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Indesign Luminary: Johannes Kuhnen

The pioneering work of designer, Johannes Kuhnen, has had a considerable influence on craft-based design in Australia.

  • Portrait by Anthony Browell.

  • Johannes Kuhnen Brooches. anodised aluminium, granite, gold 750. Private collections Australia.

An inventive and exceptionally skilled creator of contemporary jewellery and objects, which have been extensively exhibited and collected nationally and internationally, Johannes Kuhnen has been at the forefront of contemporary metalwork in Australia for many years.

His pioneering use of anodised aluminium for jewellery in Germany in the mid-1970s, expertise which he continued to develop in Australia, remains his particular legacy. He has also brought his experience of European Modernism, art and design and its spirit of innovation to Australia, and has fostered the talents of his many students at the School of Art, Australian National University (ANU), where he has taught gold and silversmithing since 1984. Demonstrably, his influence on craft-based designed in Australia has been considerable.

Born in Essen, Germany, in 1952, Johannes Kuhnen’s career has apparently unfolded along serendipitous lines. As a ten-year-old growing up in Dusseldorf, Germany, Johannes was introduced to goldsmithing when his grandmother rented a room to a goldsmith and his father commissioned a complex, traditional ring to be made for his mother. Appreciating that academic achievement was not a prerequisite for becoming a goldsmith, his attraction to the craft occurred, he says with a twinkle, in direct response to his disenchantment with his schooling.

[Kuhnen’s] influence on craft-based designed in Australia has been considerable.

At 16 he accompanied his father to the country’s Industrial Design Information Centre, which was conveniently nearby and where he was greatly impressed by an exhibition of contemporary industrial design. On learning that by training as a gold and silversmith he could become an industrial designer, his future was decided. His art teacher suggested a visit to the best goldsmith in town, who, again by good fortune, was the celebrated contemporary jeweller and kinetic sculptor Friedrich Becker. “I was a bit cocky,” remembers Kuhnen.

When asked by Becker if he could make a particularly difficult piece, Khunen replied, “Sure I can make that, if I get shown. I don’t see any reason why not!“ Eventually he secured an apprenticeship with Becker, and while the working environment at the time was extremely formal – “we were on surname terms with each other… Mr Kuhnen, Mr Becker” – the experience was intensely formative.

Initially an aeronautical engineer and pilot, Becker had retrained after World War II as a gold and silversmith, although he was never a conventional jeweller. On the contrary, his originality and expertise have cast him as one of the pre-eminent practitioners of the 20th century and an instigator of jewellery as ‘wearable art’. In creating his groundbreaking kinetic jewellery and sculpture, Becker drew together an engineer’s preoccupation with technical precision and an appreciation of contemporary European art, of which he had a noteworthy collection.

Turkish teapot by Johannes Kuhnen, 1989, owned by National Gallery Victoria.

Turkish teapot by Johannes Kuhnen, 1989, owned by National Gallery Victoria.

With Becker as a mentor Kuhnen flourished. “He was very encouraging, very entertaining, he imparted a lot of knowledge.” Becker also lectured at the Fachhochschule (now the University of Applied Science) in Dusseldorf, where Kuhnen studied product design following his apprenticeship, so in all he was taught by Becker from 1969 until 1978; and in the career Kuhnen subsequently forged for himself he adopted Becker’s dedication to innovation, precision, and geometric forms in a practice that was similarly diverse.

“The key message I learnt very quickly from Becker is that you had to be new. You had to know what everybody else did, and you had to be able to define why what you were doing was different,” says Kuhnen. While the influence of the Bauhaus can be seen in his work, his use of colour became another prominent element, one particularly encouraged by his other lecturer at the Fachhochschule, noted enameller Professor Sigrid Delius. An exceptional level of craftsmanship also became a Kuhnen trademark.

“You had to know what everybody else did, and you had to be able to define why what you were doing was different.” – Johannes Kuhnen

While still studying, Kuhnen abandoned any idea of moving into industrial design. He was keen to develop an appreciation of the field of contemporary jewellery, which was still in its infancy, and eager to make his own mark. As it happened, the 1970s proved a crucial time in the development of 20th century jewellery. As Kuhnen recalls, the price of gold “basically tripled within the course of a year, it caused a major shock, so everybody looked for alternative materials.” Jewellers began to experiment with non-precious metals and plastics, Pop Art-inspired, their use of bright colour, which was energised by the zeitgeist, challenged the boundaries between art, craft and design. Ultimately this changed the nature of jewellery from its historical basis as an expression of wealth and status to a contemporary design practice focused on the ideas and artistry of its making.

Following Becker’s lead, Kuhnen bought his first synthetic stones at this time, and with them, in 1975, he made his first aluminium brooches, inserting blocks of synthetic ruby, which is a crystalline form of aluminium oxide, into squares of clear anodised aluminium. Anodising creates a protective coating of aluminium oxide on the surface of the metal, so “that was my approach to Minimalism,” says Kuhnen, “in that it was all the same material. Exploring aluminium then carried through a lot of the work as an idea.”

Johannes Kuhnen Brooches. anodised aluminium, granite, gold 750. Private collections Australia.

Johannes Kuhnen Brooches. anodised aluminium, granite, gold 750. Private collections Australia.

Those first aluminium brooches were anodised commercially because although the process was familiar to the industry it was unexplored in jewellery. After a visit to the Aluminium Advisory Council, and with an anodising kit purchased there for him by the Fachhochschule, Kuhnen began experimenting. He soon found that the dyes available were limited, and set out to develop a book of colour samples. In the process, he established the first craft-based anodising process in Germany. (By chance, jewellery designers in both Holland and England had begun investigating anodising at around the same time.) Initially, there were permanency problems with the dyes, but the technology quickly improved and colourfast dyes in strong hues became available.

