George Freedman: Remembering a virtuoso voluptuary

Posted on 1 January 2018

George Freedman (left) with Michael Threlfo at Danesbank, George’s farm near Milton.

George Freedman (1936–2016) used the term ‘voluptuary’ to describe people with bright personalities who enjoy luxurious living—especially fine dining, drinking, the arts and design. Because he was a virtuoso voluptuary himself, he flowed smoothly around the highest circles of Sydney society—and because his bold atmospheric strategies were appreciated by restaurateurs, he designed many of the city’s favourite hospitality venues of the 1980s and 1990s. 

Within hours of his arrival in Sydney from New York in 1969, George was welcomed warmly by Marion Hall Best, the city’s then queen of society rooms, Rajahstani paint glazes and imported modern furniture. After she retired in 1974, he naturally succeeded her as Sydney’s most respected interior designer and colourist of the late 20th century. He was promoted frequently by the top home design magazine, Belle, and especially by its head stylist, Babette Hayes, and her flock of protegés.

His childhood with a paint colourist father, architectural education in New York and London, and talent as an ingenue painter exhibiting in Europe formed the platform upon which he built his outstanding professional career in Sydney. He was remarkably skilful at magnetising finishes and furnishing commissions from most of the top architects of his heyday. While most architects resisted aligning with ‘inferior desecrators’, they seemed to recognise that George’s sophisticated furnishing talents added highly photogenic singularity to their late-modernist and postmodernist structures. At this time, architects were not taught much about interior or lighting design—the techniques for generating emotional responses from occupants of interiors.

As well as working with the best architects of his own generation, George employed two younger generations of talented young architects and designers. Their fresh eyes and drafting training helped him to win professional recognition as an ‘interior architect’ worthy of commendation from the notoriously designer-dismissive Royal Australian Institute of Architects. His several lectures at Tusculum, the institute’s Sydney headquarters, were well-attended and his international scholarship was appreciated. For example, he introduced younger architects to the sophisticated spatial concepts, optical tricks, and antiquities wonders of Sir John Soane’s house-museum at Lincolns Inn Fields in London. Its curators kindly provided George with a sample for one of his favourite paint colours: a subtle shade of yellow mixed for Soane by the maritime painter J.M.W. Turner. Many Sydney architects and connoisseurs made pilgrimages to Soane’s house after hearing about it from George, or one of his staff.

George’s social success stemmed from his exceptionally handsome and casually elegant appearance (Latino meets the Ivy League). Although naturally reticent in conversation, he was appreciated for his sophisticated cultural knowledge and sardonic, sometimes saucy, remarks. He dined regularly with restaurateur client-friends and some of Sydney’s most opinionated influencers—including Paul Keating, Leo Schofield and John Alexander during the 1990s. His city homes were glamorous, yet he lived with a simple domestic routine of walking the dogs, cooking delicious meals and teacakes for visitors, and celebrating any excuse with a classic American-modern cocktail (negronis were a favourite).

He also enjoyed occasional turns of self-irony and doses of retro kitsch. For example, in the early 1990s, he cooked a three-course lunch with 40-year-old recipes from the 1954 Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (many using canned vegetables). Spoofing his reputation as one of Sydney’s most fashionable gourmands, George prepped this spread at Danesbank, his farmhouse near Milton, for publication as a Belle lifestyle article. It was a typically marvellous shoot … ending not with Toklas’s famous hashish fudge but with flaming amaretti wrappers evaporating in the twilight as we shared spiked coffees and happy vibes in the planters’ chairs on his verandah.