a light aircraft business in the 1960’s (also called Victa). The manufacturing works (designed by Muller along with the Richardson’s ski lodge in the NSW Alps) were close to Bankstown airport. This allowed him to fly a seaplane from his business near Bankstown to his holiday house Kumale at Pittwater and return.
To store the plane Richardson wanted a circular hangar on the water (so he could rotate the plane on a turntable. Oh the circles again. Council refused permission so he purchased the land next door which had a boatshed and set about converting it. Another refusal on the northern beaches that becomes a heritage item (did someone say ‘Windy Dropdown’?).
Let us leave you with 3 thoughts: firstly, much of the site has a modernist urban feel: Sydney sandstone flagging on terraces, drives and paths down from the road, the water of the swimming pool, the concrete edging and planters. It’s odd that the house of the inventor of the rotary lawn mower contains hardly any lawn at all.
Secondly, nothing says suburban quite like the Victa, which is why it features on the LP cover of the ultimate suburban ‘creatures of leisure’, Mental As Anything.
And lastly, here is some superb currency design (remember our +one feature 4 weeks ago on Gordon Andrews) designed by Gold Coast graphic artist Robyn Rand (one of our favourites). One side is today’s featured designer Mervyn Victor Richardson, the other is last week’s champion, Lance Hills of Hills Hoist fame. Why don’t we all have this $30 note?
The $30 note designed by Robyn Rand featuring the designers of the Hills Hoist and Victa lawn mower.
plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact them at [email protected]