A raconteur, Simone LeAmon is interested in fostering conversation on what, why and how we design – and, make the things we do.
A raconteur, Simone LeAmon is interested in fostering conversation on what, why and how we design – and, make the things we do. But more importantly, Simone is interested in what it all means. Her writing activities extend to essays, articles, interviews and coverage of design, designers and issues affecting design practice in Australia.
Resident columnist for Indesign magazine between 2007 – 2013 Simone’s quarterly design column ‘Comment’ draws on her experiences in the creative and commercial sectors to lead conversations on design culture and enterprise in Australia and abroad.
Published in Australia by the Indesign Group, Indesign Magazine is regarded one of Australia’s leading design and architecture titles.
Farewell and Thanks for the Take-Aways
Indesign Issue 53
Signing off – Simone says thanks for the ‘take-aways’ and reflects on what she has learnt from writing for Indesign.
“The world has changed (again) and the stakes are higher than ever. Now we’re facing a full-fledged revolution – a hypercompetitive world involving art and gifts and fear and the ability for you (for anyone) to make an indispensible contribution to something you care about.” – Seth Godin, Linchpin (Penguin, 2010)
This is my fond farewell, for now, to you – the readers of Indesign. After five years and eighteen columns, I am stepping down from my position as resident opinionist to explore some projects I’ve had on the backburner. So, as a parting gesture, I want to share what I’ve learnt in researching and writing these columns.
Incidentally, I didn’t take on this position because I wanted to be a writer. Truth is, the writing part scared me to bits. Getting the words right can be arduous, and I feared embarrassing myself. But thankfully, I stopped worrying about comma placement and just got on with it. Besides, natural ability counts for little without intent (another Godin quote!) Read more
I committed to this post for one reason: I felt it was time to speak up. Five years ago we had very little public comment from Australian designers, outside of academia. Just a handful of home-grown architects – notably, Sydney-based Tone Wheeler and Melbourne-based Stuart Harrison and Simone Knott – were sticking their necks out, producing excellent design commentary while simultaneously practising architecture.
When I expressed my dissatisfaction to Indesign’s then-editor Paul McGillick about the scarcity of voices coming from within my own field, industrial design, he responded by offering me this opportunity.
As a design practitioner, it’s very easy to have expectations of your industry, to hold opinions and pass judgement on the work it produces. I’d like to say that designers arrive at these positions via considered reflection – but that’s not always true. Reflection entails study, grappling with your thoughts and a degree of self-examination.
So, I embarked on this position like a designer would on an inquiry-based project. My aim was to comprehend design and design practice in a critical way – by contemplating my own experiences, and seeking out conversations with members of Australia’s multi-discipline design community, and our collaborators.
Right now, I feel that design resembles a kind of grotesque – a fantastically distorted realm that looks very different from ten, even five years ago. We’re seeing huge changes to our work, practice, business and stakeholder dialogues.
In the spirit of Godin’s opening quote, in this time of great change, uncertainty, competition and opportunity, I’d like to offer five “take-aways” I have gleaned from engaging with the design community from this particular chair…
1. Think big: innovate & challenge yourself
As a design practitioner, I believe you have two choices: 1. Be good (or bad) at your job and deliver solutions by rote or; 2. Expect to do remarkable work for your clients, co-workers, audiences and yourself by leaning wholeheartedly into the arguments, conditions and environments that you find unsatisfactory.
If you aspire to change these circumstances, and transform how people think, feel and live their lives, you must do remarkable work. You can’t just “do your job” anymore. Design has big things to accomplish!
2. Know your peers, potential partners & collaborators
In this role I have spoken with numerous people about what they do, the systems they work within, and what they know about other design professions. I’ve been searching for common ground, trying to understand our similarities and differences.
My conclusion? Sadly, as a fraternity of designers and business people, we don’t really know each other. Nor do we really know our collaborators and partners.
I’m passionate about fostering creative dialogues between Australian designers and manufacturers. From experience, things happen after the “getting to know you” phase, leading to dialogue and intense scrutiny of the creative or commercial problem at hand. Only then can designer and manufacturer work together to re-contextualise the problem and find a solution.
Just think what we – the design industry – could accomplish if we all knew each other better.
3. Tap into opportunities
Design’s popularity is on the rise, and let’s be frank: so too is the competition between events, awards, festivals and design organisations. Almost monthly I receive a media release announcing “Australia’s most prestigious new design XYZ…”
No one organisation, enterprise or voice owns Australian design. But soon, to stay relevant, they’ll all need your “art and gifts” – so work out exactly what they are, and help these organisations to help you.
4. Share what you do
Designers are capable of great things – but too often, for reasons grounded in fear, they don’t share them.
For years, I too have sat on ideas, designs and contacts, waiting for the perfect time and opportunity to pounce. The truth is, if that contact doesn’t return your call, if your idea is going to “bomb”, or be slammed or copied – it’ll happen.
These days, with the technology now readily to hand, it’s much easier to share. People who are extremely generous in sharing appear to be doing much better than those of us who aren’t.
5. It never hurts to say thank you!
Thanks Indesign for the opportunity and five great years. Thanks Lou, Din and Meg for helping me become a better writer. And thanks to you, the design community, for reading and for sharing. Let’s keep the conversation open and ongoing.
Simone LeAmon is a designer, artist and director of Simone LeAmon Design and Creative Studio:
Designing Female Role Models
Indesign Issue 51
Asking the question – where are our designing female role models? Simone suggests we need to expand our view on the contributions of women in Australian design.
I recently asked several female colleagues between the ages of 30 and 45 if they’d ever had a female role model or mentor. With the exception of one colleague, none of them had. But, surprisingly, most agreed that the diversity in a woman’s life meant that a full-time career required some artful navigation. They also agreed that learning from other women’s wisdom when it comes to combining a successful design career with a happy personal and family life sounds like a good idea.
What prompted my interest in this subject of women-mentors is the frequency with which younger female designers contact me for ‘coffee’ (which is code for ‘career help’). Meeting at my studio or in a nearby café, I will listen to them talk about their creative accomplishments and what their ideal designer-life looks like i.e. what they want to be doing and achieving. And, nine times out of ten, this will segue into requests for contacts or job opportunities. Read more
While I admire their proactive behaviour, what strikes me about these younger women is that they never quiz me about what it actually takes to sustain a design practice or a business.
One of the reasons that female role models and women mentoring women can be seen as an advantage in the workplace is that the tricky issues of starting families, career progression and sexism can be tabled and more openly discussed.
Such issues, however, are the furthest things from the mind of an aspiring designer in her 20s. I understand this because 17 years ago, I interned with contemporary jeweller and designer Susan Cohn at Workshop 3000. Enamoured by the work, atelier environment and prolific schedule, I never asked Susan how she did it. In retrospect I didn’t have to because, unlike the young women who approach me for career help, Susan and I weren’t meeting for coffee. On the contrary, the relationship between the mentor and mentored is based on trust, so while work-life issues were not always spoken about directly, they were encountered and I learnt on the job.
So, going back to my sample of female colleagues, I asked them why they’d never had a female role model or mentor. The most common response was because they simply hadn’t identified with a woman to fill either of the roles. Sure, they each know many female designers and architects, but they were mostly of their own generation. So while there aren’t women they necessarily look up to, there are some they respect. And for inspiration they look towards to international designers, such as Italian architect Gae Aulenti, French designer Andree Putman, and Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola.
