Whilst Australia as a youthful nation tries to find its feet and determine where it fits in the global environment, our design industry is going to be particularly susceptible to conforming to globalisation. Much of the industry is grappling with the ideas and themes that constitute Australian design, striving to fit into the successful European model, and facing manufacturing limitations presented by our isolation. Perhaps instead of trying to fit into the global structure, our local design community should use the opportunity to revitalise the banality found in the international creative scene by looking to define the Australian design identity, and in the words of InDesign editor Paul McGillick ‘work harder to find points of difference’.
The local industry has already taken big steps in acknowledging the importance of a collective design identity, and all over the country there is evidence of the emergence of a uniquely Australian character. Organisational bodies, including galleries, museums, events and publications all have their own idea of what constitutes Australian design, and are pursuing design that reflect this. Meanwhile, numerous designers are comprehending what it means to be an Australian designer, and are making a considerable contribution to this local identity. So what is it that makes Australian design different’
Australian design can be defined by a sincere love of making by hand, and a distinct make-do and can-do attitude towards this approach, an attitude which could be attributed to our early settlers. And it still resonates with many designers today. The 2006 Smart works: design and the handmade exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum focused on the practice of local designers working within a small and distant market with limited manufacturing capabilities, and demonstrated the Australian penchant for design that embraces handmade craftsmanship and skill. Rex Heathcote Furniture and Bison Australia are exceptional examples of design studios that rely completely on the learned expertise of their staff, the work produced at Bison is ‘of world quality but still produced on an intimate and personal level’. Meanwhile, jeweller and metalsmith Oliver Smith’s approach encompasses the ‘best of craft and industry’. While Smith’s passion is for making, he understands the importance of manufacturing to produce multiples. Nevertheless, he keeps production within our shores, in order to be able to monitor the results and hand-finish many pieces. Australian designers seem to relish being a part of the production process, acknowledging the importance of a product’s development, and insisting on maintaining a connection to their design. In turn, this makes the connection with the consumer much more viable, knowing that the product has come directly from the designer’s hands.
The make-do and can-do attitude resonates for many studios, with design problems solved according to the materials, skills and manufacturing processes known, or that can be learnt, or accessed close to home. Andrew Simpson of Vert Design describes Australian designers as ‘tough’ in their ability to make do with what is at hand, a trait exemplified by metalsmith Rohan Nicol. Looking for ways in which his regional community can contribute to the design industry, Nicol uses manufacturing processes from the most left of field industries including a refrigerator factory and a cast-iron foundry. Furniture designer Ross Didier has incredulously sourced the material for his Tiller Chair range from local ‘waste’, using the pelts of legally culled kangaroos. This sustainable sourcing of materials adds to the confronting nature of his work, but demonstrates the lengths Australian designers will go in order to make do with what is available to them.
Australian designers have also exhibited a distinctive way of working collaboratively, rather than independently. Local studios have demonstrated the dynamic results of bringing designers together under one name, not only to make a collective contribution to particular ideas, but also to provide a supportive environment for independent design that offers constructive critique, fresh ideas and alternative skills and knowledge. F!NK and Co has embraced numerous jewellers and metalsmiths, including Oliver Smith, providing a credible company name for the independent designers to work under, and offering ‘a meeting of [my] production and tooling experience without which some of the designs would not be viable’. Smith has gone on to collaborate in a different way, working with skilled people from backgrounds far removed from design, including a specialist in the physics of musical instrument for the development of a series of bells. Studios like Rex Heathcote Furniture and Vert Design also encourage this collaborative approach while working with the client (who is often the designer), and thus allow for a talented unit of ideas, resources, knowledge and skill to contribute to a design.
Bred from this enthusiasm for collaboration is a unique system of mentoring and nurturing. Our small design community is tightly woven and very well connected, and encourages emerging designers and their design ideas. Rex Heathcote and Brian Tunks from Bison Australia focus on training and developing designers and makers, taking on graduates and locals and nurturing them into fine craftspeople. Heathcote is particularly keen on training people from his local community in Launceston, Tasmania in order to keep the highest quality industry on his doorstep, questioning, ‘Are we going to end up as a non-manufacturing country ‘ where we buy all this smart furniture but there’s no one locally who knows how to make it’ It comes down to promoting a skill base in a regional area’ I like making something like this work in a small town’. Similarly, Tunks does not look for people who already know the trade, instead seeking out people ‘who will be happy being skilled’. This system not only benefits the up-and-coming designer, but also provides established designers with new blood, fresh ideas and exciting opportunities for new collaborations.
All of these distinguishing features demonstrate just a small part of what makes our local industry so unique, but they are features that present emerging designers with an opportunity to learn and grow alongside their peers and predecessors, and to work toward an Australian design identity. Designers must recognise that in this global marketplace, the distinctly Australian, intangible features of their work ‘ the stories of production, the source of the materials, the history and narratives behind a product’s designers and development ‘ are as important to our design identity as the tangible qualities.
Of course, it is never going to be easy, if at all possible, to illustrate the essence of Australian design in one paragraph. The beauty of Australia and our designers is our eclectic background, our varying cultures, our diverse landscape. Our design identity should be equally diverse and fluid. Nevertheless, we are all designing within the same borders ‘ a vast, yet defining boundary that offers so much encouragement, meeting of minds, exceptional material and incomparable skill. The real essence of Australian design is not that we are this one distinctive idea, but instead a beautiful and organic collaboration of people, places, expertise and inspiration, ripe for showing the world what makes us stand out from the rest.