Phyllis Murphy - Unsung Hero

The names John and Phyllis Murphy are engrained in Victorian architecture. The husband and wife team left their indelible mark on post-war design. Their names are also etched on plaques for dwellings that receive the top award from the Australian Institute of Architects in the category of Houses (Alterations & Additions).


My own house, designed by architect Robert Simeoni, displays this plaque, as it was awarded this honour in 2019. At the age of 90, (Phyllis is now 97), she was conferred with an honorary Ph.D from the University of Melbourne. Some architects are familiar with her and her late husband’s designs, including being part of a small team that designed the Olympic Pool for the Melbourne Games in 1956. Others may only hear these names at award ceremonies.

Although John & Phyllis Murphy’s practice was relatively short, establishing their practice in 1950 and retiring (at least in architecture) in 1982, their legacy continues. A number of their modest yet elegant homes can be discovered in suburbs such as Kew, particularly in the Studley Park area. Often constructed in cream bricks and sensitively orientated to capture light and garden views, some of these houses have been rediscovered by a new generation, simply drawn to their functional open plan spaces. “I have always found that many young people are curious about what has preceded them in life just as John and I were very interested in Swedish pre-war architecture. That was the reason we travelled to Stockholm in 1947”, says Phyllis, who also acknowledges the effect of the Olympic Games on their practice almost a decade later in Melbourne. “The publicity given to the pool (designed with architects Peter McIntyre, Kevin Borland and engineer Bill Irwin) helped us to expand our practice,” says Phyllis, who also concentrated on smaller projects during this time.


At a time when materials were relatively scarce and the size of houses were limited due to post-war shortages, Phyllis sees the positives from that lean period. “My fondest memory from that time was we no longer had rationing of food, clothes and petrol,” says Phyllis. The practice’s early years was also assisted by doing the occasional drafting for architects and also sketches for Home Beautiful. The couple also oversaw the construction of several houses designed by Robin Boyd, “when Robin went abroad after winning the Haddon scholarship. Very soon the clients started to turn up. Our practice expanded quite quickly.”

Phyllis attributes some of the simplicity of their and other architects designs of that period as the desire to live their lives after the war in ‘a pleasant, peaceful and affordable way’. “I think this attitude drove a lot of post war building.” Features such as opening up the kitchen (although not quite as open as it is today) are reflected on. “Orientation was critical and a small area where children could play was very popular. John and I sometimes planned for a future extension when area restrictions would be lifted,” she says.

While the Murphys designed a number of homes (few after 1960), they also designed a number of schools, council projects, factories, small offices and flats, including “the first separate title flats in Melbourne,” says Phyllis, who feels that people generally want to follow the latest fashions in every aspect of life. “It doesn’t worry me if people alter our designs since we did plenty of alteration work ourselves,” says Phyllis, who at one stage created a separate home office from a large Victorian house in Hawthorn and later moving to Kyneton where she immersed herself with work for the National Trust of Australia and focusing on period wallpapers. Around 1982, just before John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Phyllis started collecting and researching historic wallpapers, and has been actively consulting on these for various organisations until only quite recently. “I still like to keep in touch with what’s happening and my collection of wallpapers still interests me,” says Phyllis.

John and Phyllis Murphy always followed the theory of Functionalism, where ‘form follows function and combines science with art’. “We particularly admired the Swedish communal flats which gave so much thought to the needs of the workers who were to live in them. We always aimed to create a similar level of efficiency in our own designs,” adds Phyllis.

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