With the latest instalment of the Broached Commissions project, entitled Broached East, half way through it’s stint in Melbourne, David Harrison spoke with Lou Weis founder and creative director of the project before he jetted off to Dubai to set up Broached Colonial – last year’s highly successful show – as part of the growing art/design festival, Design Days Dubai.
For those of you not familiar with the Broached Commissions concept which launched it’s first exhibition last year, the project is the brainchild of Lou Weis, a Melbourne based creative director, film producer and former director of the Melbourne’s State of Design Festival. Since 2011, Weis has worked to establish Broached as a platform which commissions, exhibits and sells limited edition products at annual exhibitions. Another important aim of the organisation is to promote private and commercial commissions. A hand-picked group of Australian designers; Trent Jansen, Adam Goodrum and Charles Wilson form the permanent design group while guest designers join them on each project to increase the breadth of styles and inject a healthy does of interaction.
What sets Broached apart is it’s principle philosophy that design gains an additional purpose when conceived within a contextual framework. More specifically, each Broached project focuses on a particular era of Australian history as researched by historian John McPhee and presented to the designers as a curatorial essay. The hope is that this captured moment in time will act as a springboard for the designers to begin their own research and lead to interesting and more meaningful work. With almost none of the normal commercial constraints applied to standard product design, the designers are free to interpret events in an intrinsically artistic way. All concepts are considered, so long as the objects produced have some sort of connection with the supplied historical context. Price is not an issue either, as the limited edition nature and handmade quality of the work allows for prices ranging from $5000 – $25,000.
“It has become evident to us as this process has gone along that Broached has given the designers a sort of gift. It’s a way for them to expand their practice, remove themselves from the day-to-day activities of their design life, to think about other parts of the world and explore new ideas. I don’t expect the designers to change; after all, this contextual, narrative driven approach is just what makes sense to me. I’m not saying that I consider it to be the ‘best’ way to approach design either, but the designers certainly respond to it very positively”, says Weis.
The Broached Commissions project will, over the coming years, address various significant eras that have formed Australia’s cultural identity. With last years highly praised Broached Colonial focusing on Australia’s early years of white settlement, this years exhibition; Broached East, focuses on the interaction between Australia and some of it’s important Asian neighbours through the period of the mid to late 19th Century. This period saw mass migration (particularly from China) to Australia’s gold rush and then later a global fascination with Japan as it ended it’s years of cultural isolation and opened itself up to international relations.
This years guest collaborators include two Japanese designers, Keiji Ashizawa and Azuma Makoto and one Chinese designer Naihan Li. Ashizawa is an established architect and accomplished furniture and lighting designer, while Makoto is a floral designer of the most interesting and extreme sort. Naihan Li, based in Beijing, is a young architect and designer who has worked with Ai Weiwei and contributed graphic, exhibition and product design to numerous art and design festivals around the world. What is so exciting about their inclusion in Broached East is that their work practices are so radically different from one another and that their way of viewing events in Australia comes from a totally different cultural perspective than any Australian is likely to have experienced.
“Azuma Makoto is quite an extraordinary and unusual talent and while Keiji Ashizawa, is almost his polar opposite in terms of design language, they are both traditional in a certain way. Makoto produces an extreme type of Ikebana and Ashizawa is part of a long line of Japanese modernist architects”, says Weis.
Weis spent around 150 hours searching for appropriate designers at the beginning of the Broached East commissioning process and finding Makoto was many hours along that path. Ikebana, the art of traditional Japanese flower arranging, is seldom considered a groundbreaking area in contemporary design so Makoto wasn’t even on Weis’ design radar. Makoto is however considered a genius by anyone in the know, with his work regarded as the Haute Couture of flower arranging. He started his famous floral boutique and laboratory Jardins des Fleurs in Tokyo in 2002 and his work has been known to incorporate marbled cuts of meat and rare fish in a bizarre collision of expensive, rarefied objects that, like flowers, have become fetishized in Japan. Even his approach to more expected floral materials is extreme with foliage being folded, hung from wires and distorted in ways that become pure conceptual art.