Yet this still has me wondering: where are the leading women in Australian design and architecture, and why are they not role models to the emerging generation of designing women?
Currently we see a good representation of young women graduating from Australian universities in design and architecture – but this wasn’t always the case. Prior to the 1960s, few women trained in the disciplines and even fewer made it into professional practice. While professions like architecture, industrial, interior and landscape design each reveal different patterns of female participation, career retention has always been an issue. In her report ‘The numbers so far…’ (March 2012 archiparlour.org), architect and academic Gill Matthewson reveals that women simply disappear from the architectural profession as they age.
A popular view for why women seem to vanish is motherhood, but I have a hunch that it’s more complex. To practice in design and architecture means working long hours often for an average pay cheque and it can be quite stressful. Subsequently, the idealism with which you start your career can slowly erode over time. I have observed both men and women experience such disillusionment over the course of their careers. Even egalitarian types can experience burnout.
In her article ‘Hit and miss’ (April 2012 archiparlour.org), architect Kerstin Thompson writes, “an architectural career is a marathon, an endurance test of sorts that typically spans over a number of decades.” Taking some time out from practice to do something else can be one potential solution to sustaining a long and fulfilling career. Though strangely, few of us (and this includes men and women) prepare for this period in our lives, stumbling instead through the angst of it alone.
If we dissect what a mentor is, we understand that they are someone who is capable of empowering you, while a role model is someone who possesses qualities and attributes that you’d like to have. But somehow I think we forget this and confuse role models with people who exemplify instead a style of work and output. I have had several mentors and role models over different stages of my career – both men and women. For my own professional development it has been important to align my values, career and lifestyle choices with those of my role models. The designing women who I’ve turned to have been instrumental in helping me to see my own path.
Perhaps its time we expanded our view by reflecting on the contributions of women as leaders in Australian design culture?
The Studio-Office Hybrid
Indesign Issue 50
Ah, work: with synonyms like toil, drudgery, grind and effort, its no wonder the word has negative connotations. As for the term “workplace”, it’s usually defined as a place where work is done – hardly an inspiring proposition.
But within the creative industries, surely a “workplace” must be much more than that? Read more
In his book The Creative Economy (2001), John Howkins looks at the relationship between creativity and economics. Having coined the phrase “from mind to market” he reminds us that creativity needs to take shape and embodied in a good or service, which is then traded as an economic product. Working in the creative industries isn’t just about feeling creatively content; it’s also about turning a dollar.
So as designers and architects, how are we managing creativity in the workplace? How can we keep the creative juices flowing, while also taking charge of business? Are we getting this juggling act right – and if not, how could we do it better?
Perhaps the answer lies in striking the right balance between the “studio” and the “office”. In our field, the workplace needs to function as a kind of hybrid of these two spaces: both a creative studio and a pragmatic office. It must be a one-stop site for ideation, creativity and production – along with project management, promotion and sales. A place where creativity and admin co-exist.
The concept of the “studio” is traditionally linked with that of the “artist”. Between the 15th and 19th centuries the artist’s studio, or atelier, was a highly organised workshop. Much more than a production facility for artistic output, it was a place for creative research, experimentation, teaching and learning. The studio/atelier was renowned for unique ideas, methods and creative expression, and the artist whose name it carried was well-versed in the technological, social and political issues of the day.
Nowadays, popular culture would have us believe that the ‘artist’s studio’ is a place for inspired self-expression, a solitary, discipline-free zone where creative outcomes are conjured up via some obscure, semi-magical process. This fantasy couldn’t be further from the truth. It downplays the vital importance of research, experimentation, critical thinking and exploration, and demotes the idea of creative process to the status of mere folly
But it’s a powerful myth. Have today’s entrepreneurial creatives bought into it? How much room are we devoting to our creative process – to the preparation, incubation, illumination and implementation of new and original ideas? Swamped by the drudge of running a small business – or being a part of one, how many of us are simply “designing by numbers”, and telling ourselves we lack the time to do otherwise?
This brings us to the concept of “the office”, a term that belongs to the culture of administration. In ancient Rome, a document called the Notitia Dignitatum listed the thousands of imperial, provincial and military officium of the day, assigning ranks, stations and duties to dignities, officials and staff. The officium (plural for office) was a conceptual organisation of human capital.
Focused on record-keeping and document management, modern offices aimed to centralise human capital so people could do their paperwork with maximum efficiency, but at minimum cost to business. An economic model encompassing location, productivity and specialisation, the office has engendered particular ways of working.
But times are changing. As entrepreneur and writer Seth Godin, Yahoo’s former vice president of marketing, puts it: “The way we do business is changing fast and in order to keep up, your entire mentality about work has to change just as quickly.” According to Jeanne C. Meister, co-author of The 2020 Workplace (2010), our future workplaces will be shaped by three key trends: global access to markets and talent; the emergence of Web 2.0, digital and mobile technologies; and multiple generations in the workplace.
Enterprise structures are changing, transforming the way human capital is recruited and organised, and how work gets done. Today’s productivity tools – including cloud platforms such as SharePoint, Google Apps, Zoho and Huddle – are enabling greater communication, collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. Used in conjunction with a media tablet, laptop or mobile device, they can potentially transform the office from a fixed workplace into an agile “worksphere” – and help us do a better job of managing creativity.
Yet if the grumbling I hear from industry colleagues is any indication, I suspect that as a community we’re not adapting fast enough. We’re letting the admin-heavy “office” side of the equation leach away valuable creative time. Tying down designers with time-consuming, antiquated admin practices is akin to asking them to be creative “on the side”. Sadly, there’s no such thing.
Since we’re in the business of applied creativity, why not be creative when it comes to doing business? To free up more creative time – to swing the balance back from “office” tasks to “studio” work – we need to be more time-efficient. To recalibrate the office/studio relationship, so we can get on with the business of being creative. This means getting to grips with this new suite of digital tools, and making them work for us.
I’m about to relocate my studio to the former J.H Boyd Girls’ High School, in Melbourne’s Southbank district. It’s one of 23 spaces in this complex now being leased to people working in the creative industries, through the City of Melbourne Creative Spaces initiative. Populated by artists, designers, writers and filmmakers, it’s a proverbial hotbed for creativity.
On a practical note, my workspace will house the tools, materials and resources that I use in my creative process and output. However, it will extend beyond its physical dimensions. Having recently got my head around these new digital systems and tools, I plan to cut down the untold hours of admin, running around and email correspondence that have been slowly wearing me down.
I hope this change in management works. My workplace depends on it!
Simone LeAmon is a designer, artist and the director of Simone LeAmon Design and Creative Strategy.
Rethinking ‘Australian Made’
Indesign Issue 48
Simone takes a look at the Australian manufacturing industry with a view to rethinking the ‘Australian Made’ brand.
