As NGV’s top design curators, Simone LeAmon and Ewan McEoin have big dreams for the design sector. And they’re coming at it with energy and ambition.
February 1st, 2023
When it was announced in 2015 that the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)was ushering in ‘a new era’ in Contemporary Design and Architecture, the ensuing buzz was palpable. The department would be the first of its kind for an Australian art gallery and people were genuinely excited at the prospect of a major cultural institution finally filling a long-empty hole. When it was also announced that Ewan McEoin and Simone LeAmon would be heading up the department as curators, the buzz skyrocketed even more.
Being two of Australia’s leading design professionals, they make a formidable duo as the current Hugh D.T. Williamson Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Design and Architecture and Hugh D.T. Williamson Curator, Contemporary Design and Architecture, respectively.
Their combined experience, talent and knowledge sets a high curatorial precedent and their obvious passion is contagious. The weight of expectation was undoubtedly upon their shoulders from the outset yet they continue to deliver, surpassing all hopes. Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised, McEoin and LeAmon have always been movers and shakers, dynamic to the core.
Dublin-born McEoin originally trained as an environmental scientist before working as an editor on design magazines in Ireland and Australia while still in his 20s. A role as creative director of Euroluce soon followed and he then established his own studio and started running State of Design festival for the Victorian Government.
He was also creative director of the first Asia Pacific Design Triennial, becoming increasingly well known for his sharp ideas and ethical design advocacy.
LeAmon’s background is no less impressive, with the Melbourne-born designer training in both fine art and later, industrial design. She undertook a traineeship with jeweller Susan Cohn and subsequently spent many years walking the line between practising art and design.
Her travels led her to Milan where she ran her own practice designing for serial production, while still producing work for exhibition. She is highly regarded for her fine attention to detail and thoughtful approach. In 2009 she received the prestigious Rigg Design Prize and two years later, was awarded the Australia Council for the Arts Green Street Studio Residency in New York.
The two first crossed paths when McEoin featured LeAmon’s work in a magazine he was editing and then again during his time at Euroluce. It was actually Susan Cohn who introduced them to NGV director Tony Elwood AM – and here we are.
“For me, my current role is about providing an opportunity to help the general public, industry and government understand the potential of design to shape the future,” reflects McEoin. “Simone and I are trying to inspire people and we’re not just looking backwards at what’s happened and recording it, we’re generating it, and that’s what we’re ultimately interested in doing.”
It’s a vision that underscores McEoin and LeAmon’s building of the NGV’s Contemporary Design and Architecture collection through the acquisition of more than 350 works to date. Prior to the establishment of the department this collection didn’t even exist.
Amongst their many recent achievements is acquiring Nendo’s 50 Manga Chairs (the NGV is the only gallery in the world to own it); commissioning new globally-recognised works by, to name a few, Formafantasma and Liam Young; and collecting work by iconic living contemporary Australian designers such as Chris Connell and Brodie Neill.
It’s helped McEoin and LeAmon’s curatorial practices no end that each have experience as practice professionals, and this is the unique perspective they bring to their roles. As LeAmon explains, “Ewan and I have lived and breathed design for so many decades and this helps when working with designers, because we understand where they’re coming from. We can speak the designers’ language when it comes to commissioning or managing projects and so our conversations are always very natural. It also helps that we understand contemporary design within its historical context.”
Neither McEoin or LeAmon are the type of people who wait around for someone else to do it. They are hands-on, energetic and undeniably partially responsible for the renewed recognition of Australian design nationally and internationally, which is perhaps best highlighted in the NGV’s recent announcement of The Fox: NGV Contemporary, a major new gallery for contemporary art and design.
Ask them what they want the world to know about Australian design and they’re clear in their answers. “For a long time we wanted the world to know Australian design is here and its good,” reflects McEoin. “My observation now is that the world needs to know that we don’t really care anymore if they know or not.” LeAmon agrees and is pleased to see Australian designers aren’t looking offshore to validate what they’re doing anymore.
Significantly, their shared vision for Australia’s design scene is, “For it to be an industry that recognises consumption is important and to do it responsibly. And that design needs to not only engage socially, culturally, economically and politically, but what’s really important is environmentally as well,” explains LeAmon.
McEoin hopes designers won’t sit back. “Rather, my dream is for a design sector more engaged in reconciliation and the post carbon economy, in exiting non-renewable resources, entering a circular economy and in acts of healing to create a better future society,” he says.
McEoin and LeAmon have big ambitions borne from a strong love of design and genuine desire to help people produce their best work. They are proud supporters and champions of good design and will continue to be for a very, very long time to come.
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