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Australian design

Australian designers, by their very nature, look for simple and elegant solutions for challenges in often ordinary situations, balancing creativity with cost-effectiveness and innovative construction.

Marc Newson, Lockheed 2, 1986, made by Eckhard Reissig 1988-90. Image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum.

Inspiration comes not only from historical and international origins but from the Australian environment, seasonal variations, urban architecture, literature, visual arts, and street culture.

Australia designers reflect current trends as well as social and economic situations. Designers also ask critical questions about how we think and see ourselves. One of the many challenges within the design industry is balancing creativity with the demands of cost-effective and innovative construction.

The Modern Era, 1950s and 60s

Post-war production of plastics and composites (combined materials) dramatically changed what was possible for designers in the 20th century. These new materials set off a preoccupation in the 1950s and 60s with the scientific future or the House of Tomorrow. This theme is frequently associated with a modernist era in Australian design, and was greatly influenced by the architect Harry Seidler and other proponents of modern architecture, especially Robin Boyd and Roy Grounds.

Contemporary practice

The 1980s saw a period of remarkable growth in the Australian design world. In 1980, the appearance of Tony Fry's influential reference book Design History Australia reminded professionals of the need to consider design within the social and economic context of Australian history. There are a number of Australian designers currently achieving success and developing strong reputations within the fiercely competitive global context.

Australiana

Cockatoo Rug

Catherine Martin, Australiana Suite, Cockatoo Rug. Image courtesy of Designer Rugs.

Australia's unique floral motifs were advocated across art, craft and industry as early as 1915 by R T Baker, a passionate advocate of the waratah and other local flora. Artists like Margaret Preston used the bold shape of the waratah in her hand-coloured woodcut prints and this contributed to recognition of native flowers and plants as being part of Australia's cultural identity.

The boomerang, with its geometric symmetry, was seen as particularly suited to modern design. An example is a pair of 1940s Douglas Snelling designed chairs. They were made by Snelling's Functional Products company, with maple frames, tapered legs, boomerang-shaped sides, and interwoven webbing. (ABC TV, Collectors, April 2009).

Inspiration from Australian cultural icons, known as Australiana, is now being given a new sophisticated approach. Australia's flora and fauna, history and art, from Indigenous paintings to Ned Kelly, are providing renewed inspiration to premier design artists.

A new range of Australian designer rugs featuring flora and fauna by designer Catherine Martin was commissioned in 2008 by Yosi Tal, whose company, Designer Rugs, commissions Australian designers. Tal's company has adopted art works by the late Aboriginal designer Minnie Pwerle which were ordered across the world, including by Tommy Hilfiger, for the fashion label's Amsterdam headquarters. The popularity of Aboriginal art is seen as partly responsible for this enthusiasm for Australian symbols. (Andrea Jones, 'Self-respect', Qantas, The Australian Way, July 2009)

johnny chamaki outlaw chair

Johnny Chamaki, Outlaw Chair. Image courtesy of Johnny Chamaki.

Manufacturing, boilermaking and fine arts are combined in furniture design, with Drew Martin's kangaroo seat, created by steel fabrication business Rock Martin. Johnny Chamaki's Outlaw chair depicts Ned Kelly as a black silhouetted figure with parts of the chair carefully related to the gun battle scenes. After qualifying in architecture, Chamaki established Johnny Chamaki Design Studio in 2002, which mainly focuses on furniture, objects, interiors and architecture, and was awarded the 2008 International Designer of the Year by Vogue, Germany and Shogun, Japan.

Local materials - timber furniture

The use of Australian materials for construction is particularly relevant to timber furniture design, as this raw material is easy to access. Often influenced by the work of Fred Ward and Douglas Snelling, Australian designers continue to explore the potential of unusual and regionally distinct wooden forms.

douiglas snelling web chairs 1940s

Douglas Snelling, web chair 1940s. Image courtesy of ABC TV Collectors.

Sydney architect Douglas Snelling (1916–1985) created a 'series of multi-purpose interchangeable storage units scaled to the human form', constructed in silver ash and Queensland maple and finished with clear lacquer. The units belonged to the Snelling Module line that the designer launched through Functional Products Pty Ltd in the late 1940s. (Powerhouse Museum, d*hub, object/151036)

Australia's distinctive timbers, such as Tasmania's blackwood, blackheart sassafras, celery top pine and huon pine are in demand by musical instrument makers, furniture makers and boat builders.

The design professions

Susan Cohn, Flyaway, bracelet, 1987. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

There are a number of professions in Australia that contribute to a diverse design industry, including architects, interior designers, landscape architects, graphic designers, jewellers, industrial designers, fashion designers, furniture makers and textile artists. Architecture is usually treated separately as it has its own legislative base.