By Simone LeAmon
Two recent work trips, one to Adelaide and one to Malaysia, have me rethinking manufacturing – the process of transforming material into a tangible product. As we know, Australia’s factories are falling ominously quiet. Analysts are nervously speculating about what this might mean – does local manufacturing have a future, or will its decline turn out to be terminal? Can we nurse our ailing industry back to health, or will job losses and flow-on effects harm Australia’s socioeconomic wellbeing? Read more
For a country that once thrived on manufacturing – accounting for 25% of Australia’s GDP in the 1960s – the current circumstances are cause for alarm. Our mining boom, a strong dollar, high labour and input costs and abolition of import tariffs make local manufacture an expensive exercise: it’s much cheaper to make things offshore, especially in deregulated economies where factory workers often earn a pittance. So, while manufacturing is a great “value-adder” – the key to generating profits – Australia now ships most of its intellectual property and raw materials overseas, buying them back as finished products and losing great wealth in the process. For example, did you know that we export iron ore for $180 a tonne and import it back in the form of cars for $20,000 a tonne!
The concept of “value-adding” – essentially, what manufacturing is – is a wealth strategy that Asian economies grasp. In light of our predicament at home, perhaps it is time to ask: how else might we ‘add value’ – and work with our manufacturing sector to achieve this?
My visit to Malaysia was at the invitation of the head of a large Chinese-Malay consortium with factories in the manufacturing hubs of Johor and Penang. To my amusement, I found myself touring their extensive factories and corporate suites in a chauffeured limousine, like some kind of rock star! A chance to build rapport and dialogue, this trip involved much cultural exchange. I gave multiple presentations to management, sharing insights into the design-manufacturing culture to which I belong, and in return they spoke candidly of their enterprise.
From the get-go, I noted their different approach to manufacturing and business practice. I’ve always taken the value of design for granted, but realise this is not shared universally. Instead of the “R&D” model that dominates creative economies, they followed the “research copy design” (RCD) model: reworking, replicating or taking inspiration from products developed by other manufacturers. To be fair, this is not a covert practice, but rather the accepted norm. Evidently they don’t have the same ethical relationship to copying as I do; the culture of developing original design barely registered. But as I discovered, things are slowly changing.
Malaysian enterprises are discovering that they’re no longer leading the “race to the bottom” for low labour costs: neighbouring countries are now cheaper places to set up factories. For now, my Malaysian colleagues can make generic products cheaply, but they know that if they want to expand into new markets and grow, that’s not enough: their products need a distinct point of difference. This is where design steps in – and that’s why I was invited to visit.
I told them about an Australian manufacturer that had, for many years, created products for the interiors industry. Clients would simply point to an object in a magazine, and the company would copy it. While this remains commonplace in Australia, I pointed out that it reduces enterprises to a situation where they’re competing solely on price; their capabilities and capacities often mirror their competitors’, leaving price as the only distinguishing feature. This business also sought to grow in a competitive market, without abandoning their underlying business model; so in a bold move they decided to develop their own designs, and are enlisting local designers to help.
Upon reflection, perhaps the relationship between Australian designers and manufacturers is not as rosy as I portrayed to my Malaysian colleagues.
Just prior to my Malaysia trip, I undertook a residency at Adelaide’s inspirational JamFactory, an institution that warrants the accolade of national treasure. High-quality products are designed and made onsite, successfully combining tradition and innovation. The JamFactory’s business model doesn’t translate directly to the scale of national economies, but nevertheless, it’s an inspiring example of what’s possible when creative capacity is matched by high-level execution.
Wherever the manufacturer might be based, the industry’s future demands a rethink. Retailers, consumers, design and manufacturing belong to the same ecology. The manufacture of goods is not in itself a reason to run facilities, employ and train people: the endgame is trade! Perhaps the key here is not to compete, but to be competitive. The questions we should be asking are: in what areas are we to compete? What should we be producing?
For a start, we must take more interest in what Australian design-makers are doing. We need to harness the advantage of our creative intelligence – our designers – and implement their smarts across all business activities; not only in the design of things, but in the formulation of organisational strategy. With our local manufacturing industry in dire straits, perhaps we can design our way out of this pit – make a concerted effort to link Australian designers with manufacturers to “value-add” creativity into their business models? Niche production – designing and making specialised items that no-one else produces – is one field where “value-adding” can indeed be viable here in Australia. We need to recognise that design is a value proposition, and one we should all be mining if we want to reap the rewards.
What Price Creativity? Valuing the Future of Design
Indesign Issue 44
Simone discusses why the report Do you Really Expect to Get Paid?, by economists David Throsby and Anita Zednik carries implications for the Australian design community.
Creativity seldom makes prime-time news, but a recent study of Australian artists’ incomes put it firmly in the spotlight. The report Do you Really Expect to Get Paid?, by economists David Throsby and Anita Zednik, revealed that our professional artists are doing it tough: half of them earn less than $10,000 a year from their creative work, and while incomes have risen across the broader economy, this is not the case for artists. Read more
This is bad news for artists, but they’re not the only ones who should be worried: the report also carries major implications for the design community, because it speaks of the low value our society places on creativity. It seems that as a nation we are great consumers of creativity and culture, but we don’t like paying for it – and when we do, we’re getting it far too cheap. Our country’s “creatives” are paying the price. Unless we can address this problem, trouble lies on the horizon.
Throsby, a respected cultural economist who specialises in creativity and the arts, has argued that by devaluing creativity in this way, we devalue our cultural life. In his academic work, Throsby points to the often-overlooked phenomenon of “cultural capital” – the myriad forms of value that reside in an artwork, object or place, but which cannot be calculated in purely economic terms. Throsby has identified least six different kinds of cultural value: aesthetic, spiritual value, social, historical, symbolic and authenticity. A work’s social value, for example, may stem from the way it conveys our connection with others, an understanding of our society, or a shared sense of identity and place.
Artists are recognised as major dealers in cultural capital – but we need to realise that the same is true for designers. Designers can no longer afford to view artists as “the other”; we need to start acknowledging the parallels and overlaps between the two disciplines. Creativity has always been quintessential part of design, but its importance is growing. Models of design practice are evolving in all sorts of ways: for example, the design field is becoming more hybrid and interdisciplinary. Rather than being confined to a “niche”, designers are being required to exercise their versatility by working across several areas, running their practice in a way that straddles the increasingly interwoven roles of artist and design consultancy.
Design was traditionally framed as a client-funded service industry, but today’s designers often invest their own time, money and research in projects, much as artists always have. Projects are not solely led by a client brief, but are also being conceived and steered by designers. Design practice is also becoming more propositional and speculative: today’s designers investigate problems in detail, conduct extensive research, test hypotheses, and think creatively; they often uncover unforseen problems that require further investigation. Many of design’s leading lights come from other disciplines, and/or regularly collaborate with artists. And just as artists traditionally present their work in public forums, opening it up to critique and dialogue, many designers are now following suit. These days it’s not just about producing an object: a design outcome also can be an ephemeral piece, an event, or a conversation with a community.
The language of design must broaden to reflect this evolution, and designers need to join the conversation. The Australia Council, our national peak arts funding body, which commissioned the Throsby report, is now grappling with the question of how to fund design. I recently took part in a forum exploring this topic. Part of Unlimited, the Asia Pacific Design Trienniale organised by Artisan (Queensland’s craft and design council), the forum examined how arts funding bodies are shaping new policy frameworks to deal with design. The questions on the table included: What type of design activities should be funded? What models of practice are designers using, and how are they delivering cultural value in a comparable way to artists?
Creative practice enriches our cultural lives and our communities, and we have to start thinking about creativity as something that we all have a vested interest in. We ignore this at our peril. If we want to grow as a nation, to have a vibrant sophisticated culture and strong economy, we need to value creativity – to make sure it is supported and fostered. Unfortunately, right now this happens largely through the generosity of creative practitioners, but the design industry can’t afford to be complicit in this.
