Fritz Karl Heinz Lowenstein was born in Upper Silesia in 1919, in what was then a part of Germany. With the Nazis rounding up Jewish people, he fled to Belgium in 1938 after the violent “Crystal Night.” He managed to make it to England in 1940, escaping from Nazis via the Dunkirk evacuation. He arrived in Australia on the 6th of September of 1940 aboard the Dunera. There, he spent his first months in his new homeland in the Hay and Tatura Internment Camps. It was in 1941 that he met Ernest Rodeck at Tatura. When he was released about a year later, Lowenstein shortened his name to the easier to pronounce Lowen and began working as a fitter and turner.
Fred Lowen and Fler: A Craftsman and His Company
Despite possessing very little knowledge of wood, Lowen began selling the wooden dinnerware he made to gift shops. His products included hand-turned wooden plates, bowls, and trays. At the same time, Ernest Rodeck made pencil propellers using wood. It was not surprising that the two struck a partnership, opening a small workshop in a tiny stable in Richmond, Melbourne in 1945. Combining their initials, they called their fledgling enterprise FLER.
Fred Ward, a designer of Myer Emporium, noticed Lowen’s craftsmanship and convinced him to make chairs. Lowen came up with spindle-legged dining chairs. Eager to refine his skill and craftsmanship, Lowen then took a basic course in Furniture Design and Construction at the Melbourne Technical College from 1949 to 1950.
Fler got a big break when Robin Boyd invited the company to partner with him in a house building project in 1958. They came up with the first Fler-designed home in Blackburn, a house that continues to stand to this day.
By the 1960s, Fler Furniture had grown into a major Australian company, with a factory in all Australian provinces. During Fler’s peak, Lowen served as its chief designer and joint managing director. In 1964, Lowen took a sabbatical to take up Design Studies at Stuttgart Academy under Professor Herbert Hirche. Soon after, Fler Furniture was then taken over by Australian Controls Limited in 1966. Lowen stayed on as Design Director for two years.
In 1967, Boyd once again chose Fler to join him and other designers to contribute furniture designs for the Australian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo. Several Fler-designed items were featured alongside the Featherston ‘talking chairs’ made by the couple Grant and Mary Featherston.
Lowen’s Designs for Fler Furniture
Fred Lowen designed several furniture pieces and ranges that continue to be sought after even today. Among these are the SC55 and SC58 armchairs, the Narvik dining and lounge ranges, the Fleronde, the Flerena, the aluminium shell chair and mahogany extending table. Of course, this list includes the chair and desk pair that was featured in the Australian Pavilion in 1967.
SC55 and SC58 Armchairs
These were designed between 1955 to 1958 and were made from solid timber. With refined and slender lines, boomerang curves, surfboard style armrests, these Scandi-Pacific style chairs helped place Fler as one of the leading furniture brands.
Narvik Daybed Sofa
Released in 1961, the Narvik range was one of Fler’s most popular. The Narvik Daybed Sofa has an aerodynamic frame made from sculpted mahogany, a rattan weave backrest and comfortable woollen upholstery. It has stylish kook-end uprights, concord style armrests and folds into a daybed.
Fleronde Swivel Chair
The Fleronde swivel chair was released between 1964 and 1965. With vinyl wrapped over a flawlessly formed frame and the seat lightly floating over an ‘x’ type swivel base, it presents quite a profile and guaranteed comfort.
Flerena Coffee Table
Designed in 1968, the Flerena coffee table is built from solid teak timber. It is a sturdy table with tapered legs, suspended shelf, splendidly shaped tabletop supports and a sleek curved edge floating top.
The Next Level: Lowen and Twen
Lowen left Fler in 1968 to start another furniture company, Twen. Lowen co-founded the new enterprise with his brother, Howard Lindsey, while Sigi Danielzik served as their design technician. The company’s name was inspired by the hit song “Puppet on a String”.
In 1970, Twen was renamed Tessa after the daughter of a close friend. Tessa grew to become a leader in design and quality furniture manufacture and quickly became a household name in Australia. Their popularity also reached Europe, with the furniture being sold across the continent.
Tessa is well-known for the T4 hammock design, which was inspired by the hammock Lowen slept in when he was aboard the Dunera. The innovative and stunning design amazed people at the 1971 Cologne fair. Other classics include the T1 model, which won the 1970 Dunhill Design Award and the T8 style frame, designed in 1974.
All of these designs are still being manufactured today with the same specifications and standards. Tessa continues to make the T8 in Melbourne, and it comes in teak, Victorian ash and Tasmanian Blackwood veneers with many cushion styles available. Tessa also offers repair, recover and re-polishing services.
Fred Lowen retired from active work in 1986 but stayed as Tessa’s design consultant for another four years.
Fred Lowen, Award-Winning Artist
Fred Lowen’s designs won him several awards like the Dunhill Design Award in 1970 for his T1 model. He then received the Sebel Design Award in 1972 and the special commendation in the Prince Philip Design Awards the next year. In 1981, he was given the Advance Australia Award for Outstanding Contribution to Furniture Design. He also received five “Classic Design” Awards from the Industrial Council of Australia in 1985. In 1987, he was inducted as a member in the Order of Australia, General Division for his service to furniture design and manufacture. He was also inducted into the Industrial Category of the Design Institute of Australia’s Hall of Fame.
Some of his works can be viewed in the Immigrants’ Museum’s Impacts Display. Three of his designs were once included in the One Hundred Modern Chairs exhibit at the National Gallery Victoria. These three and two more designs eventually became part of the said gallery’s permanent collection.
The Lowen Legacy
Four years before his death in 2005, he wrote his autobiography, Fred Lowen: Dunera Boy, Furniture Designer, Artist (2001). The Jewish migrant fleeing from Nazi persecution perhaps never imagined the impact he would have on Australia’s design and furniture industry. He began to carve out a living with simple wooden utensils, despite his lack of experience with the material. As he was encouraged to create furniture, he persevered and even took courses to refine his skill and produce furniture with high-quality craftsmanship that pretty much set the standard in contemporary furniture design.
It is no wonder that with the revival of the interest in mid-century furniture, Lowen’s designs have reclaimed the spotlight alongside those of notable designers like Boyd, Featherston, and Parker. The Scandi-Pacific style of his designs makes the furniture, whether manufactured by Fler or Tessa, truly a collector’s dream. The streamline forms and sturdy built of Lowen furniture make them a practical addition to a modern home. The revival has also brought a demand for refurbishing and restoration services for long-loved Lowen furniture. Today’s demand for Lowen’s design is a testament to his legacy of sleek, sturdy, Scandinavian style furniture.