Freestyle: new Australian design for living

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Freestyle: new Australian design for living, now showing in Sydney, presents the work of 40 outstanding and predominantly independent designers working in the areas of product and fashion design. It includes furniture, lighting, textiles, homewares, clothing, jewellery and personal accessories. Handmade one-off and limited edition design objects are seen alongside industrially manufactured items and prototypes – reflecting the breadth and nature of design excellence and innovation in Australia. The exhibition presents a variety of engaging ‘stories’ that reveal aspects of the personality, passion and process of individual designers and place their work in broader personal and cultural contexts.

The following is an edited extract from the introduction to the 320-page book that accompanies the exhibition.

Contemporary design in Australia is a field not encumbered by the weight of a long history and the resulting restrictive rules that such a history can imply. In Australia, traditional career paths in design are far less trodden than in more established design centres such as Italy, Scandinavia or the United Kingdom, where practitioners can conform or react to but never escape from the history. Here, most successful designers are creating their own particular way of doing things, embracing a freer style or approach to their practice.

The lateral thinking, entrepreneurial, ‘can-do’ attitude of many Australian designers has its genesis in those aspects of Australian culture that are the source of significant national pride. From the earliest Indigenous inhabitants to the most recent migrants from troubled parts of the world, Australians have shown a certain capacity to make do with what is available at hand – often turning isolation to advantage and regularly innovating to adapt to the environment or circumstances of the day. Today Australian designers are showing their resourcefulness in the various and often intriguing ways they deal with the design process, manufacturing, choosing and obtaining materials, sales, distribution, marketing, business structure, and the often diverse streams of income that many generate to sustain their livelihoods.

There are several key factors that have helped to shape the context in which these Australian designers are working:

– Australia’s extraordinary cultural diversity ensures a rich melting pot of influences, traditions and sensibilities. This is clearly evident in the way modern Australian cuisine, for example, combines elements of Mediterranean, Asian and other styles with local ingredients to create fresh, new and diverse hybrids. Australian designers regularly draw upon their own varied backgrounds or are inspired by the vibrant mix around them.

– The geographic diversity of the Australian continent ‘ tropical climates in the north, cool temperate zones in the south, vast dry deserts, rolling hills, lush rainforests and sandy beaches ‘ has seen the development of regionally different lifestyles and attitudes. Designers are conscious of these and are equally influenced by the wonderful natural environments that inform them.

– Australia’s relatively small population translates to a limited local market. Australian designers either look to overseas markets as exporters or consciously develop products that are viable in small quantities often aimed at identifiable niche segments within the market.

– Australia’s physical location in the Asia-Pacific region plays a key role in the nation’s trade and cultural exchange. Export and/or manufacturing opportunities for Australian designers are growing rapidly in countries such as Japan, China, India and South Korea.

– Australia has a limited and diminishing manufacturing base, with some industries, such as commercial production of glassware, no longer operating at all. Australian manufacturers have also been traditionally reluctant to invest in design. Some designers have worked hard to develop productive relationships with them, while many others have developed their own methods of manufacturing.

A number of consistent characteristics emerge amongst Australia’s independent designers and it is possible to consider them in five, loosely defined categories:

Skilled craftspeople
One of the noticeable features of Australian design is the proportionally high percentage of designers who have emerged from, or maintain, a material-specific crafts practice – working in fields as diverse as ceramics, jewellery, metalwork, furniture, textiles and glass. Whether producing unique one-off pieces or products for mass manufacture, these designers are as concerned with expressive content or meaning in the work as they are with its ultimate use.

Self-manufacturers
Given Australia’s limited manufacturing base it is perhaps not surprising that the model of the designer-maker has become the dominant genre within Australian design. It is within this genre that we see the most diverse and entrepreneurial approaches to design practice. The designer-makers and designer-manufacturers are generally concerned with sustainable in-house production rather than the creation of unique objects.

Project managers
This entrepreneurial group of designers market their products under their own brand, but outsource all or most of their manufacturing. Some come from making backgrounds (often designing through making prototypes) and others through more traditional fashion or industrial design education. They tend to seek the highest standards of finish for their work, and invest time and money in developing strong relationships with specialised manufacturers here and abroad.

Global roamers
Designing exclusively for other companies, with little or no interest in either self-manufacture or investing in having goods produced under their own name, these designers are part of a growing number, here in Australia and elsewhere, whose client base might be anywhere in the world. They are involved in selling their design skills and ideas to various manufacturers in a global and interconnected market.

Branded houses
These include some of the best known names in Australian design such as Dinosaur Designs, Akira Isogawa and Crumpler. These designers (or design-driven companies) are cutting a path for others to follow, providing valuable models that others might adapt to their own needs and strengths. These larger-scale businesses are in control of the design, production, marketing, sales and distribution of their products.

Many of the designers featured in Freestyle are truly leaders in their field. The works and compelling stories of the 40 designers have been brought together, not because they are the best or the most popular, but because they collectively reflect the diversity, resourcefulness and particular strengths of Australian design now. By providing this snapshot of the industry today, Freestyle demonstrates not only the confidence and innovation of Australian designers, but also the increasing cultural and commercial significance of Australian design both here, in Australia, and around the world.

Brian Parkes is Associate Director of Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design and is the curator of Freestyle: new Australian design for living.

Co-published by Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design and Melbourne Museum
RRP $49.95
320 pages, 225 x 170mm

For further details about the exhibition and book www.freestyledesign.info
Melbourne Museum
Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design