We must realise that design, like art, is not just about delivering fiscal value: increasingly, it’s also about delivering the different kinds of cultural value that Throsby speaks of. We need to embrace design as a form of cultural production, rather than defining it purely as delivering a product or service.
Design shapes the world and our agency within it, and creativity is a designer’s greatest asset. Along with art, design forms part of a wider “creative ecosystem”, which will require careful nurturing to ensure its long term survival. If we want design to thrive here in Australia, we must ensure that it claims a place within that creative ecosystem.
Learning for Life
Indesign Issue 43
Simone reviews Philippe Starck’s performance in BBC reality TV series Design for Life.
The BBC reality TV series Design for Life, featuring French designer Phillipe Starck and 12 aspiring UK designers, screened here in June. In a Masterchef-style format, contestants were given weekly challenges and eliminated in a purpose-built ‘school of creativity’. The winner received a six-month placement at Starck’s Paris agency. Read more
Starck wanted to shake up British design and spark a national design revolution. But confusion, antagonism and defiance took hold early in the series. Put simply, the students didn’t get Starck – and curiously, he didn’t get them either.
The show made me reflect on my role as a design practitioner and teacher. I recalled Starck’s now-famous 2007 talk at the California TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, where he spoke of “cynical design” – the proliferation of products without regard for environment and social wellbeing. Decades of this approach seemed to weigh heavily on Starck. In a rousing presentation, he implored us to chart a new course within “the territory of intelligence”.
Reality TV now offers celebrities the chance to buy into the “reality industry”. While cynics painted Design for Life (DFL) as another Starck re-branding exercise, what struck me was the designer’s extraordinarily high expectations of his young pupils – and vice versa. Starck’s anxiety grew as the students presented fairly ordinary concepts that reflected their limited life experience: his school of creativity was becoming the school of mediocrity.
What went wrong? Starck’s big mistake was to assume these young designers were already ‘engaged’ by his celebrity. His students, perhaps expecting the famous designer to deliver ‘design secrets’ on a plate, repeatedly said he wasn’t ‘helping’ them; they wanted tuition and instruction, not stories and poetry.
So what makes a good learning environment? At heart, it is about good communication and collaboration. A good student is engaged, and knows what questions to ask in order to form a convincing design project. A good teacher facilitates this environment – and it’s their job to engage the students.
The briefs my colleagues and I deliver to RMIT industrial design students are not unlike those used on DFL. In my experience, creative students ask questions. First they turn a brief inside-out to understand the problem, dissect and frame the parts; only then do they conduct research, conceptualise and begin sketching. This vital methodology can be the hardest thing to learn.
Discussing the series, my students felt that show’s young designers lacked critical thinking skills: they were trained to re-design existing problems, not develop solutions. The show’s selection criteria were clearly flawed – too much weight on participants’ sketching skills, perhaps.
Design is much more than replicating knowledge: our most gifted designers today are ‘knowledge makers’, and they have a major role in formulating the ‘problem’ – the brief. Take BMW’s former design director Chris Bangle, who spoke about the future of the automobile at Victoria’s State of Design Festival in July. Bangle’s notoriety soared with the ‘GINA Light’ concept vehicle; a sleek, fabric-skinned sports car with a moveable sub-structure, it challenges automotive principles and manufacturing processes on all fronts. For Bangle, design is a form of exploration and working on the frontier can lead to different ways of thinking.
So how should design be taught? Today’s design education is not simply about servicing industry, says Liam Fennessy, Industrial Design Studies Coordinator at RMIT: “Training people to simply design products is not valuable – certainly not in Australia, with our shrinking manufacturing sector. Our priority is to equip students with the design frameworks to think, position and respond.”
Design education responds to generational concerns, says Fennessy: for example, an Emissions Trading Scheme would have major impacts on design practise. “Problems change over time, so we must be training individuals who have the capacities to respond.” Workplaces must also invest in designers’ ongoing professional development.
Thanks to deregulation, designers must now work across multiple areas, and some of our leading lights have come from outside of the discipline. “Designers need to be ‘agile’ practitioners. Australia’s margins are so low that people rarely stay in the same design discipline for long,” he adds. Our average small ID consultancy has three or four people, compared to 50-100 in the US. “A good designer values other people’s professions, they embrace collaboration and they know how to adapt. ”
Sadly, the design intern is swiftly vanishing from Australian consultancies. My two interns, both final-year ID students, contribute significantly to my practice. I guide them, helping them build confidence and capacity. In return Simone and Patrick bring energy and enthusiasm to the studio. We learn by listening to each other.
Watching DFL, I empathised with Starck, whom I admire greatly. But the series highlighted how vital it is for teachers to motivate and inspire students – to not just share knowledge, but also instil a passion for learning, so that budding designers can evolve and chart a course for their life. Industry also has a responsibility to encourage designers to grow, progress and develop but it must give them the space to do so.
Comment on Australian Design
Indesign Issue 41
Returning from a recent trip to Western Australia Simone ponders if there is such a thing as Australian design?
Recently I flew from Melbourne to Perth to attend a wedding celebration in the picturesque coastal town of Dunsborough, Western Australia. The bride and groom are published authors so the guest list included a spread of people from the creative industries. When variously trained creatives get together in Australia one of the most common topics of conversation is how each person’s body of work reflects on place. Or maybe it was the idyllic surrounds – the extent to which the WA coast reflected all that Australia likes to promote about itself: wide open, crystal clear, completely unpopulated beaches unfettered by overdevelopment – that caused a discussion of the integration of ‘home’ into our creative output. Read more
As a fifth generation Australian I can look back at a number of stunning examples of European migrants who, captivated by the indigenous flora and fauna, encouraged a full embrace of it in the decorative and applied arts. The high prices paid on the secondary market for the woodcarvings by the German immigrant Robert Preznel is an excellent example of this. Yet, however beautiful Preznel’s carvings of Kookaburras, Koalas and gum nuts may be craft is distinctive from industrial production and for many of us our skills and interests lay elsewhere.
Exploring the nearby bays and beaches of Dunsborough I developed a desire to not simply to investigate the notion of Australian identity in our Industry (a European Colonial import) but to tell the story of my relationship to the land.
Melbourne is encased by the Grampians and sits around the edge of a bay. Founded as a commercial venture the population looks towards the city for commercial and cultural sustenance. Whereas those in Sydney and Perth tend to only work in the city and retreat to the natural environment for leisure. That is why St Kilda was a slum for so long and the city a cultural hub. That is why people in Melbourne obsess over the interior design of restaurants as much as they do the food. Eating in Melbourne is not expected to be about simply enjoying food, it is a design lead cultural event. All experiences of arriving to Australia, by any migrant, have been fully explored as an interior design orgy.
But what other, equally important realities of Australian life, are being excluded in this endless migrant focused carnival of interiors? How do we move away from beautifully resurfacing the urban terrain with simulacrums of our cultural origins and towards design thinking and design pieces that reflect and tangibly engage with the local environment? I sense the future of our industry is defined by such radical thoughts.
The income generated by tourism proves the world is fascinated by Australia’s natural environment. Yet the products that support this industry, the souvenirs and domestic products that celebrate it, almost exclusively fall within the category of kitsch. What if product designers from across Australia properly studied our ecosystems and found mechanisms to bring those magnificent colours, filtration systems, smells and the unique adaptations of native flora and fauna to a host of meaningful and purposeful products and environments?
