Bruno munari once curated an exhibition dedicated to the “unknown industrial designer”, an acknowledgement of all those fine but anonymous designers whose work has shaped our everyday world. Now in his mid-70s, Carl Nielsen has never been exactly anonymous, but as a key figure in Australian post-war Industrial Design and design education, he is probably not as well known as he ought to be.
March 31st, 2014
Industrial design as a profession probably dates from the Bauhaus, established in 1919 as ‘a laboratory for mass consumption’. After World War II, new materials, manufacturing methods and technologies saw the growth of mass production and of industrial design.
But in post-War Australia, industrial design was barely a newborn. Carl Nielsen’s businessman father had been part of a government task force sent to investigate manufacturing overseas. Discovering the developing profession in the United States, he suggested it as a career for the teenage son who liked to spend his time “fixing and making things.” Nielsen had a darkroom set up in the laundry – “I was always interested in photography and made a surprisingly useful income from it” – and a home workshop where he fiddled with cars and motor bikes.
In 1949 he enrolled in the Industrial Design Diploma course at Melbourne Technical College (later RMIT). Industrial design was then firmly married to art and craft and Nielsen wondered where the course, “run by a well-known fine artist and… other ‘arty’ types”, was taking him. “It was a very esoteric thing to do in the 1950s.”
The family moved to Sydney and Nielsen continued to make a living taking photographs at car and motorbike races and portraits of children and their families. He also designed and made furniture, which he sold through interior design outlets. After some invaluable experience as a designer at Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA) and then in the UK for household appliance manufacturers, he returned to Sydney to work for himself.
Initially he operated from home. But by 1962, the name Carl Nielsen and Associates was on the door of his first small office in North Sydney. There were other respected designers – Paul Schremmer, Ted Healy, Charles Furey – and more practitioners working within manufacturing, although Nielsen says that his was one of the first independent industrial design consultancies to operate in Sydney.
Over the next 20 years, Nielsen Design Associates (NDA) expanded into a highly-regarded multi-disciplinary design practice with graphics, interior design and model-making in addition to its industrial design and workshop capabilities. His motivation he says, was “just a burning fascination with the design business.”
“There were three key elements which affected the business of industrial design for me. One was David Wood, [who joined Nielsen in the early 1960s as an architecture student]. He had a great influence right through the office. Then there was my marvellous [second] wife, Judy Stenberg, who became our business manager. And the other thing was great clients. His father was another significant influence. “In retrospect, some of the things my father said to me had a great impact,” he says. “One was only ever work with people you can communicate with. Another was only deal with the person who’s got the authority to OK your cheques.”
Nielsen is emphatic that running a business in the 1960s and 70s was a much simpler task than it is today. He had no training in business management, he says, “I just ran it the way I would like to be dealt with myself.”
INVOICING – “I used to write all the fee proposals and all the invoices and I always saw them both as a key thing in relationships with clients. Invoices were sometimes three or four pages long, [and highly detailed, which] was critically important in making [clients] understand what the hell you did.”
FIRST IMPRESSIONS – “The old story is that you don’t judge a book by its cover, but you do. With clients, or potential clients, you get on with them or you don’t.”
CONTROL – “It was most unusual for us to go out and do a deal in somebody else’s office because I was in their territory. It was a matter of us controlling the situation. I’ve never taken a client to lunch. I always tried to manoeuvre it so they came to our office.” THE PROFESSION – “I saw the client/designer relationship as no different to that of a doctor or lawyer. You’re a professional, and it was up to me to show them that.”
COLD CALLING – “I have never gone out and knocked on the door with a portfolio of glossy pictures because to me that sounds like being a doorto- door salesman.”
OUT AND AROUND – “I worked very hard at getting out and around. I gave lectures, so that people would ring us rather than us ring them. It was amazing how many jobs came from that.”
HIRING – “If it was the right person – how they looked and spoke, their attitude and personality – I felt you could soon teach them to do the things you wanted them to do. There’s nothing worse than having somebody brilliant at drawing or computing who’s a troublemaker or a grump.”
TIMEKEEPING – I instituted the half-hour time-book system, nothing original I’m sure, but I needed to know what was going on.
4-DAY WEEK – At David Wood’s suggestion the office adopted a 4-day week, of 9-hour days for all staff, with the proviso that client needs never be compromised and the office be open every day from 9am to 6pm.
One of the early members of the Industrial Design Institute of Australia (IDIA), established in 1958, Nielsen was invited to become its second Federal President. When the Commonwealth Government founded the Industrial Design Council of Australia (IDCA), he was invited to join. In the 1960s, he did some part-time teaching on the Industrial Design Post-Graduate Diploma course at the University of NSW. And in 1974, when the NSW Government conducted an inquiry into art and design education, Nielsen was on the investigating committee. Through all of this he met a lot of people. In fact, talking to people was the strategy he used to secure business for the company. “I worked very hard at getting out and around,” he says. He’d speak at industry meetings, seminars and conferences, to the Housewives Association or The Plastics Institute, and it was “amazing how many jobs came from that, from people in the audience who came up to see me afterwards.”
Some of the most well-known products designed in the NDA office in the 1960s and 70s are still around today. The company’s design for the Café Bar was innovative, effective and timely and was so successful that it became an almost ubiquitous addition to offices and factories around the country. The Optima Chair for Sebel is another example. The innovative design for this stackable upholstered chair meant that it required no specialist upholstery skills in its manufacture. It is still produced locally and under license in several countries overseas. In 1981 NDA began work for the Department of Main Roads, (now RTA) on a design for the pedestrian push button units found on traffic lights. By eliminating switching failure problems caused by water ingress and vandalism, the design has proved a lasting success. The units remain in use here and in many cities around the world.
