Portrait: Gert Sellheim, Germany 1964. Photographer unknown. Courtesy the Sellheim family.
Gert Sellheim was born in Estonia to German parents. In 1919 he fought in the Estonian War of Independence, and following Soviet Russia’s victory in 1920 he and his family, including three younger siblings, resettled in Germany. He then studied architecture in Berlin, Munich, Gratz, Vienna and Paris, gaining knowledge in areas of classical architecture, Bauhaus and Art Deco, after which he worked in various studios. His earliest known graphic is a book cover Unendliche Weiten (Infinite Distances), published in 1927.
With Germany’s economic downturn after WWI, Sellheim joined the first exodus of émigrés who sought a more fruitful life. Leaving his family in August 1926, he travelled to London for two months, then boarded the SS Jervis Bay for Australia, arriving in Perth on 23 December 1926. Sellheim had hopes of working as an architect, but despite speaking several languages, his English was not considered good enough by authorities. To get his conversational language up to scratch he was indentured to work as a wheat farm labourer 150km east of Perth. His son, Nikolaus Sellheim, says that even enduring this, his father ‘was immediately inspired by a love for his new country. He saw it as evolving in exciting and modern ways.’ When Sellheim’s qualifications were recognised two years later he joined the firm of RH Alsop and FJ Glennon as a site architect for the University of Western Australia.
He moved to Melbourne in 1930, opening an architecture, industrial and commercial art studio. Within a year, along with designers Percy Trompf, James Northfield and later Douglas Annand (AGDA Hall of Fame, 2000), he was creating posters for the Australian National Travel Association (ANTA) – the forerunner to Tourism Australia. It was a well-funded initiative to attract visitors with a strategy to ‘visualise the story of Australia’s emergence as a modern nation of the future’. His posters were soon in travel offices throughout the world. Sellheim’s first poster may be the 1931 ‘Australia – For Sun and Surf’. He became even more linked to government and tourism in producing posters for Australian Railways and Victorian Railways.
During the 1930s–1940s, a period considered The Golden Age of Australian posters, Sellheim’s approach was cutting-edge. Many of his posters like ‘Sunshine and Surf – Australia’ (with stylised diving figures) and ‘Corroboree’ had a strong, playful Art Deco influence. He used a similar aesthetic for the Orient Line advertisement which appeared in the July 1932 The Home magazine. Other posters, like ‘Gippsland Lakes’ and ‘Eat More Citrus Fruit’ for the Victorian Railways, have an informal cubist approach, with a feel of place rather than a depiction of it. In these he used photomontage, colour splashes, drawing and a mix of hand-lettering and commercial type. His posters can be favourably compared with anything out of Switzerland, France, Germany or the USA, and they contrast with those of Trompf and Northfield who used lush, more traditional illustrative styles. Interestingly from 1938 until the early 1940s the talents of Sellheim, Trompf and Northfield were marketed by Art Training Institute through correspondence courses.
In 1936 Sellheim then began a collaboration with publisher Oswald Ziegler who had developed a niche in commemorative, regional and industrial publications. Being similar in age and both with German backgrounds they became life-long friends. One of Sellheim’s first books was Why not Victoria? in 1936, with an evocative 10-colour Art Deco cover. This was followed by a souvenir book, Manly (1936), 150 Years – Australia (1937) as a souvenir magazine and a 400-page book, and the elegant Romance in Paradise (1938), a generous magazine format celebrating Australian scenic photography. Their working relationship lasted until Sellheim’s death in 1970, by which time he had designed about 50 small to very large prestige books.
In 1938 Sellheim was commissioned to decorate the Victorian Government Tourist Bureau at 272 Collins Street, Melbourne, where he created a large photomontage mural (which won the 1939 Sulman Prize), dramatic floor graphics and window display. That same year he married fashion model Sally Evans, and they had children soon after – a son, Nikolaus (1941) and daughter, Karin (1942).
