On the return to Australian Colonialism: Broaching the case of ‘designed’ history

The Briggs Family Tea Service

‘Broached Commissions’ is one of the most unusual specimens to have emerged from the antipodean design-world in recent years. The newly-established collective (2010) consists of five regular members – Lou Weis (the founder), Vincent Aiello (production advisor), Charles Wilson, Adam Goodrum and Trent Jansen – all of whom create design works in response to story fragments relating to Australia’s heritage. This conceptual commitment to the meaning of objects – the stories they generate and the way they have been used in peoples’ lives ? situate the designers somewhere in the ambit of cultural history, design and art installation. Only two to eight reproductions of each design are made (costing anywhere between $8000 and $45,000), situating the collective as the only high-end, limited-edition design brand in Australia.

Broached Commissions’ inaugural show – ‘Broached Colonial’ – was first exhibited at Sydney’s former Paramount Pictures building in Surry Hills in 2011. This exhibition showcased design items inspired by the early Colonial period (1788 to 1840). Guest designers ? Max Lamb, Lucy McRae and Chen Lu – joined core members to create works in response to Australia’s early industrial period, creating pieces as varied as a table, a lamp, a tea set, a chest of drawers, and including sculptural forms like Max Lamb’s large sandstone boulders. It was lauded as the first project in a series that will focus on other moments in Australia’s history, including the Gold Rush and the Great Depression.

This attempt to merge contemporary design with Australian history is an unusual alliance in contemporary global design. To begin with, the past rarely figures in the contemporary world of ‘design thinking’ [1], saturated with (often sleek and minimalist) efficient and functional ‘solutions’ to design ‘problems’. Design projects typically imagine innovation in light of the ‘new’ or the ‘cutting-edge’. Secondly, the specificities of ‘place’ and ‘location’ are rarely addressed in global design culture, with its emphasis on what can be termed (after Henri Lefebvre) as the production of generic ‘spaces’ [2]. In these generic spaces, histories of use ? the meanings and narratives associated with objects and their relationship to the lived specificities of place – are usually secondary to the focus on abstract, conceived, formal and homogenous spaces that are imagined to be universal (and hence transferable).

‘Broached Commissions’ stands out in this context, given that its projects are inspired by stories from Australia’s specific history and culture. The collective makes works in response to story and meaning – the way objects have been used in specific regions throughout Australia’s history. This focus on the connection between narrative, objects and locality is grounded in Weis’ experience in the film-making industry, where he worked for 12 years creating conceptual briefs for designers working on film sets.

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Lucy McRae's Prickly Lamp

Lou Weis describes the projects “as a fundamental exercise in Australian design history and how it’s framed in the global context [3].” Indeed, history is not simply the basis of the works’ content, it is also central to the designers’ innovations in form. For example, many of the works recall the worth of early colonial practices of ‘making do’ (albeit in high-end form). Some designers take leave from stories about how objects arrived in Australia, and/or how settlers modified them to suit the Australian environment. Lucy McRae’s ‘Prickly Lamp’, for example, explores the adaptability of women in the bush and their resilience through innovative practices of ‘making do’. Her industrially-produced lamp is covered in fine toothpicks ? painstakingly hand-dyed – giving it the appearance of a spiky echidna. McRae says the lamp was inspired by the “struggle and alienation” of women convicts “forced to grow a stealth second skin in order to survive [4].” The mobility of the object also evokes the adaptability of women in the colonies; its moving joints and adjustments in size recall women’s ability to adapt to their difficult surroundings – a survival mechanism detailed at length in Henry Lawson’s detailed description of Mrs. Spicer’s hut in his short story “Water Them Geraniums” [5]:

The hut was nearly as bare inside as it was out – just a frame of ‘round-timber’ (sapling poles) covered with bark. The furniture was permanent (unless you rooted it up), like in our kitchen: a rough slab table on stakes driven into the ground, and seats made the same way. Mary told me afterwards that the beds in the bag-and-bark partitioned-off room (mother’s bedroom) were simply poles laid side by side on cross-pieces supported by stakes driven into the ground, with straw mattresses and some worn-out bed clothes. Mrs. Spicer had an old patchwork quilt, in rags, and the remains of a white one, and Mary said it was pitiful to see how these things would be spread over the beds – to hide them as much as possible – when she went down there. A packing-case, with something like an old print skirt draped round it, and a cracked looking-glass (without a frame) on top, was the dressing table. There were a couple of gin-cases for a wardrobe. The boys’ beds were three-bushel bags stretched between poles fastened to uprights. The floor was the original surface, tramped hard, worn uneven with much sweeping, and with puddles in rainy weather where the roof leaked. Mrs. Spicer used to stand old tins, dishes and buckets under as many of the leaks as she could (p. 155).

Practices of ‘making do’ in the bush are also referenced in Charles Wilson’s piece: ‘Tall Boy’. Wilson’s use of seemingly random timber pieces references the makeshift craft traditions of bush furniture, despite the form’s evocation of the gentle tapering lines of Biedermeier furniture. The Tall Boy consists of seven narrow drawers designed to house small objects, redolent of free-standing storage furniture prior to modern wardrobes and built-in cupboards. The bulky structure of the drawers, precariously placed upon thin, spindly legs, also recall makeshift agricultural structures in the bush, like the top-heavy water tanks used to irrigate Australian farms during the nineteenth-century.