Paris based architect Philippe Rahm has provided a wonderful example of how a passion for urban living combined with sensitivity to environmental issues can result in products that simultaneously enhance modern dwellings and a passionate relationship to place. The Terroirs Deterritorialises project was presented at the ‘Carte Blanche VIA 2009’, the work exemplifies the quip think locally, act globally. The dual flow ventilator is a universal need, however the specific design and material selection created by Rahm reflects an exacting study of his immediate ecosystem.
Rahm’s project started with a simple desire to return the air quality of Paris dwellings to that experienced prior to the mid 19th C industrial revolution. To achieve this Rahm created a dual airflow ventilator with some unique characteristics. The ventilator is filled with three different kinds of locally sourced wood – common throughout the Paris basin prior to industrialization. The wood serves two purposes; firstly, to absorb and release humidity according to climactic conditions; secondly to bring an experience of nature into the domestic interior experience, a gentle scent of the three woods is released into the dwelling. This is all graphically described in the most beautiful video presentation of a design work I have seen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT1rBkM205c
Melbournians, along with those from other Australian cities, are deeply connected to the natural qualities of home. A guest at the wedding, acclaimed poet Martin Harrison uses the word ‘geomancy’ to describe this love of place, an ancient word that explains a sense of magic a particular place may hold for a person, a knowledge derived from it ‘by looking at its light changes, its weathers, its drynesses and thinnesses of soil, the passage of birds and animals across it…’ (Martin Harrison: http://www.austlit.com/a/harrison-m/index.html). Appreciating geomancy as a guiding principle behind my connection to home I am inspired to draw on it more in the future.
The future, it’s not what it used to be!
Indesign Issue 40
In the special Indesign Future Issue Simone discusses how to embed artefacts and the environment with a sense of tomorrow
In a recent tutorial within the industrial design program at RMIT University my students asked: what will the future look like? Each week we investigate the philosophy of visual experience, during these discussions the issue of how to embed artefacts and an environment with a sense of tomorrow is foremost on our minds. Why? The students, none born prior to the mid eighties, belong to the most technologically adept generation the world has seen. Consequently, that generation grew up digital and what my generation saw as a revolution to them is a process of logical and incremental development. Read more
The result is that the career choices the students are earmarking for themselves already involve titles and activities that did not exist even ten years ago; user-interface design, experience design and interactivity; branches of design focused on the human-digital relationship. Think appliances, communication devices and the personal computer, such artefacts and numerous others have the potential to transform under their stewardship in the ensuing years – but how?
Introducing technologist Sean Kelly, a software engineer and Internet entrepreneur who devotes much of his time to studying the history of technological innovation and the current digital economy to see into the future. I invited Sean to RMIT to meet and talk to the industrial design students.
Starting the presentation with scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey Sean used the movie as a catalyst to discuss the social and economic dynamics required to distribute the technology envisaged. Put simply the ‘social’ dynamic relates to the discussion – in media, and word of mouth – of new technologies and the ‘economic’ dynamic refers to the efficiencies the technology brings which motivate people adopt to remain competitive. In many ways this brought the future into the present; design must be ‘remark-able’ and it should provide efficiencies that previous models did not provide.
For Sean good design must solve present day problems and look where people are currently under-served in their interacting and relating. For the technologist the future is perceivable via an intelligent mapping of current and recent historical trends in interaction and the tools used for achieving it.
The internet has delivered a global R&D laboratory to anyone who chooses to test their product in the open marketplace. One only needs to think about how Apple releases software updates anticipating improvements will be suggested by the users. It is this openness to collaborative, iterative processes that my students understand intuitively.
Of course there are hard lines that are drawn, especially with regard to the realities of manufacturing. Lets take the iPhone as an example; it is a lovely, simple object that contains some beautiful incremental innovations; the speaker has been placed at the base of the device thereby ensuring listening and talking are directed to the same part of the phone when on speaker.
Constant syncing of my phone content means I have lost almost all attachment to the physical object. So long as it is insured and regularly synced I no longer care about losing my phone, apart say, from the inconvenience of the days it will take to replace it. Hardware is becoming increasingly like a credit card; an easily replaceable ticket to consumption. Hardware is the gateway to interaction, information sourcing and content generation. Apple have won twice over; they have designed a piece of hardware people love to use and they own (iTunes, iPhone Apps) the portals through which content is paid for and delivered to it. What’s more we all work on giving them tips on how to improve their product and make more money.
The tools of creativity, problem solving and production will change swiftly. Sean Kelly concluded his presentation on ‘singularity’ theory, which broadly refers to computing surpassing the processing power of the human brain, the possibilities of which have spooked many and resulted in an abundance of books and movies, such as The Matrix, warning us of the consequences of such a day. But maybe we can begin by making some informed observations about how this seeming inevitability may simply continue existing trends.
If increased processing power is matched by an increase in the number of smart materials and a capacity to reliably shift information between hosts (safeguarding against redundancies) then we can imagine a world where information flows around the world constantly in currents that match those of the winds and the oceans. A consequence for architecture could be that facades interact with environmental conditions and user needs. In this imaginary context interaction design relates to every aspect of the building and would involve architects, engineers, air-conditioning manufacturers, the IT team of the company, advanced glass manufacturers and the list goes on.
As we continue to imagine and deliver on the possibilities for interaction between objects and the global network the need for collaborative thinking increases. The obverse reality is that there will be specializations within specializations, necessitating many years of highly focused studies. Balancing the need to be a solitary scholar with the sensibilities required for collaboration will be hard for many. Without the scholarship students will remain at best observers of the real game, and without the capacity to collaborate they will struggle to feed their ideas into the global network. The future for these students will depend on knowing when to turn the machine off, and open a book, and when to close the book and plug into the machine!
Indesign Issue 36
Simone reflects on her meeting with the legendary automotive designer Tom Matano.
Few objects stimulate a visceral reaction in me like a sportscar can. At their best sportscars seamlessly integrate thousands of components with a poetic chase line and interior fit-out that causes a kind of Pavlov’s dog effect, I can’t help but look as it passes! The development of the sports car as a fetish object is one of the great marketing successes of the 20th C, and I’m a sucker for it. Read more
My love for sports cars was recently given some further depth when I had the privilege of meeting Tom Matano, one of the most influential automotive designers over the last few decades. Father of the Mazda MX-5, dubbed ‘the people’s sportscar’, Matano was in Australia to deliver a master class to industrial design students at RMIT University, where I am a sessional lecturer.
Obviously the value of a designer depends upon the popularity of the product’s they design. In 1989, the year of its release, Matano’s MX-5 stimulated a level of demand in the market place that outstripped production. Accolades from the notoriously anal retentive motorcar media also abounded; Australian car of the year in 2005 was but one of 150 awards it received from the international press and motor car associations. 800,000 of the cars had been sold worldwide by 2007. Needless to say Montano is a popular designer.
In his presentation to the RMIT masterclass Matano described automotive design as a tri-polar dialogue between the design, engineering and management departments. He revealed that at BMW in the 1970s the product development dialogue was firmly led by the engineering department, to the extent that in one year Matano was told that his design modifications had to fit within a 20mm ‘skin allowance’ from the front to the rear of the vehicle. In this paradigm the design department provided finishing touches to a largely resolved concept.
