The power and pleasure of objects

The exhibition Inspired! Design across time uncovers the ways in which designers, makers, industries and entrepreneurs interact to make extraordinary objects. It reveals the passion of creators, the power of objects and the pleasure they give people who use and treasure them. Inspired! explores concepts such as beauty and function, style and substance, tradition and innovation. It shows how changing values and attitudes influence design and shape our taste and imagination. We seek the new while exploring the past, strive for the personal while enjoying the popular and value the handmade beside the mass-produced. Highlights of the exhibition include:

Korban/Flaubert chaise-longue
by Anne Watson, Curator, Decorative Arts and Design

Metal specialist Janos Korban and architect Stefanie Flaubert formed their design and production partnership in Stuttgart in 1993, specialising in furniture, lighting and architectural installations. In 1995 the Adelaide-born and educated pair relocated to Sydney, where they have since built on their reputation for highly innovative design work ranging from multiple production plastic seating, to limited edition lighting and furniture, to site-specific commissioned sculptures for corporate clients. Their work constantly explores new formal aesthetics and methodologies and the ambiguous interplay between functional object and structural form.

The steel mesh ‘Membrane’ chaise-longue, which was shown at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2003, was designed in 1998. The concept has undergone a number of modifications since then ‘ a process of refinement that underlines Korban/Flaubert’s experimental approach to design. With a practice that manages to successfully balance commercial production with more creative, limited edition pieces, the partnership is fast developing a reputation both locally and internationally.

Hope Egyptian revival suite
by Anne Watson, Curator, Decorative Arts and Design

In the dynamic years leading up to the opening of the Powerhouse in 1988 the Museum was able to make a number of highly significant acquisitions. Among them was a suite of Egyptian revival furniture ‘ a settee and two armchairs ‘ designed in about 1800 by Thomas Hope, a wealthy English Regency collector and adventurer. Hope, whose beautiful line drawings for the rooms of his grand London residence were published in his book Household furniture and interior decoration in 1807, was one of the most influential designers of the Regency period.

The two armchairs turned up at a local Sydney auction in 1984, their significance unrecognised by both the vendor and the auctioneer. At some stage their history had been lost. The settee, acquired two years later from a Melbourne dealer, had a similarly mysterious past. Eventually the riddle of the furniture’s relocation to Australia was solved: it had been bought in London in about 1920 by Sir Alfred Ashbolt, agent-general for Tasmania, who had then taken it back to his impressive home ‘Lena’ in Hobart in 1924. The three pieces were sold at a Melbourne auction by Sir Alfred’s family in the 1940s and it seems that knowledge of their significance and origin was lost from this date ‘ until their ‘rediscovery’ by the Museum in the mid 1980s.

William Kerr epergne
by Eva Czernis-Ryl, Curator, Decorative Arts and Design

About 24 large silver presentation centrepieces were made in Australia in the 19th century, only about half of which have survived. This piece, an epergne or table centrepiece, was made in the workshop of leading Sydney silversmith William Kerr in the late 1800s. Born in Northern Ireland, Kerr came to the colony of NSW with his family as a child in 1841.

Standing 72 centimetres high, this tour de force of Australian silversmithing was made to celebrate the success of the first Australian cricket team to tour Britain. It depicts a cricket match taking place under a large Australian native tree fern, with flannel flowers, bottle brush, goannas and snakes on the ground. The use of native decorative motifs in Australian 19th century sporting trophies is rare as sport was firmly rooted in British culture, and designs mostly emulated English models. Although designed as a trophy, it was never actually presented. Instead it is thought to have stood as a display piece in the window of Kerr’s George Street shop in Sydney. It was donated to the Museum by the Kerr family when the shop closed in 1938.

Hanssen Pigott ‘still life’
by Grace Cochrane, Senior Curator, Australian Decorative Arts and Design

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott (b 1935) is one of Australia’s most well known and respected ceramic artists, with an established reputation both in Australia and overseas. Inspired first by the work of Australian potter Ivan McMeekin in the 1950s, she went on to work with Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew in England in the ’60s, and was also influenced by modernists such as Lucie Rie (all of whom are represented in the Inspired! exhibition).
Later, attracted by the freshness and vigour of traditional woodfired French stonewares, she set up a pottery in rural France, before returning to Australia in 1973. In the early 1970s she saw the work of the ‘still life’ painter Giorgio Morandi, and wrote: ‘I love his searching, obsessive, describing of the common objects that were his subject and measure.’

This group is characteristic of the work Hanssen Piggot has been making for many years. Arranging finely made domestic forms into groups she calls ‘still lives’ or, sometimes, ‘families’, she wants them to be considered in a way that ‘might raise a question, lengthen a glance’.

Legras & Cie vase
by Eva Czernis-Ryl, Curator, Decorative Arts and Design

This spectacular blown-glass vase was made in about 1905 by the Paris glassworks
Legras & Cie, which specialised in acid-etched and enamelled cameo glass. During the first decade of the 1900s Legras & Cie became a major exponent of the École de Nancy led by Emile Gallé, France’s leading maker of decorative glass in the fashionable Art Nouveau style. The firm produced a wide variety of commercial artglass, both cameo and painted in enamels, but also made some large high-quality pieces for international exhibitions. Only a few of these more elaborate examples have survived.

The large size, unusual design, complex technique (two layers of transparent green glass with aventurine spangles trapped between) and lavish decoration of this vase indicate that it may have been an exhibition piece. While many of Legras designs of this period used naturalistic motifs, some, like this vase, display more stylised decoration and sumptuous Rococo rocailles (scrolls). The decoration on this piece is based on mistletoe, a motif perfectly suited to the curvilinear Art Nouveau style, but the overall design reveals the influence of the 18th century Rococo style.

Vionnet gown
by Lindie Ward, Assistant Curator, International Decorative Arts and Design

Madeleine Vionnet (1876’1975) was best known for her use of the bias cut, so beautifully illustrated in this early 1930s evening dress. By cutting her fabric at 45° to the grain, Vionnet created a seductive and daring look that contrasted beautifully with the corseted and stiffened silhouettes popular for much of the 19th century. Vionnet’s
designs were dramatic and ingeniously cut, using fabric with the greatest respect for its particular qualities.

The bodice of this cream silk hopsack weave gown is in three sections, gathered and held by shoulder straps inserted into channels which cross at the back. The straps, jewelled with aquamarine and clear faceted glass stones set into metal mounts, are a typical Vionnet innovation, combining jewellery and fabric in one design. Vionnet’s expertise evolved from many years of apprenticeship, observation and practice both in making and selling. At 12 years of age she started her first job and later worked for Paris couturiers Callot Soeurs and Doucet before she set up her own business in 1912.

This article was first published in Powerline, spring 05, the magazine of the Powerhouse Museum.

Inspired! Design across time
Inspired! gallery fly-through (QuickTime 16,869kb)