When architect Iwan Iwanoff arrived in Perth in 1950 from Germany, he found a city with bright direct light and plants unlike anything he had ever seen before, inspiring his distinctive design and artistic work.
But his long career designing houses and public buildings that responded to Western Australia’s unique landscape happened almost by accident.
Iwanoff was born in Bulgaria and studied architecture and engineering in Munich during and after World War II, but found himself unable to find a job in a struggling post-war Germany.
“There were rumours of a third world war coming, and of course, the Germans didn’t want foreigners there,” Michael Iwanoff, Iwan Iwanoff’s son said.
“They were encouraged to go out, and they were going to go to America but they were booked out, and then there were ships coming to Australia.
“They were going to Melbourne but Fremantle was the first port of call, and they ended up deciding this, this will do, let’s get off.”
Iwanoff launched his career at the firm of Krantz and Sheldon, working there for a decade while he got his professional accreditation. He soon thrived.
Warren Andersen, who has written a biography on Iwanoff, says when he arrived in Perth, he was quickly identified as being a “talented architect and artist”.
“During that time, he worked on a lot of apartment buildings, and he also was supervising their office.
“But he was also moonlighting when he was working there. It’s not the normal practice, but because he was such a talented employee, they turned a blind eye and just let him do his own thing for a while.”
Long hours pay off
Eventually, Iwanoff was able to set up his own business, building up a thriving practice that continued until his death in 1986 at the age of 67, working non-stop, his son recalled.
“He did a long, long hours on the drafting board. My routine was to bring him a cup of coffee and to rub his back,” Mr Iwanoff said.
Over time clients came to seek out his highly distinctive style but, when he set out in his practice, he was catering to a general public whose design sensibilities had been formed by Women’s Weekly and Home and Garden.
“Until he got the client base, and it took him about 10 years to do that, he had to basically give the clients what they wanted.”
He also took on a large amount of commercial work, including designing a function centre for Miss Maud in the Perth CBD and striking buildings for Northam’s council offices and public library.
“Dad was also involved with a lot of shop fronts in Hay Street, for Sportslane, Tiffany’s and Mazzuchelli’s jewellers and he really, he really enjoyed that challenge, doing fit-outs.”
Mr Andersen said when Iwanoff designed houses, he focused on every detail.
“He was also very skilful in designing custom furniture and fit-outs for houses,” he said.
“One of the most exciting things, as part of the book project, is that I’ve been documenting all of the houses, and some of them have never been open to the public for 40, 50 years.
“So you can look at all of the fantastic woodwork and furniture and cabinets and all of the stuff that he did as a part of the whole package of a house, not just the exterior.”
Iwanoff also had a sense of fun when designing, placing hidden vents in cupboards and light switches in hard-to-find places, so the function elements were all in place but didn’t interrupt the interior design.
‘Mischievous nature’ features in designs
For every house he designed, he also crafted a letterbox to match, sometimes confounding neighbourhood postmen, who found the letter slots difficult to find in the small matching sculptures, Mr Iwanoff recalled.
“That mischievous nature is very typical — he was a very quiet person, very reserved, but when it came to architecture and design, he became incredibly animated.”
He said his father’s interests also extended to including ideas of environmental sensitivity, in a period where it was rarely considered in house design.
“He believed in designing something for a specific site and being sensitive to the site and its characteristics being celebrated in the design of the house, whether it’s the trees and especially orientation.
“He was not interested in just going to a block and bulldozing everything. He wanted trees to be part of it. He wanted the garden to be part of it.”
He also worked hard to make his houses comfortable to live in during Perth summers, integrating an understanding of passive solar principles and orientation for airflow.
“Designs with the screening was all as a direct response to the specific West Australian context with our climate, our incredibly direct light which is really unique in the world, and our Mediterranean climate with the afternoon,” Mr Andersen said.
“All of these elements came into play when he designed the houses, and you just don’t get that experience elsewhere.”
Showcasing Iwanoff’s work
An exhibition of photos, furniture, fitting and original designs is currently on display at the University of Western Australia’s Cullity Gallery, which shows the full extent of Iwanoff’s oeuvre and highlighting his distinctive style.
While enthusiasm for Iwanoff’s work has never really gone away, both men are hoping this exhibition and upcoming book will deepen public knowledge about the breadth of his work.
They are also hoping it might help them find some of lost creations, including a number of demountable houses created for a mine site, and last known location Lake MacLeod, north of Carnarvon.
While four of his houses have been demolished since research started in 2017, Mr Andersen has also tracked down owners who had no idea they were living in Iwanoff houses.
“It’s been exciting for me because I think he deserves wider recognition, he didn’t really get that during his lifetime,” Mr Andersen said.
“One of the main focuses I have, once we can realise the publishing of the book, is to basically get him recognised internationally as well, particularly in America.
“I think the Americans will get a bit of a shock when they see what’s actually been going on in in Western Australia, 2,000 miles away.”
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