When Matano arrived at Mazda in the 1980s he was able to lead an Advanced Design Studio that had the freedom and budget to consider the influence of design within a broader development framework. As executive designer and director of Mazda Matano injected new ways of thinking about the driving experience; fun, driver/vehicle unity, lightness and longevity were all seen as having equal weight in the design process.
Matano’s presentation at RMIT emphasised with great clarity how different corporate cultures enable design through inter-departmental collaboration or to the other extent shut it down through linear processes. In the manufacturing and construction industries depth of conversation shape the product.
At Mazda Matano pooled dialogues and the knowledge that they generated. By establishing a rigorous internal dialogue Matano was able to develop a design process based on positive engagement. The outcome being that the cars reflected the same conversations boffins had about their favourite vehicles
The comprehensive internal dialogue also enabled an ability to foresee the places where innovation could continue. Design and Engineering innovation were working hand in hand, consequently improvements could be perceived ahead of schedule. The result of this dialogue was that three generations of the MX-5 were in place before the first car was released to market.
Matano’s description of how he wanted the consuming public to identify differences between the three generations of MX-5 cars was as fascinating as the development process. He imagined the car approaching a bystander from 100 metres away, and what particularities of the design would become apparent as the car moves closer at particular increments; at 100 metres a basic difference between 1st and 2nd Generation MX-5 should be discernable; at 50 metres the attention of the bystander should be fully engaged; at 5 metres the differences should be fully revealed.
The internal design and engineering dialogue around the MX-5 at Mazda was so fully enabled by Matano’s product development stewardship they were able to not just deliver one popular car to the market, but to have sequels up their sleave.
The MX-5 delivered to Mazda what is known in business as the ‘Halo effect’, when one product shines so brightly its fame bolsters the standing of all the other vehicles in the range.
It is rare for an Australian designer to have an opportunity to develop a comprehensive design philosophy and outcome for a major manufacturer. Indeed for those working exclusively within our domestic market it is almost unheard of. Matano captured and acted upon his opportunities in a way that only the truly gifted can. As humbled as I was by how deftly he changed the culture of a major car manufacturer, I left feeling that much of what Matano said is applicable to my small practice as a designer.
It occurred to me that even within my studio design practice Matano’s capacity for fostering interdisciplinary dialogue between design, engineering and business management could be applied. I tried to think of local design practices that have successfully developed a product range in an equivalent way to Matano and Mazda, where the product development process does not just deliver one piece by an entire series that can be released at scheduled intervals. Not many (ok not any!) local examples came to mind.
How We Create
Simone LeAmon held the position of editor-at-large at How We Create filing near to sixty articles on Australian designers and manufactures between 2010 – 2011. Simone’s voice came to personify the spirit of the How We Create initiative. An inspiration and content website presenting case studies and stories on designers, architects and manufacturers from around Australia between 2010-12.
Apple Industries / How We Create / 2011
Apple Fabrication Industries is an institution. For designers and furniture brands across Australia Apple is special – in fact, so special that many would prefer that I didn’t write this article for fear of having to share them. Why? Put simply, few other fabricators can do what Apple can. An old school factory they machine, bend, press and weld tubular steel by hand. This is fine work and Apple’s experience and expertise is best applied to specialty projects like prototypes and production runs of dozens to hundreds. Read more
Assisting their clients on how best to engineer and fabricate their tubular products the Apple factory is more like a specialised workshop with production capacity. Manufacturing for some of Australia’s most renowned furniture brands, Apple are perhaps best known in design circles for developing the steel frame in the ‘Pepe’ chair by MAP International. Held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York the Pepe chair was featured on an Australia Post stamp in 1997. On display in the Apple office the Pepe stamps belong to a weathered collection of catalogues, posters and photographs that record the factory’s work history. In the words of Apple’s owner John Guccione “Ive seen a lot of projects come in the door.” And, like many factory owners who labour at the machinery and manufacture the goods, John is passionate about his work. So, let me tell you more about Apple Industries and the guys who make this business indispensable to the local industry and designers like myself.
Located in Boronia at the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges in Melbourne, Apple has been operating for 35 years. Owner John Guccione migrated to Australia from Italy with his family in the 1939. The son of a surgical shoemaker, John was taught how to make things by his father from an early age. Training as a mechanical engineer John worked in the automotive industry before heading a large general engineering company. Feeling the need to establish his own business John looked for opportunities. Soon a friend approached him about designing and making a drawing board/table combination. A technical drawing teacher his friend saw the potential for something smarter, more flexible and lighter. With enough money in the bank to live, John left his job at the engineering company and rented a small factory in Bayswater. Manufacturing and selling the drawing boards he had designed to technical colleges and government departments around Victoria. In the following year John began to diversify and take on work from the furniture industry. The work rolled in and Apple grew. A few years on and John purchased the factory in Boronia where Apple remain today. Joined by factory manager Gary Tippett in 1981 and welding ‘guru’ Scott Thomas in 1994, the Apple team is close having honed their skills alongside each other for 17 to 30 years.
The 1970’s and 1980’s was an interesting period for manufacturing in Melbourne. Recalling Apple’s early years John speaks of the close ties between the automotive sector and the hundreds of independent factories whose life-line was producing various components for GM Holden and Ford. “Twenty, thirty years ago there were numerous factories working for the car industry, making seats and all the different furniture parts and fixings. Then the car industry wanted them to drop their prices and put the squeeze on them so they (the car manufactures) could be more price competitive.” Consequently, this shaped the future of local manufacturing. Factories began to extricate themselves from the automotive industry for fear of losing their contracts and going under. So, many started to produce office and occasional furniture. For example, a factory once making foam products for car seats would establish their own range of seats and sofa’s for the local market. And, this is how Apple grew, by manufacturing and supplying the tubular steel frames and fixings. But, as John explains “Its all right to make it but to get it out of the door is tough.” Overwhelmed by the effort to market and sell the furniture, many factories turned furniture companies of this time didn’t survive, John adds ” We’ve done a lot of work for companies that are no longer in business – a lot of things have happened in the industry – rising prices and competing with China also put local companies out of business.”
How a hands-on fabricator like Apple is still in business is key to understanding our local furniture industry. Sensing twenty years ago that many big Australian furniture companies would look off shore for cheap manufacturing John steered Apple in the direction of custom work ” I said to myself I would do runs that the big manufacturer’s didn’t want – units of 50’s and 100’s – I realised that nobody was doing the specialty work here.” With this philosophy Apple attracted clients who were in the process of developing ‘design furniture’ for the Australian market. A project that both John and Gary remember from the 1980’s is the ‘Helicopter‘ chair designed by Kjell Grant. Incidentally, this is a chair I know well, selecting it for inclusion in a survey exhibition I curated on the work and projects of Kjell Grant in 2008 for Planex. But, what I didn’t know was that Apple helped to develop the chair and subsequently manufactured all the steel elements. And, so the story goes for numerous contract fabricators whose contributions to design remain anonymous in lieu of the designer’s or the brand’s name.
