Life On The Job

Indigenous Famous or Historic People

INDUSTRIAL DESIGNER  - Shirley de Vocht [nee: Martin] (1929 - 2003)

Shirley de Vocht
Handcoloured photograph of Shirley Martin taken by Hector Brown, Sydney, c.1945, MAAS collection, 2002/88/1-4/1


Shirley was the daughter of an Australian Aboriginal father and grandfather.

Shirley de Vocht [nee Martin] was a female industrial designer based in Sydney who had a long and illustrious career as a post-WWII Australian textile and ceramic designer. She is best known for designing the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games towel, but there is much more to her remarkable design industry success story.

In 1948, Shirley married John de Vocht, a photographer who was in the Dutch Air Force. Their son Vaughn Willem de Vocht was born in 1960. Their daughter Nicolle Leigh de Vocht was born in 1962. 

John de Vocht had trained in England and was sent to Australia in lieu of being sent to the Dutch East Indies. Initially based at the Archerfield Aerodrome in Qld, John de Vocht moved to Bradfield Park, Sydney where he met Shirley de Vocht around 1945. He then went onto the East Indies for two and a half years, and continued to correspond with Shirley until they married in 1948. 
(Source: Powerhouse Museum Archive)

Did You Know?

1956 Olympic Games Dri-Glo towel design was created by Shirley

Olympic Towel designed by Shirley de Vocht
Olympic Games towel designed by Shirley de Vocht for Dri-Glo Towels, Sydney, 1956, MAAS collection, 2002/88/8

From 1951 to 1959, Shirley’s last major industrial employment was with Dri-Glo Towels in Five Dock. While there, Shirley was invited to create a towel design for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games (the image at top of this post). The brief stated that the design was to include the Olympic Torch. Shirley added the Olympic Rings, a map of Australia, and ‘because I love Australian animals so much, I was determined that I would have them on the towel’
(Newspaper article, ‘Ay, there’s the rub’, interview with Shirley de Vocht, c2000).

The towel was produced in green and yellow, colours Shirley felt she may have helped introduce to represent Australia. The red and white version of the towel (illustrated above) was produced for her own personal use. After the games, the torch on the towel was replaced by a surfer to extend the design into a marketable product.
(Source: Inside the Collection)

During her career, she held numerous positions, always seeking more technically challenging projects and producing many marketable product designs, some incorporating Aboriginal motifs and symbols. Her freelance textile designs feature Australian flora such as native heath, flannel flowers and wattle. Her work was selected for international exhibition and for inclusion in numerous competitions.

Shirley de Vocht continued to work as an artist after the 1960s, painting flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the native cat, the quoll and the snowy numbat, onto mass-produced ceramic plates. Shirley passed away in 2003.
(Source: Inside the Collection)



Shirley de Vocht studied at East Sydney Technical College (ESTC) from 1944 through to 1946 (2 evenings and one day ie Fridays) under Phyllis Shillito (1895-1980), an English designer who had come to Australia from the Yorkshire Textile Centre. (Source: Powerhouse Museum Archive)

Training & Employment

During this same period [1944-46], Shirley embarked on one of her very first jobs. She took on the technically challenging role of translating Australian artist Russell Drysdale’s paintings and drawings into multi-coloured designs for screenprinted furnishing fabrics. At the time, she was just 17 and working in the Design Department of Silk and Textile Printers (STP) in Darlinghurst.

Art in Industry
Art in Industry exhibition and Modernage fabrics produced by Shirley de Vocht (nee Martin) for Silk and Textile Printers, Sydney, 1946, MAAS collection, 2002/88/1-3

In 1947, Shirley went to work for Modern Ceramic Products (MCP) at 107 Redfern Street, Redfern, and worked with MCP till 1948 under the MCP manager, Mr. Impey.

