Wunderlich was broadcast on 24th July 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
The red earth of Australia is iconic but in the early twentieth century a different kind of red crept over the face of its towns and cities– the Marseilles roof tile. The terracotta tiles, imported from France, are forever linked to one name: Wunderlich. Because it was the Wunderlich brothers – Ernest, Alfred and Otto – who truly transformed the look of the Australian built environment.
The brothers were all born in London and educated in Switzerland. Ernest was the first to make it to Australia, arriving in Sydney with his new wife Fanny in 1885, intending to make a living from selling architectural fittings, including pressed metal mansard windows, the sort you see on Parisian roofs. He also imported pressed metal ceilings which, when painted, looked as fine as any in plaster. It was quite a coup then when he managed to persuade the builders of the new Town Hall in Sydney that their grand auditorium, with its thundering pipe organ, would be much safer if its ceiling was made of pressed metal, which was unlikely to fall, as plaster might, the moment the organ let rip. Alfred arrived and patented a new method of stamping metal, which they sold to the building and furniture company, WH Rocke. It was Rocke that had first imported the red Marseilles tile, and when the company foundered, the Wunderlich brothers took it over. It meant they were now responsible for supplying tiles and pressed metal from factories in both Melbourne and Sydney. With Otto arriving in 1900, the trio expanded the company, each brother having a particular aptitude for sales, marketing, or product development. When the First World War stopped imports from Europe the Wunderlich company continued to grow, popularising their locally-made pressed metal using Australian motifs like flannel flowers and waratahs, adding decorative terracotta kangaroos and kookaburras to their range of roof tiles. The company captured the spirit of the newly Federated nation, defining a national style.
As architectural tastes changed, the company explored the potential of a new wonder material, asbestos. Durasbestos, as theirs was known, looked like rough-cast plasterwork, perfect for the popular Californian bungalow, and didn’t rot, proving to be immensely popular with builders and homeowners. Today we shake our heads, knowing the disaster and heartbreak the use of this material would bring. One suspects the Wunderlich brothers would have been horrified, too, given they promoted decent working conditions and health benefits for their staff when this was a rare thing. Ernest became a cultural force, too, helping establish the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney and boosting the profile of the Australian Museum.
The Wunderlich story is a true Australian story, of outsiders finding their fortune and making a difference. The company was absorbed by James Hardie in the 1960s, but it’s a joy still to walk the suburban streets of Australia and admire fine examples of the early Wunderlich legacy, still casting a red glow over the roofs of a nation.