Beryl Guertner – décor queen

A Writer examines the home life of an Australian media pioneer.

SINCE the release of the Paper Giants franchise on Australian television screens, audiences have been exploring the groundbreaking stories of women in the print media.

But long before Ita Buttrose, Nene King and Dulcie Boling, a country woman, who was good with words and had great visual flair, was selected to spearhead a bright-coloured revolution in home decorating for a new magazine – Australian House and Garden.

Her name was Beryl Guertner. Behind her stellar career was the story of community-minded women who wanted to make a home for themselves in the leafy streets of Warrimoo.

As a tribute to a local magazine pioneer, this feature was first published in Blue Mountains Life in June 2010.

SITTING IN STYLE Beryl Guertner in the 1950s.
SITTING PRETTY Guertner at home.

Life with Beryl

The Warrimoo community remembers Beryl Guertner, Australian magazine pioneer and community woman.

Soon after WWII, residents of sleepy Florabella Street in Warrimoo noticed two women camping on a double block.

Ex-local Bruce Patman recalls: “The two ‘girls’ were befriended by our parents. On seeing them struggling with the elements, they were invited to sleep out on our verandah. There was a spare shed on our property which we cleaned-out. Beryl Guertner and Terri Margetts moved into that while they planned their house. Beryl was a journalist and she travelled to the city to work each day, while Terri (who I believe had garden nursery experience) grew gladioli flowers for market”.

BERYL GUERTNER
COMMUNITY WOMAN Beryl Guertner dancing with a neighbour at a local 21st birthday party, Warrimoo, 1958.

“No doubt as a result of the war, we had a number of women sharing homes in the village whom we regarded as ‘old maids’, Bruce adds. “Beryl and Terri were largely regarded as two girls pooling their resources for a dream of building a sandstone block house. I remember helping out at weekends with stonework in the gardens, and some of the heavy lifting.”

“Beryl got her first job when she settled here in the shed … with New Idea,” long-term local Elizabeth Leven recalls. “Then this opportunity came up to be editor of Australian House and Garden, and she applied for it.”

“I don’t think she was that confident she would get it,” Bruce’s brother Barry Patman reflects.

The new Australian House and Garden magazine opened its doors on Young Street, Sydney, in late 1947. The brainchild of publisher Ken Murray, the popular publication aimed to deliver low-cost décor to the average household, including monthly architects’ plans for small homes. Murray gave Beryl sixteen weeks to create the first edition from scratch.

“They were very excited when Beryl was accepted as the founding editor,” Bruce remembers. “Beryl was very enthusiastic with exciting ideas, and on occasion, she related them to us. She was very clever in her field.”

“I remember painting bottles with Christmas designs and making a lamp stand out of wine bottles as projects for the magazine,” Barry recalls.

AUSTRALIAN STYLE Early cover of Australian House & Garden magazine.
AUSTRALIAN STYLE Early cover of Australian House & Garden magazine.

From such humble roots, Beryl Guertner became widely known in the Australian media for spearheading the home design revolution of the 1950s. The continued popularity of home makeover media owes much to the groundbreaking vision of Beryl and her contemporaries.

Born in Sydney in 1917 to Eugene and Maude, Beryl was raised and schooled at Wagga Wagga. By the outbreak of the war she’d returned to the city and embarked on a series of journalism and public relations jobs for companies like The Daily Telegraph and Paramount Pictures.

Beryl’s German father Eugene was interned at Liverpool for most of the war. Whether it was the whole family, or just Beryl, who adopted ‘Guertner’ from ‘Gürtner’ is not clear. It remained her professional name throughout her lengthy career.

Why Beryl chose Warrimoo remains a bit of a mystery. The semi-rural community was the vision of property developer Arthur Rickard, whose advertisements in the Sydney media for his satellite suburbs on the city’s fringe cannot have escaped Beryl’s attention in the 1930s and 40s.

The pressures of putting a new magazine together while commuting seems to have put an end to Beryl and Terri’s vision for a sandstone house. It may also have ended their relationship. “Terri worked very hard on the start of the sandstone house, but then there came a split between them and Terri moved away. We were very sorry for her after all her hard work,” Bruce recalls.

Other locals remember how Beryl met Catherine (‘Kate’) Warmoll, a fellow commuter who worked as an accountant for Cinzano, on the train. The two eventually moved in together and completed the first stage of their home around 1949-50. In the process, Beryl and Kate became integral members of the Warrimoo community.

Elizabeth Leven still lives in Florabella Street – “We used to laugh about Beryl,” she relates. “She had quite a few men under her as editor, and I remember her telling me one day that she used the filthiest language when she was talking to them … because that was the language the men understood. She and Kate used to walk to the station, but they would walk in old shoes and carry their good shoes.”

