As globalisation opens Australian designers up to the international marketplace, we find ourselves at a unique pitching point. ‘Australian’ is the new design commodity. Yet we continue to search for the words that best articulate our most desirable, differentiating qualities. Beyond a can-do, make-do culture, what sets Australian design apart from its contemporary counterparts?
January 25th, 2018
Ask anyone around the world, what comes to mind when you say ‘Australia’, and they’ll invariably mention the Sydney Opera House. It’s considered to be one of Australia’s most iconic cultural and architectural landmarks. It’s become the optimistic symbol of our freedom and easy living style.
But of course, the Opera House is not Australian designed and wasn’t even designed in Australia by its architect, Jorn Utzon. Utzon conceived the concept for the Opera House from Denmark, having never been to Australia before.
He was, however, an avid yachtsman and sailor, and he had a keen interest in nature. So his first point of reference was studying the maps of Sydney and its harbour. The Opera House we see today is a clever abstraction of its surrounding landscape.
Considering this very small layer of facts (in what is a much large socio-political saga surrounding the Opera House), to what extent can we really define this landmark as being truly Australian? Is it our readiness to draw international architectural influences into our already pluralist style?
Or is it the happy coincidence that Utzon looked to Australia’s extraordinary landscape for inspiration? He certainly wouldn’t be the first.
In the short and blossoming history of Australia’s creative industries, we’ve found ourselves all too confined by our country’s youthfulness and geographic isolation. Our ties to colonialism and the British Monarchy have, in a large way, shaped our early settler beginnings. But Mid-century Modernism has stuck as a lasting influence across our most iconic residential architecture and furniture design.
As globalisation opens us up to new creative opportunities, we find ourselves grappling to define what it is to be simply Australian, within a contemporary design context. Moving beyond the pervading influence of European, British and American ideologies, what is the desirable quality within Australian design that will write our future for us?
“If you look at our design industry, from the first days of colonisation, we’ve always heavily referenced things in other parts of the world,” says Design Anthropologist, Trent Jansen. Unlike any other design culture out there, Australia’s is defined by a myriad of international influences.
From design process and making techniques, through to material use and general aesthetics – they all commonly draw from a triad of European, British and American ideologies.
From the first decades of Australian colonisation, furniture was modelled on the British style books, often sourced from its most famous department stores. Australia’s truest form of furniture making, says Trent, can be traced back to the ‘bush furniture’ of the mid-19th century. This was ‘make-do’ furniture, “made on the frontier”; no-frills pieces crafted in direct response to the landscape and our everyday needs. It symbolises Australia’s can-do attitude and speaks to our national character as a frank, practical and humble people.
By the mid-20th century, Modernist furniture had found its foothold, bringing with it strong references to Scandinavian ideologies. It’s an aesthetic that continues to live on in Australian furniture design and architecture today.
Even the country’s earliest painters, argues Trent, while painting Australian landscapes, were applying European painting methods. He points to Margaret Preston, the famed Modernist painter whose portrayal of Australia’s light and colours is considered an embodiment of the Australian aesthetic. But she too was European educated and painting in a European style.
“Reflecting on my own work,” says Trent, “I was taught a way of practising that originates in Holland.” In fact, he says, the vast majority of Australian designers use European or American ideologies. “We’ve been generating objects in the same way since the early 20th century; the philosophy, approach and materiality hasn’t changed much. To call it Australian is only because an Australian conceived it.”
Still, for many overseas, the idea of Australia carries with it a sense of exoticism. And as a people, Australians are well regarded. We’re generally recognised as being easy-going and easy to work with. Among our unique qualities are our inventiveness and resourcefulness, borne from our relative isolation – to one another and the rest of the world.
With this in mind: “I think we’re missing out on what’s Australian,” says Trent. “I think we could generate a new movement in design, based on what we have access to here.”
When artist Kate Banazi moved out to Australia, it was with a sense of optimism and liberation that she set up her practice. In a country where she knew not a soul. “For me Australian-ness has always been about the openness of people. I’ve been grateful for, and benefited massively from Australian kindness.”