For 35 years Apple have received their clients by word of mouth. I was introduced to the Company in 2009 through Kjell Grant. With less than six weeks to prototype and produce my Lepidoptera chair for the Cicely and Colin Rigg Design Award, I walked into the Apple factory. My experiences with other contractors hadn’t gone so well. I was running out of time, hope – and, I was on the verge of meltdown. I’m not sure if John or Gary could tell how anxious I was but they certainly did their best to reassure me that the project was possible. Analysing the drawings and models John and Gary identified the design’s weaknesses and proposed alternate ways for machining, welding and fixing the frame to the upholstery. And soon, we were in business. A year later, Apple and I began work on another project for Rakumba Lighting.
So, this is why I wish to share Apple Fabrications with you. Factories like Apple are fading away and yet they are vital to designers and furniture companies who do custom work and production runs. As John explains “they don’t train people to do this kind of work anymore.”
By spreading news of Apple I hope they will live longer and prosper well into the future. Keeping John, Gary and Scott a secret isn’t really an option. They need us just as much – business after all is business.
Sitting in the Apple office I listen to John recount his experiences while Gary makes me a cup of coffee. It’s 4.30pm and Scott is heading home. Pausing for a moment John says “you know something Simone, people say to me – why don’t you retire? And I say, but what would my clients do?”
Exactly, what would we do?
Apple Fabrication Industries
FACTORY 4, 2 MACQUARIE PLACE, BORONIA VIC 3155
PHONE: 03 9720 6099 FAX: 03 9720 1425
News of Brodie Neill / How We Create / 2011
Writing for How We Create puts me in contact with numerous Australian designers. Preparing stories often requires telephone conversations, email correspondence and the odd coffee date. Listening to Australian designers talk is an interesting exercise in itself, most will speak of process and inspiration and segue to topics such as clients, business and marketing only when encouraged and, I find this curious. Why? Design is not an isolated practice. It necessitates collaboration and partnering, the stronger the ties and relations with those who commission, manufacture, market, sell and buy a designers time the more sustainable a design practice can become. Regardless of a designer’s interest in how their ideas and innovations arrive there is no escaping the broader issues of making ‘it’ happen. One Australian designer who understands this perfectly is Brodie Neill. Meeting up in Melbourne just days before Christmas I spoke to Brodie about his flourishing practice and how working in London has shaped the way he conducts business – but first, let me reveal something of Brodie’s background. Read more
I first met Brodie in 2005. Marking the last day of Salone del Mobile a thousand or so people gathered at Magazzini Generali, a popular dance club in the south of Milan. I recall the occasion not only for the great conversation and stories we shared but why he left – a client’s wife had gone into labour and Brodie was off to join the family at the hospital. Jumping into a cab he was gone and sure to his promise I received an email six months later to say he was coming to Melbourne. Six years on and we catch up whenever and wherever we can to share our news. In recent years I have witnessed Brodie’s career take off and acquire the characteristics of a highly sought after designer. In 2008 Time Magazine include his @ Chair in their list of most influential designs of the year and in 2009 he partnered the late fashion icon Alexander McQueen for a presentation at ICFF New York. Such credits and opportunities are well earned – while only 31 years of age Brodie has been playing the international design scene for close to a decade.
Brodie studied at the University of Tasmania where he grew up and made the move to New York to undertake a Masters degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. After working for various companies in New York he relocated to the U.K in 2005 and established his current studio in London’s East End. Signing with the Italian manufacturer Kundalini in the same year Brodie’s Morphie wall light was released in 2006 and laid the foundation for several Kundalini products and commissions in the ensuing years. More recently design commissions through the notable Apartment Gallery in London has led to a collection of impressive limited edition works such as the Remix chaise lounge and Reverb chair.
Using digital technology to explore the language of form Brodie’s design’s often resemble diagrams of cosmic phenomena and universal forces. Study the behavior of exotic stars such as nebulae and you can see one of Brodie’s lights. Existing outside the typology of shapes to which we commonly refer to describe things, Brodie’s chairs, tables and lights are in themselves shape-less. It is hard to put a definitive name to a shape that twists and turns and defies the eye. Understanding how such forms can be structural is one of Brodie’s obsessions: “I have been making furniture since I was 14, I understand how things go together and once you have this foundation you can really push it to the limits”.
Lacquered fibreglass, carbon fibre, Corian and hand formed aluminium are some of the materials commonly used to achieve the unorthodox forms. Employing the expertise of highly skilled fabricators and craftsman Brodie enjoys the collaborative process that unfolds when discussing how best to achieve a design.” You need the know-how and the TLC that a craftsman can bring – you need to find these people and their not easy to find”. Commissioned by the Apartment Gallery for the exhibition Super Design in 2010 the Reverb chair was made by the renowned company Coventry Prototype Panels. Specialising in the prototyping and low volume production of high-end vehicles for Aston Martin, Spyker and Bentley, CPP have produced Works for designers Ron Arad and Ross Lovegrove. Hearing Brodie speak of the intensive fabrication process and financial cost associated with high-end bespoke production he I told me how the business worked – and, I nearly fell off my chair!
The interesting thing about working as a freelance designer in Australia is that we are beholden to models of remuneration and systems that appear old and tired (Creatives working in other field may also agree). We conservatively pursue designer-client models that put strain on a Creative’s resources. Brodie revealed a system that commissions and fronts the cash for the Works and then pays a healthy royalty on sale.
The demand for Brodie’s limited edition designs has kept his practice busy and buoyant through a period where brand manufacturer across Europe have employed a more cautious approach to manufacturing. Talking to Brodie I was keen to hear how the global financial crisis had affected his practice and his response; “Prior to the financial crisis many of the ideas I’ve had would have found a manufacturer”, he later mentioned; “I showed Kundalini a design in 2006 and within 3-4 months they were ready to take it to the market…… they threw so much energy behind it. Post 2008 I can’t imagine a manufacturer behaving like that again”.
While the London address has undoubtedly assisted Brodie’s career it is clear that he creates his opportunities. Having the wherewithal to understand your market and know where to invest your time and energy is key. So what’s next for Brodie? He recently launched a rug with the Italian manufacturer Sahrai at Maison Objet in Paris and in February he will show yet more limited production at ARCO in Madrid (Spain’s leading contemporary art fair). In April his new Clover light will be released by Kundalini at Euroluce, Milan and there is an exciting project with Moss New York in May.
On parting I asked Brodie about his return journeys to Australia every 6-12 months and specifically his perception of the design industry onshore; “You have the skilled manufacturing, you’ve got the talented designers but you still need the market. You need hotels, restaurants, enterprises and local government to embrace and use local design……..”.
Thanks Brodie, I couldn’t agree more.
Q&A with designer Adam Goodrum / How We Create / 2010
Australian designers are immensely talented and able and those who pursue a freelance practice and sell design ideas to local and global manufacturers also demonstrate the facility to create and chase business opportunities. Australian designer Adam Goodrum is driven by his passion for conceptualising, designing and making. In a competitive sector Adam’s design ethos, entrepreneurial spirit, acumen and notoriety as an extremely likeable guy has manufacturers knocking at his door. But as Adam explains this didn’t happen over night. In a recent interview conducted by Simone LeAmon Adam speaks about his projects with design manufacturers Cappellini, TAIT and teaching the next generation of designers. Read more
Simone LeAmon: Adam, thank you for putting some time aside to speak with us at How We Create. It is a pleasure to have this opportunity, as many of our readers would be familiar with your work. I am however, often struck by the repetitive nature of the questions that a prominent designer like yourself is asked by the Australian media. Fascinated by celebrity and brand association design journalists often focus on products and overlook that designers are engaged in a cornucopia of ideas. Can you share with us some of the issues, concepts and principles that drive your practice?