Bronwyn Kilner grew up at Warrimoo and remembers: “Beryl was very blond, and very pretty, she always wore gorgeous clothes, floral patterned skirts and looked lovely. Kate wore jeans and shirts, and dungarees, but the two of them made a great couple.”

Elizabeth Leven’s daughter Margaret states, with a fond smile, that Beryl was: “Always overdone for Warrimoo.”

Over time Kate and Beryl expanded their home from a one-room cottage to include a second bedroom, garage, stylish ‘crazy paving’ chimney, patios hewn from local stone, a verandah overlooking the valley, and a stone bridge in the front garden.

Their garden in particular left its mark in local memories. “Beryl always reckoned we were in the tropical belt,” Barry Hickey recalls. “She had a map showing the different climatic regions, and she reckoned Warrimoo was a place you could grow almost anything.”

Neighbours to Beryl and Kate since 1958, Barry and Joan Hickey remember how keen the couple were on the red-flowered ‘Coral Trees’, which many believe they introduced to the region.

Warimoo endured regular bushfires in the 1950s and 60s, and Beryl and Kate were members of the bushfire brigade. “It was Beryl who got me into the brigade,” Barry recalls. “She never rode the fire truck of course, but it was important that the community support the brigade.”

Artist and ex-local Donna Hawkins recalls: “Sometime in the late 1960s I had the good fortune to spend an evening in Beryl Guertner’s beautiful home. I went there with my Brownie pack to learn about cake decorating and how to make marzipan fruits. Compared to my simple home on the other side of the railway track, Beryl’s home was quite exotic – the lush entry graced with tree ferns and garden lights, the elegant lamps in the lounge room created a warm atmosphere. Our little group felt welcome and important”.

ICING QUEEN One of Beryl's many books on cake decorating.
ICING QUEEN One of Beryl’s many books on cake decorating.

“We crowded around the table and followed her lead, shaping marzipan into tiny bananas, oranges and apples, then painting them with food colouring. It was an evening of creativity I will never forget … to discover that food could be a work of art was inspiring.”

Bronwyn Kilner remembers her mother asking Beryl’s design advice for their newly completed home. “I recall that the main living area of the house, and the hallway, had very light oyster grey walls, with chartreuse ceilings!” Bronywn says. “There was green ivy-patterned wallpaper in the dining room and the entry foyer. The spare bedroom had grey walls, almost a gun-metal grey, and the ceiling was painted a tomato soup red!”

Beryl and Kate sold their home in the early 1970s to fellow commuter Jack Maddock. Nita Maddock’s first response, when Jack suggested they look at the house, was to say: “I’m not living in Warrimoo!”

However, once she saw Beryl and Kate’s home, she decided they should buy it immediately. “It was just the happiest house,” Nita remembers.

Beryl and Kate retired to the Central Coast, where Beryl continued to write and edit in her field until her cancer-related death in 1981.

I recently visited Beryl and Kate’s home on Florabella Street, the residence of John and Sue Cottee for the past thirteen years. I asked Sue when she became aware of the designer heritage of her home.

“It was a local who said to me one day: ‘You know you’re living in the party house?’” Sue recalls.

When the Hickey’s stroll in from next door, Joan and Barry both recall what sounds like the biggest party of them all – an event for the magazine – possibly the twentieth anniversary in 1968, with “magazine people up from the city,” Joan remembers. An electrician by trade, Barry tells us: “I floodlit the trees for the night.”

BERYL'S WAY Beryl Guertner's house in Florabella Street, Warrimoo.
BERYL’S WAY Beryl Guertner’s house in Florabella Street, Warrimoo.

The Levens join us in the front garden for coffee, amongst the surviving stonework patios, pathways, bridge and pond designed by Beryl, Kate and Terri.

“There was a time when I was welcome in every home on this street,” Elizabeth Leven recalls, and it’s clear from this gathering of long-term Warrimoo residents that Beryl and Kate were too. “Generous people”, “arty and flamboyant”, “involved in the community” are common terms the locals use when remembering the couple.

John Cottee shares the plan for expanding and renovating the house, which has been altered extensively since Beryl and Kate left.

“We want to preserve the surviving stone work in the garden,” John outlines.

I get the feeling that Beryl would very much approve of the 21st century renovation of a house and garden that has been evolving ever since she came to Warrimoo. After all, it was her life’s work to empower Australians to transform their own homes, and she herself had started life on the same block in nothing but a tent.

PLUCK COVER copyThanks to Evelyn Richardson and Kate Matthew of the Warrimoo History Project, and all those who provided memories of Beryl Guertner for this article.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

 

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