United Front: Why it’s Time to Rethink The Relationship Between Australian Art + Design

In Australia, the art and design worlds might each have their own rituals, traditions and secret language but they’ve always overlapped in compelling ways.

In the sixties and seventies, Martin Sharp, the Sydney artist who was the force behind Yellow House, the freewheeling art collective that helped shape painters such as Brett Whitely and George Gittoes, was also a prolific designer, lending his kaleidoscopic, more-is-more aesthetic to everything from amusement parks to record covers.

In 2008, Marc Newson, Australia’s most famous design export, showed his Voronoi Shelf, a cellular structure hewn from a single block of white Carrara marble, at the Gagosian gallery in New York and London, proving that beauty and functionality don’t exist on opposite ends of a spectrum.

More recently, the work of Adam Goodrum, whose plump Fat Tulip armchair re-imagines that classic fixture of clubhouses for a new generation and Daniel Emma, an Adelaide-based industrial design duo whose tables and brass paperweights hint at the inner lives of inanimate objects, were displayed at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria as part of the 2015 Rigg Design Prize.

Sure, curators at overseas institutions have been seriously engaging with design for the past few years — think of the Italian designer Martino Gamper’s 2013 exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery or the current MoMA show, How Should We Live? which explores the evolution of domestic interiors and contributions of female architect-designers such as Charlotte Perriand and Eileen Gray. Here in Australia, we’re starting to embrace the fact that modern design can be as provocative and imaginative as the works you see in a gallery.

After all, art holds a mirror up to society and design responds to shifts in society. Good art makes us look closer and good design is often invisible. Both can profoundly impact the way we engage with the world. Of course, Australia has never been short of creative talent — especially given the size of our population. But the stratospheric success of exports like Marc Newson or Ron Mueck, whose hyper-real sculptures have been shown everywhere from Mexico City to Brooklyn, does little to reflect the challenges of working as a designer or contemporary artist in Australia, rather than embarking on that old rite of passage: boarding a plane overseas. For the design community, distance from the ateliers of Milan and the scourge of cheap, readily available knockoffs exacerbate the day-today pressures of building a sustainable and original design practice.

For contemporary artists, it’s the fact that the country’s artist-run spaces are rapidly losing funding and that individual artist grants from the Australia Council have been cut by by 70 percent since 2014, according to a May 2016 report in The Guardian. Both must also reconcile the legacy of European traditions with the emergence of Asia as a rising creative force. But these challenges also present opportunities to change direction, nurture local talent while events such as DENFAIR spark much-needed dialogue between the art and design communities and help redefine Australia’s creative output on a global stage. The art and design worlds have their own rituals, tradition and secret language. It’s time that we realised that our mission is the same.

Neha Kale is the editor of VAULT magazine, an Australian contemporary art and culture quarterly that encourages conversation between different disciplines and champions creativity in all its forms.

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