After he graduated, Kuhnen set up a workshop with his school friend, Herbert Schulze, in the Dusseldorf suburb of Bilk. Australian-born enameller Helen Aitken, who had studied with him at the Fachhochschule, later joined them. Having won an international competition, 10 Gram Gold, in 1976, and with his exhibiting career underway, Kuhnen was soon making “a lean living” from his studio work. However his relationship with Aitken, who was keen to return to Australia, changed the course of his life. The couple married in 1980 and arrived in Melbourne in 1981, just as Kuhnen discovered that he’d won “the most significant German award for craft,” the State award, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Teapot for green tea, silver 925, titanium (3 views), 2009.

Teapot for green tea, silver 925, titanium (3 views), 2009.

In Melbourne both Kuhnen and Aitken-Kuhnen found part-time teaching work at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). They bought a house in the Dandenongs, had a daughter, Mio, and with a grant from the Australia Council, set up a workshop and began pursuing their studio practices, although it was clear to both that it would not be possible to support themselves on commission work in the way they had in Germany. When Kuhnen was offered the position of gold and silversmithing lecturer at the School of Art, ANU, the family relocated to Canberra, initially establishing a new studio in Michelago, and in 2000, creating Workshop Bilk in Queanbeyan.

Kuhnen combined his teaching career with his studio production, exhibiting regularly both here in Australia, where his work was collected by the country’s major museums and galleries, and in Europe, in many cities in Germany as well as in Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna, Zurich and London.

While in Melbourne, Kuhnen had briefly taught jeweller Susan Cohn the process of anodising, but on his arrival at ANU he set up a facility that allowed him to teach the process effectively and also to work on a larger scale than had previously been possible. Continuing to explore the potential of the process, it became his material of choice.

Johannes Kuhnen designed armring: anodised aluminium, titanium, 2010. Private collections Australia.

Johannes Kuhnen designed armring: anodised aluminium, titanium, 2010. Private collections Australia.

Its versatility has allowed him to create objects large and small and he has used it over the last 35 years, along with other metals, to make particular categories of objects, coming back to each form again and again to create extended ranges or series. These favoured forms include bar brooches, arm rings, shield-shaped pendants, teapots, trays based on the form of an ancient Greek stadium and, designed in response to his own short-sightedness, spectacles.

It’s the constant development of these forms, he says, that keeps him going. “As soon as I’m making an idea, I’m thinking about how I can change it.” Each one, he says, might suggest four different extensions or variations. The time available to make them is the limiting factor. “I have this bank of ideas, unfinished projects. To a large extent they’re in my head, but [they’re] also on very disorganised little scribbles, sketches on scraps of paper,” he says, which are then translated into pure mathematical precision before construction.

“As soon as I’m making an idea, I’m thinking about how I can change it.” – Johannes Kuhnen

He finds innovation occurs through the exploration of new materials and new technologies, citing, for example, a technique he has developed using laser welding to fix gemstones into titanium sheets. His objective today remains as it was when he was an apprentice: “to challenge the field, to push the envelope.”

Within the progression of these favoured forms, his dedication to geometry has become further entrenched and his anodised colours have become brighter and purer. He also complements these coloured elements, which are combined in judicious proportions, with a variety of other materials – silver, gold, stainless steel, Monell and titanium, along with various patterned stones or granite – to create unified forms that often belie a complex construction.

Meanwhile, apart from an Australia Council Fellowship that allowed Kuhnen to take time off in 1996 to develop new work, he has taught continuously at the School of Art, and in 2001 was made head of the metalworking department.

<img class="wp-image-98252 size-full" src="https://cdn.indesignlive.com/wp-content/uploads/centrepiece_DCM_Kuhnen_web.jpg" alt="" Centrepiece designed by Denton Corker Marshall, made by Johannes Kuhnen, owned by National Gallery Victoria.

In this educational role at ANU, he has joined the ranks of other prominent European-trained metalsmiths here who, with their deep knowledge of traditional skills and contemporary European design, have profoundly influenced the development of the studio craft movement in Australia.

The many students Kuhnen has taught over the last 25 years include Robert Foster, who took up anodising and created the Fink brand, Ron Nicol, who won the 2009 Bombay Sapphire prize, Cesar Cueva from Metalab, Oliver Smith and Tania Taglietti, to name just a few.

His objective today remains as it was when he was an apprentice: “to challenge the field, to push the envelope.”

Teaching has also had its benefits for Kuhnen. “I enjoy working with students because you’re always dealing with different problems ­– solving problems is what interests me. Diversity is what keeps you alive and fresh,” he says. “I’m giving them ideas and design details – that’s how I earn my salary.”

While some teachers regard the techniques they develop as their own intellectual property, Kuhnen, notably, offers his expertise freely. “As long as I can be a little step ahead of everybody else, it’s okay,” he quips. Aitken-Kuhnen suggests that one of the most amazing things about her husband is that “he’s always willing to share everything he knows – he’s very generous. There are never any secrets in the making. And whenever anybody wants help he’s straight in there. He’s always really interested and helpful – above and beyond anybody I’ve ever known.”

If Kuhnen’s energy for solving problems seems boundless, so does his enthusiasm for his work. He has been extraordinarily productive throughout his career.

Much of Kuhnen’s work is in public collections, “which are basically inaccessible.” His consummately designed and crafted objects, many created in sizzlingly brilliant colour, offer exemplary proof of his prominence in contemporary metalwork. 

Johannes Kuhnen was featured as an Indesign Luminary in issue #45.

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