Remembering a modest maker who left his mark

13 April 2021

Amy Jarvis pays tribute to former ANU designer, master carpenter, draftsman, designer and cabinetmaker, Hans Pillig, who passed away on 4 February 2021.  

Few have left their physical mark on the Acton campus like Hans Pillig, a modest man who spent more than 30 years quietly designing and making at ANU.

Born on 9 September 1927 in Mexico to German and Russian parents, Hans spent his childhood strongly influenced by the arts, particularly by his father, a renowned sculptor and wood carver. Hans moved to Germany at age 12 and grew up during the Second World War, in 1951 he emigrated to Australia. As a qualified carpenter, Hans was attracted to  make the move to Australia when builder AV 'Bert' Jennings put a call out across Germany to attract tradesmen to build over 1800 houses in Canberra.

Of over 2,500 applicants, Hans was one of 150 'Jennings Germans' who made the voyage to Canberra for a two-year contract with the AV Jennings company, which offered more than double the wages available in war-torn Germany and a new life in a new country. Like most of the others, Hans chose to stay on and his parents and other family soon joined him and made Canberra their home.

In 1955, Hans joined the workshop at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) as a Joiner, where he also met Anne Penkethman who worked in the laboratories, later to become his wife of almost 60 years.

His work at JCSMR did not go unnoticed by the newly appointed University Designer, Fred Ward and Assistant Designer Derek Wrigley, who recruited Hans to join their 'Design Unit' in 1959 as a Design Draftsman. Wrigley said of this time 'his working knowledge of Australian timbers and familiarity with woodworking machinery, together with his drafting skills, were to prove invaluable to our work and to enrich our team spirit'.

A browse through the Design Unit's extensive archives show hundreds of designs marked with Hans' initials including all manner of furniture, interiors and industrial items such as lighting, lecterns and display cases. Hans also designed special gifts for departing members of the University and visiting dignitaries such as American President Lyndon B. Johnson. His skills in design and drafting were obvious, but he was also a master craftsman, hand-making several of these gifts and other items in the University's workshops as well as furniture for his home.

At the height of development on campus, Hans and the Design Unit team were designing furniture and fittings for multiple buildings a year, as well as overseeing the manufacture of thousands of items. Hans' role included the procurement and supervision of this manufacturing at a time when items suitable for university use were not commercially available.

Following Ward's departure in 1961, Hans worked as Assistant University Designer with Derek Wrigley, and later as University Designer until his retirement in 1987.

He enjoyed fossicking and travelling with Anne in his retirement and spending time with his three sons and their families. Hans was described as a humble man, an exceptionally hard worker and quiet achiever. His design legacy remains strong across the ANU Campus, with many elements of his work in active use. His contribution to the University and wider Canberra cultural landscape will be well remembered.  

Amy Jarvis is the University Heritage Advisor. Hans Pillig was remembered at a ceremony in Canberra on Friday 12 February 2021.