Given the population size of Australia, there is an extraordinary range of talent and product with designers looking to influences close to home.

Designers often come to their craft from diverse backgrounds and find inspiration for colour, texture and form in the most unlikely places. They draw their influence not only from historical and international origins, but also from sources such as the Australian natural environment, seasonal variations, urban architecture, literature, theatre and street culture.

The analysis of everyday objects and activities is often central to the design process, as designers strive to produce simple and elegant solutions for ordinary situations.

Designers and design conception

Grant Featherston

A photograph of a Grant Featherston chair.

Grant Featherston chair. Image courtesy of ABC Radio National.

Devoted to promoting a philosophy of good design and opposing the stifling forces of conservatism, Grant and Mary Featherston achieved success in the 1950s with an alternative to the over-stuffed, bulky lounge suites of the pre-war period. The now-famous contour chair can be still found in living rooms, fashionable design stores and museums.

The chair continues to be an example of molding furniture to the human body. In Australian Furnishing Trade Journal, Gwen Atkinson relates the genesis of this form in a humble tram ticket:

Travelling citywards one morning, he absently twisted and folded his tram ticket and suddenly the answer lay in his hand, in the small, torn piece of paper. Atkinson, Gwen. Australian Furnishing Trade Journal, March 1955.

The flexibility of plywood offered Featherston the opportunity to experiment with bending wood whilst maintaining strength.

Marc Newson

Marc Newson, interior of jet

Marc Newson, interior of jet. Image courtesy of Marc Newson.

Marc Newson's projects may not be familiar to many Australians, however as a young designer he quickly established himself in the European design market. Born in Hornsby, New South Wales, Newson has a trademark style of anthropomorphism, where his colourful furniture and interiors reflect the fluid, organic geometry found in the natural environment. Some journalists have given Newson the label surfie-style, and the interplay of rigorous engineering and curvaceous beauty in his work has been compared to the challenges of building a surfboard. One of his most distinct works is the three-legged aluminium Lockheed Lounge, a limited edition piece that attracted international attention and which is now manufactured by a Sydney-based furniture company, Basecraft.

Meeting the Australian design market

drew martin kangaroo chair

Drew Martin, Kangaroo Chair. Image courtesy of Rock Martin .

How a product is manufactured, marketed and delivered to market is just as important as its initial conceptual stages. Looking over the history of design in Australia, it becomes apparent that there has been an ongoing tension between the appeals of Australia's distinct geography and comparatively low populations, and the restrictions of a small product market.

During the late 1920s he began manufacturing his own furniture designs. In the early 1930s Ward was asked by Myer Emporium Ltd to open a modern furniture department within its Melbourne store. During the 1930s and after he completed military service in the early 1940s, Ward designed furniture ranges for the store as well as providing special designs for individual clients.

Even after the Second World War, exhibitions of modern Australian designed and manufactured furniture were seen as a novelty. Architect Douglas Snelling's company, Functional Products Pty Ltd was formed in 1947 and was managed and majority-owned by Terry Palmerston (b.1918). The other owners were Douglas Snelling, Douglas Davidson and Robert Shaw.

Design-led manufacturing

In recent years there has been a steady and healthy growth in the design-led manufacturing sector where Australian designers are integrating design and sales through a market partnership with manufacturers. This is done by designers opening showrooms, formal design and manufacturing partnerships and operations which incorporate design,manufacturing and sales. (Hande Renshaw, 'Meeting the market, Indesign)

Australian based international companies and Australian designers

Woodmark is an example of an international company based in Australia developing an Australian design and then focusing exclusively on working collectively with Australian designers. Originally a Danish company, Woodmark developed the Swivel chair designed by Charles Wilson. They now collaborate with designers such as Tom Twopenny, Annette Park, Jon Goulder and Frag Woodall. Jon Goulder has recently designed 'The Calypso' lounge, developing the prototype stage himself. Although his designs will now be manufactured abroad, they will be distributed through Living Edge.

Design and manufacturing partnerships

korban flaubert collection

Korban/Flaubert, Collection. Courtesy of InDesign.

Korban/flaubert is a design and production team, founded by metal specialist Janos Korban and architect Stefanie Flaubert, established in 1993, and they control the entire process from workshop development through to displaying their products on the showroom floor. Managing the quality control process help Flaubert and Korban control the quality of their products.

Korban/flaubert provides directional looks in design (such as the Cellscreen, Swaylamp and Membrane chaise longue) including Burst Light, an oversized wall light in anodised aluminium.