Examples of her work

Gouache on paper, designed by Shirley de Vocht
‘Poppies’ furnishing fabric designed by Shirley de Vocht (nee Martin) for Coverings & Co, Sydney, 1950, MAAS collection, 2002/88/6
Roses’ furnishing fabric designed by Shirley de Vocht  (nee Martin) for Coverings & Co, Sydney, 1950,
MAAS collection, 2002/88/6

Between 1949 and 1950, Shirley worked as a textile designer at Tennyson Textile Mills Pty Ltd, Gladesville, and between 1949 and 1951, she also worked for Coverings & Co Pty Ltd, 72 Gardners Road, Mascot producing jacquard weave designs. During theses years, 1949 to 1951, Shirley also created freelance textile designs of Australian flora including native heath, flannel flowers, wattle and other Australian flora. Several of these were forwarded to FW Grafton & Co Ltd in England in 1952 where one was purchased for production while another was exhibited in England before being returned to Australia.

In 1954, two of Shirley de Vocht's textile designs were selected for inclusion in the Leroy-Alcorso design competition where the 100 best entries received were exhibited. The exhibition included a textile design by Douglas Annand which won first prize.

From 1951 to 1959, Shirley worked as a designer with Dri-Glo Towels Pty Ltd, 213-253 Parramatta Road, Five Dock where she designed a towel for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, among other towel designs, including a daffodil design and a complex merging colour design with vertical stripes. (Source: Powerhouse Museum Archive)

Shirley designed this ‘Bambi’ fabric, her mother made the dress. Photo c1946

Experiences & Opportunities

Shirley helped realize Russell Drysdale’s artwork under the direction of Mary Curtis, head designer at STP. The project provided her with a challenging formative experience which no doubt stood her in good stead for the remainder of her career as a female industrial designer.

Drysdale’s ‘Tree Forms’ was created from drawings taken from a sketchbook and arranged informally to complete a full screen. On completion, ‘Tree Forms’ was considered suitable for furnishing fabrics and was produced as a 12-colour print on heavy wool for furnishing with tan as a dominating colour, and also a monotone print.

‘Stone and Wood’ used a Drysdale motif to create a repeat on a large scale. The design employed a central motif enclosed by a ‘rock-like form’ as a large pattern covering a full screen for curtains using 10 colours on heavy cotton and light wool fabrics. The process was neither simple nor straightforward:

‘Several screens are used in the printing of a multi-colour design; one colour imposed upon another gives a third, so that in the finished product there may be more colours than the number of screens used. Seven or more screens may be bought to the printing room.’ (CM Foley, 1947, p 3).

Surprisingly for the time, women artists represented approximately one third of the artists featured in STP’s ‘Modernage Range’. Just before leaving STP, Shirley also helped prepare and install the ‘Art in Industry’ Modernage Fabrics display in the ballroom of the Australia Hotel in Sydney. This exhibition later travelled to the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne. (Source: Inside the Collection)

Conservation Work
Conservator Dee McKillop at the Powerhouse Museum using a microscope for precision to conserve Shirley's work


Powerhouse Museum: Shirley Martin: Australian Industrial Designer

Shirley de Vocht

Powerhouse Museum: Conserving...

Shirley de Vocht
The Australian Women's Weekly 15 May 1974 - Trove: An article by Shirley about her mother.

The Australian Women's Weekly


Designing Towels for the Olympics!

PrimaryPrimary  MiddleMiddle High SchoolSecondary

CriticalAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Critical and creative thinking

NumeracyAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Numeracy

IndigenousAustralian Curriculum Cross Curriculum Priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures

1. Shirley's fame was creating a design for DriGlo towels for the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956. Look at the following examples of Olympic towel designs for the 2012 and 2016 Games as well as Shirley's design:

1956 2012 London Games
Rio Games 2016

2. Using one element, a flower or an animal, from Shirley's design, stylise this element to create a more modern towel design for the Australian competitors for the next Olympics.

Ensure that there are Indigenous features in the design and that it is distinctly Australian so that it is recognised immediately by the rest of the world.

You will need to embed the next Olympic city's logo for it to be considered official.

3. eBay is selling Andy Murray's towel for Rio for $AU54.66

If it costs $AU18 to make, work out the profit on 23,000 sales and 55,000 sales.

16% of all sales goes to the Rio Games Committee. Work out the money going to the Committee.


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