“Makoto’s experiments with bottling, freezing and manipulating plants through various mechanical means made him the perfect candidate for our latest commission. Broached East deals with an era when exotic plant species were being found and transported as living plants in special containers called a Wardian case, to private collections and museums around the world”, says Weis.
Every designer in the group has dipped into the historical ‘pot’ provided by John McPhee and taken from it what resonated with them personally. For Naihan Li, the rich history of Chinese entrepreneurs travelling the world seeking their fortune led to thoughts of how difficult frontier conditions must have been. Her concept imagined an object that would offer a Chinese gold miner an escape from his everyday existence. For her, this meant creating a whiskey cabinet in the highly refined and scholarly form of an armillary – a celestial globe.
“Naihan Li was initially way out of her comfort zone but she revelled in it and in my view rose to the occasion admirably. She is extremely bright and well trained and because she has her own joinery workshop was able to fine tune her design, prototyping it five or six times to get it perfectly resolved”, says Weis.
Trent Jansen, one of the permanent designers in the Broached team, was also deeply effected by the harsh living conditions of the gold rush. John McPhee’s curatorial essay had revealed that around 16,500 newly arriving Chinese prospectors were forced to walk from Robe in South Australia to the Victorian goldfields, some 480km away. It seems that ship captains, rather than pay a tax levied by the NSW and Victorian governments on each Chinese passenger, took to offloading their oriental passengers in South Australia instead. The sight of the men carrying their personal belongings in baskets on traditional bamboo poles, one behind the other, led to the term ‘single file’ being replaced with ‘Chinaman’s file’ during the period (and thus became the name Jansen gave to his design). Jansen’s research then moved into a motion study. Likening the swaying motion of the Chinamen’s baskets to that experienced by a child being carried by it’s mother, he began to design a rocking chair that emulated this movement very accurately. The unusual curve of the rocker’s runners were developed to reproduce the same type of rhythm. Deceptively simple at first glance, with a strong reference to the English Sussex chair archetype, the design is actually a complex series of fine timber struts and joints that are wildly asymmetrical. In the type of cross cultural exchange that Weis had hoped might occur, Jansen’s ‘Chinaman’s File Rocking Chair’ ended up being created in Naihan Li’s workshop in Beijing, using Manchurian Ash.
The complexities thrown up by the historical context can sometimes be a bridge too far however. For Broached East, Charles Wilson studied dressing tables from the period – both Chinese and Japanese – but his final design has proven incredibly difficult to make. His piece for East was not completed in time for the Melbourne exhibition but Weis is confident it will be part of the Sydney show. “Once the initial research is done by John McPhee, I manage any further historical research undertaken by the designers. With Charles Wilson there was probably a hundred hours spent just collecting information on dressing tables from China and Japan. Because they were objects that women used in private they weren’t well documented – especially in the poorer levels of society where these more humble examples were considered of little historical importance”, says Weis.
Happily, the Broached Commissions approach seems to be receiving some strong support from high-end commercial projects such as the Fender Katsalidis designed Hotel Hotel, in Canberra. ”It helps if all the designers are working from the one script”, says Weis. “The use of an historical context is just as well suited to many commercial commissions as it is our own exhibitions. It enables us to create designs with real artistic integrity, with a definite focus and direction. Applying our narrative driven approach to a site or a building, goes way beyond what is normally seen in commercial projects”.
With the Vietnam war era slated for next years exhibition, it will be interesting to see how this turbulent period of Australia’s recent past might be interpreted by the next group of designers – particularly as the war will be within the personal experience of many involved. It’s really these controlled historical parameters that are the project’s greatest strength. It forces the designers to respond emotionally and intellectually to a different type of design question and has the potential to produce some wonderfully challenging new concepts.
“Broached has worked on a number of levels – direct sales, local commissions, and now we are exhibiting at Design Days Dubai to a global art market. I’ll be installing Broached Colonial there and will be chairing a panel on Creative Cities. Who knows what will come out of those dialogues and the exhibition process? Maybe it will open up markets in the Middle East for us as well”.
Broached East (Melbourne) open until 20 April 2013
at the Broached Gallery
Lv.7/ 388 Bourke Street, Melbourne
Broached East (Sydney) 8 May – 15 June at the Former Paramount Pictures Building, 80 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills, Sydney.