NDA aimed for effectiveness, functionality, economy and durability as priorities in a thorough, rational design process. “You analysed the problem, took into account the various moderating criteria and put them together in the most effective way,” says Nielsen. The styling intrinsic to many contemporary consumer products was of little interest to him. In Nielsen’s mind, there’s a very clear distinction between art and design, although he suggests that the two are so often paired these days they’ve become an entity, which he describes in a gently pejorative tone as ‘artndesign’.
“People like Philippe Stark and Marc Newson are not industrial designers in my view. They’re ‘artistsndesigners’. It’s a much more personal thing for them.” He points out that Stark, “a brilliant character,” produces primarily in Italy, where the entire gamut of design can be found, “from a sheer outrageous styling approach to the most dedicated and analysed and authoritative industrial design. “We hardly did any consumer products – that wasn’t our thing. I liked to make things that are really useful. I see no point in changing the buttons on a product to make it more saleable. You should only change it when there’s some advance to be made. And it just so happened that this strange attitude of mine coincided with the time in Australian manufacturing that happened to suit it. For many companies, the product was what it was all about.”
Radiogram (Pye Industries, 1968)
GAP YEAR “I don’t think you should go on to advanced education straight from high school. You don’t even know who you are at age 17 or 18.”
THE RIGHT INSTITUTION “I have a view that not everyone should go to university. There’s too much pressure to get a university education, and too many students who shouldn’t be there.” Rather than universities, Nielsen believes that the less academically oriented Colleges of Advanced Education, or the old UK-style Polytechnics were more appropriate for teaching design.
CLASS NUMBERS – In 1999 there were 25 students in Nielsen’s 4th year ID class. In 2003, the 4th year had 40 students. Next year 60 students are expected. Large class sizes, funding shortages and the sheer size of the system are the major problems design institutions face.
ACADEMIC ABILITY After an eight-year study following HSC student entrants into industrial design, Nielsen found that “there was virtually no connection between conventional academic education and successful ID students. Some of the highest HSC students were some of the worst industrial design students and vice versa.” He found attitude, capability and life experience to be the critical ingredients.
IDENTIFYING POTENTIAL DESIGNERS When interviewing prospective industrial design students in previous years, “we thought we’d be able to choose which ones would be most successful and which wouldn’t – and a lot of the time we were right. High school applicants are no longer interviewed” but selected, by computer, on HSC scores alone.
DESIGN QUESTIONS “My constant snap comment about students: They’re great at finding answers but they’re not so good at asking questions. Often you’ll see beautiful answers to questions nobody’s asked before.”
As a result of the NSW Government’s investigation into art and design education, the Gleeson Report recommended the establishment of a new College of Advanced Education. This was the Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), founded in 1976. Nielsen was asked to head up the Industrial Design Department, which he did for a year (while also running NDA), becoming Principal Lecturer on a fractional full-time, in effect, part-time, basis. “I’ve never seen myself as an academic, [but] I was getting pretty involved in education and I saw in it an opportunity to really make some change in the system.”
He pursued these two careers in tandem for some years. When the Federal Government abolished Colleges of Advanced Education – leaving only Colleges of Technical and Further Education (TAFES) and universities – the design school of SCA amalgamated with the NSW Institute of Technology. In 1988, it became the new University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), with Nielsen as Associate Professor of the Industrial Design Program within a new faculty of Design, Architecture and Building. (The art school was subsumed into the University of Sydney.)
In the 1960s and 70s, Nielsen’s clients and their factories were all within a 20 kilometre radius of the NDA office. But manufacturing began moving offshore. Companies were being bought out. “I’d say from the mid-seventies [onward], traditional manufacturing in Australia, and the people in it, seemed to change. It [became] much more impersonal. You often [had to] deal at a much lower level of the executive ladder – I took it for granted that I would always deal with the managing directors – and instead of being concerned about the product they were more concerned about shareholder returns. It’s a lot more difficult today.”
Nielsen decided to focus on teaching. He and Judy Stenberg offered the other mainstays of the office, David Wood, Sandy McNeal and Adam Laws, a buy-out proposal and in late 1984, all three became NDA’s new principals, with David Wood as Managing Director. Since that time, says Nielsen, “NDA has gone from strength to strength, sometimes along paths I would not have anticipated.”
In 1985 he embarked on a Master of Arts Degree, which he was awarded in 1987. As part of the course requirements, he wrote a dissertation called Industrial Design in Australia, based on an extensive questionnaire to around 380 Australian manufacturing companies. Sadly, he says, “all it did was reinforce my notion that industrial design wasn’t generally seen as a major input to industry. Even today, he says, too many companies look upon design as a cost, not an investment, whereas the design of their product is really what their business is all about.”
At both SCA and UTS, Nielsen introduced 4th year students to ‘the business’ of being an industrial designer. “I literally ran the class the way I ran the business [at NDA]. I introduced a work experience program. I used to encourage very close contact with the students and I felt my biggest input was in having discussions with them about any issue they might raise. It was never ‘chalk and talk’, it was conversation.”
He has always found teaching stimulating and satisfying, and in 1999, in acknowledgement of his ‘debt’ to the students and staff at UTS, he established The Carl Nielsen Professional Development Award – a $2,000 study/travel grant to be awarded annually to an ID graduate student. “Looking back on it,” he says, “almost everything I’ve done seems to have been connected with people and their attitudes and how I got on with them and how they got on with me.”
Carl Nielsen was featured as a Luminary in issue #17, May 2004.
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