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Charles Wilson's Tall Boy

Given that Broached Colonial’s engagement with Australian colonialism marks its departure from generic forms of contemporary design, it becomes necessary to consider how this engagement with colonial Australia functions. This is especially pertinent given that place-bound practices (the focus on historical specificity and locational identity) are part and parcel of the current zeitgeist in global installation art practices [6] (if not in design practices). Furthermore, the colonial era has recently emerged as a fashionable ‘period’ to be mined for aesthetic inspiration, evident in disparate cultural forms, including PJ Harvey’s critical expose of British colonialism in her latest album This is England.

So how are we to understand this aesthetic engagement with Colonialism? How does this resuscitation of the past function in and for the present? Is the focus on historical specificity and the local a refreshing counterpoint to the generic and reductive focus of much contemporary global design? Or, is the representation of local and specific histories symptomatic of the trend toward niche marketing, whereby the saleability of history becomes synonymous with cultural distinction – a highly lucrative packaging of boutique nostalgia? Does the commodification of the past into discrete increments – ‘early colonial’, ‘gold rush’, ‘the great depression’– reduce the complexity of the way the past is understood? Or do the projects side-step this nostalgia for national specificity by prompting us to critically reflect upon the colonising impetus of global design itself?

The designers claim that Broached Colonial is not an exercise in nostalgia. There are real gains to be made in learning from the frugalities of the past. ‘Making do’ with old materials, patching things together, recycling used materials, may not simply be a forgetful romanticisation of the quaint old ways of the Colonial era; the art of frugality may speak productively to the critical conditions of the present, such as the large-scale problems of global wastefulness and the global financial crisis.

Weis also acknowledges that the Australian Colonial era is “vexed,” having done so much damage to Indigenous Australians [7]. The designers’ online ‘statement’ curtails any romanticisation of the period, acknowledging the violence underpinning the colonists’ frontier mentality [8]. Indeed, Trent Jansen’s intricately handmade tea set ? ‘Briggs Family Tea Service’ – appears to engage with the complexity of Colonialisation in the context of Tasmania’s history. It focuses on the clash between settler and Indigenous cultures on the Bass Strait Islands – a history that is deeply fraught, under-represented and yet foundational to the contemporary identity of many Indigenous people in Tasmania. The teapot was inspired by the story of George Briggs, a British free settler who travelled to Tasmania as a sealer on the unforgiving Bass Strait Islands. The very materiality of the piece represents the contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, recalling Briggs’ marriage to Woretermoeteyenner (daughter of the Pairrebeenne people) and the birth of their four children. The teapot ‘marries’ Indigenous and British sealers via its allusion to traditional water-carrying vessels from both cultures, whilst also utilising materials used by both the colonists and Indigenous peoples: slip-cast porcelain, copper and brass is used alongside materials like bull kelp and wallaby pelt to produce a new ‘family’ of objects. The tea-set therefore re-casts history via overlooked stories of intimacy – not only the personal relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but the way in which we all live intimately with the past – in our inhabitation with objects via their involvement in our everyday lives.

However, while ‘Briggs’ Family Tea Service’ is commendable in its attempt to broach an important and under-represented part of Tasmania’s Colonial history in the realm of contemporary design (and whilst the piece is formally innovative) the tea-set also re-centers the dominance of white Colonialism. The title of the tea set ensures the objects remain indebted to (and centred upon) the stories of colonial men in a strange land. The character of Jansen’s teapot is inspired by George Briggs and titled after him. He has said “I wanted to capture in the teapot a harsh, unforgiving character, almost like a pirate or a scallywag – a rough character.”[9] He has claimed that the ceramic teapot embodies the rough edges of 18th century British gentility. The “gnarly, knotty elements” of the pot “ represent [Briggs’] need to evolve into a person that could live in these very harsh conditions,” Trent has said [10]. This focus on Briggs as the core identity of the teapot has the effect of sidelining Woretermoeteyenner. The traces of kelp from the Bass Strait Islands are re-cast as signifiers of Briggs’ ‘rough’ character primarily, rather than of Woretermoeteyenner’s presence. Jansen’s admirable attempt to approach the complexity of Colonial history in Australian design therefore ultimately affirms the presence of white Colonialism. His intervention into colonial history remains in the form of British gentility – a highly refined tea-set.

Similarly, Adam Goodrum’s ‘Birdsmouth Mast Table’ also trades on the mobility of empire. ‘Birdsmouth Mast Table’ takes one of the central symbols of the mobility and expansion of the British Empire (the ship mast) and celebrates it as a decorative leg-appendage on the elegant, elongated table. It adorns the table’s legs in a row of elegant stripes, suggestive of a military ribbon.

Whilst there is much to commend in the thoughtful and innovative artifacts made for ‘Broached Colonial’, aspects of the works too easily trade upon the desirability of the Colonial aesthetic. This is their ultimate trade-off. Whilst in one sense they should be celebrated as innovative engagements with aspects of Australia’s past that are rarely addressed in the design-world, in another sense, these high-end pieces are limited in their mobilisation of the signifiers of cultural distinction.

[1] See Peter Rowe’s influential book Design Thinking (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1987).  The latest spruik for design thinking in popular culture is Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life and Maybe Even the World.  Featuring the Ideas and Wisdom of Design Visionary Bruce Mau (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009).
[2] Henri Lefebvre.  The Production of Space.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.
[3] See Ray Edgar’s “Potted Histories.”  The Age.  Oct 22, 2011.
[4] See Ray Edgar’s “Potted Histories.”
[5] See “Water Them Geraniums.”  The Penguin Henry Lawson.  Ed. John Barnes (Victoria: Penguin, 1986).
[6] See Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity.  Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.
[7] See Ray Edgar’s “Potted Histories.”
[8] http://broachedcommissions.com/commissions/2011/colonial/
[9] See Ray Edgar’s “Potted Histories”
[10] See “Potted Histories.”