NotesThe Government Architect's office prepared designs for the Powerhouse boardroom and the adjacent acquisition display gallery, kitchen and reception area during 1985. At this time meetings of Museum trustees, committees and management were the main function envisioned for the boardroom. However it was also planned that 'sponsorship lunches' and 'VIP receptions' would be held in the room (This information from Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences office file 2978).
During 1987 Lionel Glendenning, the Government Architect's design architect for the Powerhouse Museum, approached Iain Halliday and Neil Burley regarding the furniture for the Powerhouse boardroom. Halliday was already designing the exhibition fitouts for the Powerhouse Decorative Arts galleries.
The new brief specified the design of a large meeting table, loosely based on conference tables designed by the US architect/designer Florence Knoll (b.1917), the primary influence on office interiors and furniture during the post-1945 period. Knoll revolutionised offices world-wide with her functional, architecturally inspired furniture. Glendenning initially considered purchasing Knoll furniture for the boardroom.
Instead, in July 1987 Halliday was asked to design a meeting table that would be sculptural, 'elegant functional' and a 'conversation piece'. The table was also to be 'democratic', not creating any sense of hierarchy among those sitting around it. (This information based on notes made by former PHM curator Judith O'Callaghan from conversations with Lionel Glendenning and others).
In September 1987 Halliday presented designs for a table and credenza The designs were approved by Glendenning, museum trustee Leo Schofield and director Lindsay Sharp.
The boardroom furniture was constructed by the Sydney cabinet makers Harry and Philip Clancy. A set of Knoll chairs was purchased to complement the table, which was completed in early 1988 and was installed in the boardroom mid-1988, some time after the Powerhouse's March opening. The credenza was not completed until August 1988.
Unfortunately the table quickly became a source of controversy. Within three days of its installation in the boardroom, damage was sustained by the ebony Macassar veneer finish of one section of the table. In addition, the Knoll chairs quickly sustained damage to their aluminium arm rests.
By August 1988 a Liberal government had been elected in NSW, new trustees had been appointed to the Museum board and Terence Measham had been appointed as Acting Director. According to Measham, 'the Board of Trustees loathed the Halliday board room table with a passion and immediately ordered me to get rid of it...The Trustees were unanimous. Not even the art/design Trustees defended the table... I was a very new Director and dragged my feet over this matter but at the next meeting they were incensed at my falure to carry out their wishes and made it clear that the matter was urgent and not negotiable. As a newly appointed Director I was aware that my terms of employment required me to carry out their orders. Publicly, I wore the blame...'[Communication with the acquiring curator, December 2009].
The table was quickly removed from the boardroom. Publically, Measham stated that the decision was imposed by issues of practicality, notably that the table's size and fixture to the floor made it difficult to use the boardroom for functions, thus reducing an important source of income for the new museum.
Perhaps unfairly, Measham was criticised for the decision to remove the table. A Sydney Morning Herald gossip column claimed that 'the newly-appointed boss of the Powerhouse Museum...may well have made an exhibition of himself over the banishment of $100,000 of lavish boardroom furniture to the building's dungeons...that nasty odour emanating from Ultimo could well be the whiff of authoritarian philistinism' ['Today's people', SMH, 26 September 1988].
Meanwhile Interior Design [No15, 1988] published a feature on the table, claiming that it posed the question: 'when is a table not a table?....the table has the delicacy of jewellery coupled with the dynamic potency of massive scale'.
Terence Measham suggested that the boardroom furniture be displayed in the Style decorative arts exhibition; however curatorial staff were reluctant to acquire it, hoping that the table would eventually be restored to its planned location in the boardroom. This has not occurred, nor has the table been displayed.
The credenza was not installed in the boardroom, and in all likelihood was not assembled at the Powerhouse prior to its display in 'The 80s are back' exhibition from December 2009. The table remained in storage, disassembled, since September 1988 until 2009 when it was reassembled for photography and documentation.
Charles Pickett, curator Design and society.