Goldrush: the Rise of Contemporary Australian Design

In a country known more for its sporting prowess, landscape and rich mineral deposits, you could be forgiven for thinking the contemporary Australian design scene is ‘quiet’. But rest assured, it is getting louder. Much like the beginnings of life itself, design in Australia has been bubbling away for many years, and the conditions are ripe for a creative Cambrian explosion.

And like the myth of the Cambrian explosion, Australian design has not appeared out of thin air. Contemporary practitioners draw on rich design histories, from the colonial mentality of ‘making do’, to indigenous materials and practices, and a legacy of quality craftsmanship forged by designers such as Grant Featherston, Kjell Grant and Chris Connell.

Often, isolation is seen as a challenge, and for many years Australian design experienced a cultural cringe of sorts where practitioners would need to head overseas physically or secure work with international brands to sustain themselves. However, isolation also offers unique conditions for species to flourish unhindered, and much like the diverse flora and fauna that thrive in Australian conditions, so too can practitioners now thrive in Australia.

“It’s an exciting time, because people can genuinely see a pathway from studying design to designing things, and getting them made,” says Ewan McEoin Senior Curator, Department of Contemporary Design and Architecture at the National Gallery of Victoria. Describing the design community as an ‘ecosystem’, there are, he says, “Key species and organisations that provide the foundations,” such as retailers, galleries, universities and design schools, workshops and makers. Editor and curator David Clark agrees, saying, “It’s not just the designers that make an industry… You cannot develop a sophisticated design culture without the craftspeople and industrialists who can make things well, and the sellers who know how to commercialise them. They are all important in building the tapestry of design information.”

Slowly but surely, these ‘species’ have grown to critical mass. In this fertile environment, a number of small-to-medium studios — many of them exhibiting at DENFAIR — have mushroomed. Broadly speaking, they fall into two categories: commercial design, and design as a cultural practice. The first offers a refined solution to a practical brief — where products are formally restrained, yet sophisticated, with a strong sense of materiality. Author Karen McCartney describes these designers as, “Agile and capable, making their own prototypes and developing their ideas to a high standard of resolution”. The resulting products are extremely usable, with medium production runs and wide appeal — think TAIT, Didier and Daniel Emma.

The second group interrogates and responds to historical, social and environmental concerns. Broached Commissions takes this approach — for example, in the Briggs Family Tea Set by Trent Jansen, which represents the extreme cultural collision that took place in Australia’s colonial history. Others include Khai Liew, whose exceptional timber craftsmanship draws on his cultural heritage, and Elliat Rich’s ongoing discourse of place through the lens of her hometown, Alice Springs. Working via one-off, limited edition, or very small production runs, pieces from these designer-makers are within the realm of art, and appeal to a much smaller, yet crucial, collector market.

The categories are not distinct, however. There is a beautiful intermingling of philosophy and function, poetry and practicality, art and design, in much of contemporary Australian design — as well as “a broader understanding of the design process and what that may involve,” says Keinton Butler, Senior Curator, Design and Architecture at Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. It is this hybrid DNA that will generate an even more vibrant, strong and complex contemporary Australian design creature.

All design — all life — benefits from cross-pollination. People like Marc Newson, Brodie Neill, Adam Goodrum, Charles Wilson, Helen Kontouris and Christopher Boots are representing Australian design overseas, and should be recognised for their tenacity and talent in bridging the oceanic gap. Self-funded collectives, such as the Melbourne Movement founded by Kjell Grant, and Local Design under the stewardship of Emma Elizabeth, have also made considerable effort in exhibiting at Milan, with positive results.

Australian designers will continue to promote and celebrate their work, both within Australia, and internationally. But the conversation needs to be two-way, particularly as Brodie Neill points out, at this time when “Politically, socio-economically and environmentally, our world is at risk. [We] need to lead with creativity to break down barriers and harvest peace and harmony across borders.” Marc Newson agrees, saying that a divisive approach amounts to “a myopic view. Cross-pollination between countries, cultures, disciplines and industries… can only be a benefit to creativity and innovation”.

With this in mind, it’s well worth the effort to touch, pause and engage with Australian design. There is a new goldrush in this country, and no doubt that global collaborators, curators, collectors and commentators who start panning will get lucky.

Special thanks to interviewees Keinton Butler, David Clark, Karen McCartney, Ewan McEoin and Brodie Neill.

Related Topics:

Connect - Australian Design - Identity