Burst is based on the idea of a spark, an explosion, a momentary event, inspired by the spiral growth patterns in nature.
Stephanie Flaubert, Korban/flaubert.
koskela slab ottomans

Koskela, Slab Ottomans. Courtesy of Koskela.

Koskela is another Australian company that showcases its own designs as well as collections from other designers and craftspeople across Australia. The importance of collaboration between local design and manufacturing is seen also in the company Evans and Evans, who work with designer Donald Holt. They are committed to keeping the manufacturing process local, working from their workshop and showroom in Melbourne.

However, many designers struggle to get their products manufactured in Australia, especially if they are experimenting with techniques. The small manufacturing sector in Australia, compared to Europe, means that designers are often limited to processes and technologies that they can explore, (Kelly Freeman from bernabeifreeman, Hande Renshaw, 'Meeting the Market', Indesign, May 2007).

Designer Rugs commissions from influential Australian fashion designers have been very successful, including the Akira Isogawa collection in 2005, followed by the Akira Kisetsu collection. The latter 'reflects Akira's delicate signature, epitomised by contemporary plays on traditional Japanese icons, patterns and colours'. Other fashion designers commissioned include Easton Pearson.

Design, manufacturing and sales

An example of the one-stop-shop model, similar to the European model, is Schiavello in Melbourne. Specialising in work stations and commercial interiors, Schiavello controls the entire production process from design, development, manufacturing and engineering. David Shaw in Brisbane is another example. The outdoor and lighting designs are sold through the Street + Garden Furniture Company which has opened a showroom in West End.

The Australian market now includes a number of diverse models in which designers, manufacturers and retailers can come together to form a product chain that supports local design and business.

Creative Industry hubs - 'Urban engagement through artistic activity'

midland atelier workshop

Midland Atelier workshop. Courtesy of FORM.

Western Australia's first creative industries hub is located in the old Foundry Building and Pattern Shop of the historic Government Railway Workshop site, in the Perth suburb of Midland. It is a partnership between FORM and the Midland Redevelopment Authority. FORM is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging creativity in WA. Currently in development but with some studios already home to working designers, Midland Atelier will integrate a culture of creativity and innovation into the social and economic fabric of WA:

Midland Atelier will be home to an inspired group of artists and designers, working within interactive multidisciplinary studios. With an initial focus on contemporary design, this creative industries hub will attract talented, renowned artists and designers and contribute to the qualities of place that in turn engage residents, consumers and businesses within the wider urban environment.

Collaborative groups of designers, like F!NK, based in Canberra ACT and established by Robert Foster in 1993, manufacture contemporary and innovative objects as a progression from exhibition work. With over 19 years of experience in the arts and design fields, Foster's work may be found in collections in most of Australia's major arts institutions.

F!NK products are designed by Australian artists and most of the manufacturing processes occur in the F!NK studio. Each object is individually hand finished which results in an object embedded with its own unique characteristics—more like a piece of art.

Media and institutional support

Publishers have had an important role in encouraging both emerging and established designers and showcasing work outside the commercial environment. Publications including Art & Australia , Architecture Australia , InDesign , Monument and InStyle offer the general public an opportunity to browse through contemporary ideas. Media such as television, newspapers and radio, offer vital opportunities for encouraging a national appreciation of local designers.

In every city in Australia, galleries exhibit the work of current practitioners or celebrate the influence of key historical figures such as Walter Burley Griffin, Avis Higgs, Florence Broadhurst, Fred Ward, Sam Atyeo, Marion Hall Best and Grant Featherston. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has adopted the display and analysis of design as its central objective.

Phonelescope 2000, a new type of speaker by Adam Donovan

Phonelescope 2000, a new type of speaker by Adam Donovan. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Art and Technology.

Future directions

An interest in the possible influences between art, science, and technology is a recurring theme in the work of many contemporary designers. Asking how the body relates to furniture, jewellery, clothes or space is one way of exploring new possibilities for design. Through the use of computer software, innovative manufacturing techniques and new materials, designers continue to challenge the ways in which design can affect many aspects of living in Australia and overseas. The Australian Network for Art and Technology provides leadership and support to media artists pursuing collaborative and creative projects in Australia and beyond.

Useful links

Design events and awards

Galleries and museums

Organisations for designers

Print references

  • Atkinson, Gwen, Australian Furnishing Trade Journal, March 1955.
  • Bogle, Michael (ed.), Designing Australia: Readings in the History of Design, Pluto Press, Armadale, NSW, 2002.
  • Fry, Tony, Design History Australia, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1988.
  • Lane, Terence, 'Grant Featherston', Featherston Chairs exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1988.

Last updated: 6th August 2009

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