She associates Australian style with the light, and that ever-pervading sense of space. “People have more emotional space here. I see this manifest through more thoughtful practice. I myself have more space here – both physical and emotional. I’ve found myself more confident in my direction and more in my element than ever before.”
Australia’s landscape and light come together in a sensory way. “I see colour in a different way, everything smells different, the earth is different.”
Kate’s half-Indian heritage has instilled in her a spiritual attachment to the land which she finds grounding. It’s a philosophy that does not hold up with strength in Western society, which places cultural value upon its physical monuments. It brings into question the very fact that, as Australians, we live among one of the world’s oldest Indigenous cultures; a culture that identifies through story-telling and mythology.
“Growing up in London and not knowing that much about Australia, what we were taught about the country (that Colonialism and the Empire are key) is very different from what Australia is. Myself being non-white, I should have questioned it a lot harder, as coming out to Australia and experiencing the people and the land, first-hand, was a very different experience for me. I was disappointed at the lack of visibility for first nations,” says Kate.
Trent, too, feels the cultural divide between white Australians and Indigenous Australians is a source of missed opportunity. “Ask the average Australian about Aboriginal culture and what comes to mind is a stone age culture. It’s that perception that gives us the solidity we seek, to identify ourselves as a worthy and ancient place, and group of ideas.”
In acknowledging the “very thin layer of history” that is post-Colonial Australian culture, Trent suggests we look to contemporary Aboriginal culture as a way of “joining the dots between contemporary white Australia and contemporary Aboriginal culture”. “It could break down the divide, and give us, as white Australians, a place to locate ourselves that isn’t attached to [populist images like] Britain.”
Perhaps one of the most common criticisms of Australian design is that it’s all too safe. Yet survival and bravery are among Australians’ greatest trademarks.
For comedian and self-described “architecture tragic”, Tim Ross, bravery is embodied in the striking works of artists like John Olsen and Jack Thompson. “It’s Ben Quilty standing up for incarcerated Australians, or Germaine Greer giving anyone what-for; they all feel like someone standing up in the bush and doing something good,” he says. “Because of the size of our country and our isolation we have been forced to be nimble, crafty and inventive. Our size has forced creativity on us.”
But commercial imperative continues to rule our creative output. As stylist and curator of Local Milan, Emma Elizabeth, sagely notes: “Too often it’s about units, numbers and followers. Where’s quality of content and integrity?”
In showcasing a select group of Australian designs and designers at the Milan Furniture Fair as part of Local Milan, Emma Elizabeth has been working to overcome the distance-equals-money equation. “I think our design work stands on a global level and the quality of work is on par with what’s coming out of Europe and the US. The issue is, it’s inaccessible to overseas buyers. The first thing out of their mouths is, ‘Oh, the shipping!’.
“It’s a battle… but I think we’re battlers. We have to think on our toes and seek out great makers and materials, and like-minded souls to support what we’re doing.”
For Emma Elizabeth, it’s nothing ventured nothing gained, and Local Milan has been an exercise in ‘putting it out there’. “You can’t verbalise our (Australian) aesthetic – you need to see it as a collective. Let the observer create their own dialogue in their head.”
Strength in numbers aside, the question still remains: As designers are we brave? Or just surviving. And which is most defines our ‘Australian-ness’?
“Traditionally we’ve had no time or patience for things that didn’t go the distance or do the job,” says Tim. “As a result, our design items are so practical their beauty is almost invisible. Our houses (the best ones) are shaped by the constraints of our harsh climate, and that’s what makes them look Australian.”
But in a future shaped by globalisation and automation, it’s really our ideas that will aid our survival. “The inventive and resourceful work ethic that we’ve always possessed is more important now than ever,” says Tim.
This article originally appeared Schiavello’s Details magazine and has been republished here with permission. To see full Details 33 magazine visit www.schiavello.com/details.
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