You might not know the name of the person who built it, but climbing on the 10-metre high, cubed metal Dervish monument on the Southbank boulevard is a rite of passage for any Melbourne child. Clement Meadmore’s sculpture, commissioned in 1973, is an iconic part of the city.

Even less known about Meadmore is his influential career as a furniture and product designer in the mid-century era of modernism which emerged in the early 1950s, a time when Australian furniture and product design really found its feet. This innovative group of designers is the subject of the current exhibition Mid-Century Modern, at the National Gallery of Victoria, where Meadmore’s furniture, lighting and interiors feature heavily, and deservedly so.

Meadmore’s career can be looked at in two parts, beginning in design and ending in sculpture. His degree in industrial design at RMIT University was a launching pad that prepared him well for the exciting era of Australian design he was a part of.

The designer’s captivating body of work is still less well known than that of his contemporaries; figures such as Grant Featherston, Douglas Snelling and Gordon Andrews. Theirs was a generation concerned with making local design worthy of international recognition. A 1953 monograph of Meadmore’s work, A catalogue of contemporary furniture by Meadmore Originals, opens with the words: “Representing the best in Australian design and satisfying the need for furniture up to present overseas standards and at a reasonable price”. An ethos that emphasised, above all, “good design”.

“Industrial” and “modern” are terms bandied about regularly, but ’50s manufacturing processes radically influenced design. Factories, many of which were in Collingwood and Fitzroy, could produce better furniture, prompting more creative design. For Meadmore this was hugely influential, and his furniture designs were driven by the availability of basic materials – plywood, string, wire and chrome – and above all, their function.

Take his three-legged plywood chair, one of his pieces on display at the NGV, a design that looks as though it could have been conceived yesterday. The simple dining chair makes use of the cheap and durable material that is so popular now among contemporary furniture designers.

Meadmore’s success during this period was also in part due to his involvement with the successful gallerist Max Hutchinson, who ran Melbourne’s Gallery A (which opened in 1959). Together they showcased the increasingly popular array of artists and designers to a receptive and enthusiastic public.

In 1963 Meadmore’s career ended and began again when he moved to New York and broke away from the design world in Australia. The move spurred his second and equally influential body of work as a metal sculptor.

Turning over a new leaf, he began making large fabricated site sculptures, such as Southbank’s Dervish, that were more conceptual. The minimalist generation and artists such as Donald Judd, Tony Smith and John McCracken – who were kicking about New York – heavily influenced Meadmore’s new chapter.

At face value, his later sculpture works show no trace of his former career as a designer. But the process Meadmore used to create his pieces, building blocks of resin to shape them, must have been informed by the skills he gained during his industrial design degree at RMIT.

Today, Meadmore’s furniture and art is slowly gaining popularity and recognition in Australia’s art and design history. But he is still less well-known than many others in his generation. Despite this, his epic sculptures endure on cityscapes worldwide: you can be in the presence of a Meadmore in Chicago, New York or the banks of the Yarra.

Mid-Century Modern will be on at the NGV until October 19.

ngv.vic.gov.au