Creator Peter Von

Creator Peter Von Czarnecki

“Right from the outset, I was determined to use objects that were rejects from some former use to ensure that some, or indeed all, of the parts I used could be recognised on closer inspection for what they originally were, but rearranged hopefully in an amusing, even hilarious way. I remember paraphrasing Oscar Wilde to The Pancake Parlour co-founder Allen Trachsel with ‘The Importance of Never Being Earnest’. That’s my motto.

“To the end, I literally haunted the scrap-metal yards hunting for just the right relic of yesterday’s technology. I was not entirely alone in this pursuit; there were a few misguided souls who also loved these unloved and dirty places, picking over stuff and trying to make the useless useful. But I was the king. I actually bought things, marvellous things of all shapes and sizes and origins, discarded but often beautiful. I could easily become elated over an old cogwheel or a cast-iron bracket, always mindful that they were on their last journey to the furnace. I think you had to be there to understand. As Shakespeare said, ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.’ Looking back, I guess there may have been quite a bit of strutting and fretting on my part between 1965 and 2006, but all I cared about was doing the right thing and making a genuine contribution that I can be proud of.”

– Peter Von Czarnecki, designer of Whimsical Wonders


As featured in The Advertiser, Adelaide, in 1990

The thingummy sort of goes on top of the whirligig, the dooverlackie sits inside the doochickie and the whatsit goes up and down, making contented mechanical noises. The fact that is built entirely from recycled junk does not negate the fact that this highly polished, immaculate, intricate contraption may have cost as much as $40,000. It is the sort of thing that would have made Heath Robinson – the famous English designer of fanciful machines – envious of the inventive and possibly warped mind of its creator. That belongs to Peter Von Czarnecki, a former newspaper artist turned art and antique restorer, collector of beautiful things and all-round scavenger – or, as one of his friends has put it, the last of the ‘Tip Rats’.

In the past six years, he has discovered that by drawing together his many diverse talents – and injecting a deadly dose of lunacy – he can make money. He is one of a handful of people around the world capable of constructing such splendidly cranky machines – others live in the United States, London and Belgium – and he is possibly the best. Although Peter Von, as most people call him, makes a nice little success story for Adelaide, none of his work is seen here. It adorns the increasingly vast caverns of The Pancake Parlour restaurants in Victoria (itself another South Australian success story, which began here as The Pancake Kitchen), the result of a close association which extends back 27 years to a time when he was The Pancake Kitchen’s second customer and discovered they needed a menu drawn up in a hurry.

Peter Von – the only child of a nomadic Polish academic and a Canadian-born nurse – was born in Western Australia “in the middle of nowhere”, and raised by his mother near a rubbish tip at Marian, South Australia; and that, he says, is “where it all started”. He was uncomfortable as a child, out of place with his European background. A sensitive, only child, he developed his artistic sensibilities early. He made his first masterpiece when he was 12 – a clock carefully assembled from cogs and springs he had found. “But the hands just spun around and everyone laughed, even my mother, he says. “I was so disappointed.”

Others were to follow. He built a soapbox racer “you had to see to believe.” But the steering system he designed had a fatal flaw: when steered left the contraption went right. Peter Von agrees it may seem strange that he has no mechanical knowledge at all. “People ask me who my influences have been and was Heath-Robinson one of them,” he says. “But really I don’t have any – so I have to invent them.

“Heath Robinson had an excellent idea of mechanics. I don’t. I just use pure lunacy. People might tell me I could have done something an easier way but that is no use to me. I want to do it the more difficult way. When I was a child I had a Meccano set but it was too rational and I hated it. I could never bolt it together. I can’t even tell how a car works but I think that’s to my advantage because I have to take the long way around something, the absurd way.”

After graduation from art school in Adelaide – he wanted to be a writer – Peter joined The Advertiser at first as a copy boy working alongside the now-famed cartoonist Pat Oliphant and, finally, as chief artist. After 32 years he finally decided he’d had enough.

“Nothing happened really”, he said. “I don’t know why I stayed so long. But it did give me an ability to work at speed and meet deadlines which is what you need in the building game.”

Meanwhile, he pumped the overflow of his creative energy into the house he shares with wife Naomi. He absorbed books on topics such as gilding and fine art restoration and learnt to do reverse paintings on glass and paint murals on ceilings. At one stage his wife said she wanted an ornate, French style bedroom, so he made one. As well they filled their house with a wonderful collection of the arcane, beautiful and some times bizarre, to the extent that Peter Von had to extend, typically laying the 27,000 bricks it took to do it himself.

When he quit newspapers, his pancake-maker mates were quick to offer him a job as a full-time consultant. Peter Von had already created their famous LOVELY! Lady logo, adapted from a 1880s hair advertisement: now for 20 years he has provided a steady stream of graphics characterised by their wit and lunacy.

By this stage, The Pancake Parlour was fast expanding with numerous sites around Victoria, often in difficult premises which other businesses had tried but abandoned. As the risks grew bigger, it needed to pull out its marketing ammunition to stay on top. Peter Von’s crazy machines – he’s built over 12 so far – became one of the big attractions.

He started by making a three metre Pancake Mix Machine. It had a giant packet pouring the mixture into a gramophone horn, passing through a maze of copper pipe into an elaborately painted watering can and out, finally as a stack of pancakes.

“That was nothing compared to what I’ve done since but no-one had really seen anything like it”, Peter Von said. “It was such fun that I realised it had potential.”

The Mix Machine went into The Pancake Parlour in Chadstone, where customers “stole all the bits” and poured maple syrup down the gramophone horn. Peter Von has had to rebuild it once.

Peter Von’s favourite, however, is the 8m long Monkey Dirigible, driven by a stuffed Monkey in a large cane washing-basket gondola, which sits atop a Victorian lamp post at Northland Shopping Centre. The Monkey wears a genuine World War I flying jacket and helmet. There is an 1880s mahogany-and-brass ship’s wheel surrounded by a huge copper coffee pot, a Victorian mangle adapted as a mini crepe-making machine, antique French car headlights, a brass anchor and a vintage gas ring with a motor labelled “Best Boys Clockwork” that drives the propellers the wrong way.

The most elaborate machine is the 6m wide Granny Plane, finished last year, which flies above Forest Hill’s Shopping Centre. Like all his machines, it began with Peter Von finding some treasure in a salvage yard, this time a vast quantity of aluminium tubing. The propellers came from some sort of food-processing machine, while the propeller hubs were once differential housings and motorcycle chain sprockets. Granny sits wearing leather boots in a Victorian oak wheelchair, from where she steers the plane, constantly correcting it in a vague, indeterminate manner, with a steering wheel adapted from a washing-machine drive pulley.

Nearby is a Maple Syrup Refining Plant built around an old gas water heater, with old trumpet parts, boat propellers, hot-water heating coils and even part of a jet engine stitched together by kilometres of copper pipe. Some people believe it actually refines maple syrup.

Reality is a problem for Peter Von. He made a facsimile newspaper poster full of fake historical detail and a heading that read, “Grandmother Downs Hun – heroine destroys Red Baron”, and somehow involving every pioneer aviator from the Wright brothers to Amelia Earhart. A Melbourne museum phoned to say he was misleading children. Peter Von giggles, incredulous that it was taken seriously, repeating a quote he read somewhere on the importance of not being earnest.

Now he wants to make an improved pancake stamping machine and a dog-paddling submarine. His backyard is already filling up with junk.