Marion Mahony Griffin by Marina Warner

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Cafe Australia opened in 1916, at 270 Collins Street in Melbourne, two years after Marion Mahony and Walter Griffin arrived in Australia from Chicago. Asked to remodel an existing venue, they created a sumptuous design scheme, combining Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Louis Sullivan’s Prairie architecture, and, above all, the Mayan, Aztec and Assyrian aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright’s oeuvre. Photographs show the Cafe’s riotous eclecticism but none of its equally exuberant colour.(1)

‘Bringing the outside in’ was Marion Mahony Griffin’s axiom, and many features of the Cafe’s interior recall her paintings on silk of native forest: the pillars were clad with trees sculpted in high relief; the balustrades on the upper floor writhed like untamed forest; murals evoked the freedom and diversity of the Australian landscape. The two architects saw to every detail—every fixture and fitting, from the uplighting columns to the jardinieres, from the banisters to the kitchen ware. Marion even designed the menu cards.

In all this luxuriant invention, the dining tables and chairs struck a sturdy, near rugged note, and this surviving example from the Dining Hall is now considered an icon of modern Australian design. Its simple organicism hews close to the Griffins’ democratic philosophy of life. The frame, made of a native blackwood, contrasts with the russet leather padding on the seat and chair back, and encloses a teardrop void, probably inspired by a lanceolate leaf. The whole design moves within a tight geometrical structure of triangles and circles on a square, a play of shapes which was picked up in the decor throughout the Cafe.

The design’s clean lines are also informed by Marion’s attention to nature; the unusually elongated shape of the back, rising and opening out into a triangle from a narrow vertex near the floor, transmits a sense of a sapling’s energy while the legs, placed lower than the footrest, indicate stable footing below ground—thrusting roots, as it were, down into the floor. This sense of natural energy follows from the Griffins’ respect for Anthroposophical principles: Rudolf Steiner posited an occult order underpinning the universe as found in the natural geometry of leaves and branches, crystals and rock formations. Marion was a committed supporter of his thought—the master plan for Canberra, with which the Griffins won the competition in 1911 to build the new capital, is patterned predominantly on triangles, formed by lines radiating from circles.

Cafe Australia opened only just over a century ago, hardly as long ago as the Mayans or the Assyrians who so influenced its startling designs, yet an equal distance might as well separate us. It is a melancholy fact that when the Cafe was stripped in l938 and then finally demolished in 1970 almost nothing was kept. This chair from the Dining Hall survived. It is more than a chair; it is the trace of a visionary time in the formation of a modern Australian aesthetic.

(1) See Christopher Vernon, ‘“The silence of the mountains and the music of the sea”: The landscape artistry of Marion Mahony Griffin’, in Debora Wood (ed), Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the form of nature, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 2005, and Annette Condello, ‘Interior luxury at the Café Australia’, IDEA Journal, 2010, at, accessed 1 January 2020.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Warner, Marina. "Marion Mahony Griffin" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 244–245.

Image caption: Marion Mahony Griffin, Café Australia chair, 1916, blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), plywood, leather, 96 x 47 cm (diameter), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2015

MARINA WARNER is a cultural historian, critic and novelist, and recently published Forms of enchantment: Writings on art & artists (2018).

Marion Mahoney Griffin appears in