Sellheim produced at least two projects with young émigré architect Frederick Romberg. One was a mural and signage for the Australian Pavilion at the 1939 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington, which Romburg designed while at Stephenson & Turner. The other was a mural, figurative door numbering system and a wall-mounted sundial for the modernist Newburn Flats at 30 Queens Road, Melbourne. Built between 1939–1941 to acclaim, Sellheim’s work was unfortunately destroyed in a 1957 renovation.
Sellheim was included, together with other designers, in the significant 1941 Australian Museum exhibition Aboriginal Art and its Application. While he was one of the first designers to draw inspiration from Aboriginal imagery, and had genuine intent to celebrate Aboriginal culture and its connections to this land, it is clear that we would now consider some of his images to be cultural appropriation.
In May 1943 during WWII, Sellheim, along with thousands of others of European and Asian origin, was interned in northern Victoria. Officially classified as an enemy alien, he shared quarters with a small group of creative individuals, including photographer Helmut Newton. Within four months, after intervention from family and friends, he was sent to Adelaide, where ironically, he was tasked with converting armament measurements from metric to imperial.
Returning to Melbourne 18 months later, Sellheim found that poster design work had decreased, so he focused on book and other design projects. By 1947 Sellheim and his family ventured to Sydney where Ziegler was now living, and established Gert Sellheim Design, first located in Barrack Street, then followed by moves to George Street and a home studio in Lane Cove. His final studio was next door to Oswald Ziegler’s office in York Street, Sydney.
One of Sellheim’s first Sydney projects was to design a new logotype for Qantas Empire Airways that was to help promote the airline’s Australia to UK ‘kangaroo route’. Norman Ziegler, Oswald’s oldest son, remembers walking into Sellheim’s Barrack Street office to see the first iterations of a kangaroo with wings. ‘I was shown six pencil sketches on a sheet of paper, and Gert pointed at the one he thought they’d go for – and they did.’ The iconic Flying Kangaroo first appeared on the airline’s new fleet of Lockheed Constellation aircraft in late 1947. In contrast, Sellheim’s smallest work appeared the following year – a two-shilling stamp featuring a crocodile graphic in X-ray style.
As Oswald Ziegler’s go-to book designer, Sellheim collaborated with the best photographers of the day – Max Dupain, Wolfgang Sievers, David Moore and Frank Hurley. They may have been disconcerted by his interpretive approach to design, which included stepped images, wedges, ovals, palette shapes and fluid forms. Ziegler’s son Alan observed that, ‘Gert would often be given large folios of photos by people like Max Dupain; decide where they would go, then begin slicing them into the shapes he wanted and paste them down.’ Sellheim’s approach to typography was usually more formal, although he did experiment with typefaces, placement and space – and he also created most of the necessary illustrations and maps.
The Australian National Travel Association continued to work with Sellheim. His ‘Boomerang’ poster, which was published in a 1957 edition of Modern Publicity, is layered with Australian symbols, including the Southern Cross, a surfboard, a female swimmer, palm trees, a fish, a merino, and the boomerang.
Sellheim worked with Qantas right up to the 1960s, producing stationery, posters, menus and an extensive series of fold-out brochures that he designed and illustrated. Nik Sellheim recalls that Qantas flew his father to all their international ports, which lasted about four months, with a stopover in Germany to visit family. He returned with photographs, paraphernalia and sketches, then began months of illustration and design.
Gert Sellheim died on 3 January 1970, aged 69, in his Sydney home, still with a few Ziegler books on the go. He was survived by his wife Sally, son Nikolaus and daughter Karin.
His graphics continue to reflect the way we imagine and depict the Australian continent and its people. In 2001 the Powerhouse Museum (now MAAS) included his work in the exhibition Celebrating Australia: identity by design, which travelled to Washington DC and New York. Sellheim’s posters and books are held by galleries, universities and public libraries, and in a world record for an Australian poster, his 1936 ‘Australia – Surf Club’ sold in New York in 2011 for US$24,000. And of course his Flying Kangaroo lives on in new iterations.
Graham Rendoth, AGDA Hall of Fame Committee, October 2019