I absolutely love what I do. Nothing makes me happier than working on a new project. The honeymoon period of a new idea is so addictive! A big part of my process is making, I have a very hands on approach to my work. When I start a new project I am constantly thinking about it, I observe things in my environment and they feed back into the design process. Such things could be a little mechanism or detail, I think of ways to refine them and give them meaning in a project.
My practice revolves around design that I initiate and pitch to manufacturers and clients alternatively a company will come to me with a brief. I want the latter to be the main part of my practice and more recently this is the case. I want companies to come to me for my interpretation of a problem and for the thinking and aesthetic execution I bring to a brief.
Simone LeAmon: Adam, it would be remiss of me not to mention that in recent years your notoriety as a designer has soared. Having your ‘Stitch’ chair in production with the Italian manufacturer Cappellini has brought its rewards. I’m interested to hear how you have leveraged this exposure and if it has created pathways to working with more manufacturers in Australia and internationally?
I designed the ‘Stitch’ chair in 1994 and I showed it to Guilio Cappellini when he was in Sydney in 2005. I remember that he liked the design but he actually expressed interest in two others. The following year when I saw him at the Milan Fair he suggested that he would like to put ‘Stitch’ into production, I was incredibly excited.
To be honest I don’t think I have capitalised on my success and “leveraged” the project as much as I could but there are definitely more knocks at my door or emails in the inbox. The work with Cappellini has helped to attract new clients and getting meetings with companies is easier than before. The marketing machine of Cappellini has definitely helped my profile and spread news of my practice overseas. For a long time I felt like I was out there on my own and I had little connection with manufacturers here and overseas. The thing is that at the end of the day you are the same person and the same designer.
Simone LeAmon: I understand that you are currently collaborating with Australian design manufacturer TAIT? Can you tell us a little about the project and how you commenced working with them?
I met Gordon and Susy Tait last year in Sydney at Saturday Indesign and I asked them if they were looking for any new designs. Early this year I received a comprehensive brief. Tait wanted a showpiece for their brand that would suit a residential typology. I responded soon after with three concepts and they selected one – an outdoor sun lounge, which has just been launched and is now in production. We also developed a recliner, which shares similar features.
Tait have been wonderful to work with – it has been a true collaboration. Their manufacturing set-up is in Melbourne and they have a great capacity for all metal fabrication. Gordon oversaw the production of the prototypes and he would send me photos to inspect and we would speak at length over the phone. I would do further sketching with the aim of resolving some details and email them back. We worked together to resolve every aspect of the engineering. It was important that we produced a product that was right for their market and represented the virtues of the TAIT brand.
Simone LeAmon: Are you in the practice of approaching Australian manufacturers with your concepts? I ask because designers can find this to be the most challenging aspect of practice. I suggest as Australian designers we need to share our experiences to cultivate an environment of possibilities. Any tips?
We have to be smart and strategic and move on from the idea that you show a rendering to company and expect it to be taken on. It is important to do your homework, to investigate and understand a company and then offer a design that they don’t have in their existing range. You need to present a design proposal that meets their production capacity that is resolved to a degree and contains a rational for their market.
An interesting fact is that second to Denmark, Australia is the Georg Jensen’s brand biggest market – even bigger than the U.S market. This is proof that there is a market for high design products in Australia. There is an opportunity for designers and manufactures to cultivate a design industry with commercial viability.
Simone LeAmon: For several years your output remained in prototype form appearing in national design exhibitions and competitions. While participating in such events can be useful for building a profile I often hear Australian designers express their concerns that they don’t lead to meaningful opportunities with local industry. Has this been your experience and now, with so many design competitions vying for our attention what should event organisers be brining to the table?
I think competitions have their place, especially when designers are establishing themselves. Given that opportunities to commercialise your designs are few and far between when you are starting out it is good to initiate your own projects and entering them into competitions can be a good platform. Competitions give you a deadline, a context and potentially good media exposure. I think one just has to be mindful that a competition result isn’t the be all and end all!
Simone LeAmon: Adam, like myself your practice has incorporated periods of lecturing and teaching. I am keen to hear your thoughts on the current state of design education and if your role at the University of Technology Sydney has shaped the way you approach designing?
I have been teaching the furniture design elective in the design faculty for 6 years. My students come from all of the faculty disciplines, for example: architecture, fashion and industrial design. I believe a good design student is positive, tenacious and curious. They need to be entrepreneurial, apply great initiative and know how to run with their ideas.
I was recently involved in a great project where UTS collaborated with Advanced Manufacturing Services, a rapid prototyping company in Sydney to create some innovative designs which utilised their laser–sintering technology. Co-ordinated by industrial design lecturer Rod Walden a number of lecturers including myself mentored a group of 4th year Industrial Design students through the whole process. We really wanted to push the boundaries of the technology and at the same time deliver an experience for both the students and staff. The product designs were then printed in both metal and plastic and exhibited during Sydney Design Week along with a catalogue. I think projects like this that link education with industry are incredibly important.
Simone LeAmon: Adam, it has been great! Thank you for inviting the How We Create readers into your world and we look forward to catching up again in the near future.
Exhibiting Design: The local condition of limited edition and one-off design / How We Create / 2010
There is no doubt that the exploitation of manufacturing defined design in the industrial age. Understanding tools, machinery, manufacturing processes and the performance capabilities of different materials became the designer’s job. Creativity was re-conceived in the company of producing something original and useful for the marketplace. Problem solving within economic and manufacturing constraints is for the large part what designing has come to mean. Read more
But, there is another lesser-known form of design production, which has made a significant contribution to the story of design called limited edition and one-off.
In 2009 I wrote an article for Indesign magazine, which draw attention to the local condition of limited edition and one-off design, specifically the issues I see constraining a flourishing local market.
In recent months, I have observed a growing trend with Australian designers turning towards limited and one-off production through witnessing activities abroad. Events such as Design Miami, the Frieze Art Fair and Art & Design London are fairs trading high-end design production. Indeed my recent interview with Australian designer Brodie Neill for How We Create is further evidence that the market for limited and one-off design is rapidly expanding in the E.U and U.S.A
Hence, I felt it was a timely opportunity to revisit ‘Exhibiting Design: The local condition of limited edition and one-off design’ with a view to explaining a few things along the way.
Last year I had the privilege of assisting my good friend, visual artist, Fiona Abicare produce her latest work, which was on exhibition recently at Heidi Museum in Heidelberg, Melbourne. Titled COVERS the work progresses her interest in the connections between museum, retail and domestic spaces, and the material qualities and associations of objects in these environments. Fiona’s art practice is a rigorous distillation of her conceptual research, her sculptural instincts and the technical prowess that sees her working as a sculpture technician for major feature films, top shelf visual artists and architects.
Fiona’s commitment (6 months full time self-funded work) to the delivery of this conceptual work is unthinkable for many designers. Of course designers self-fund prototypes, but the end result is not the work itself, it is the deal with a distributor or manufacturer that leads to mass production. Fiona, like all visual artists, is engaged in a much longer-term, but no less defined, process that involves a dialogue about ideas and an ability to capture those ideas successfully in form.
A contemporary artist’s success in the visual arts is dependent on a nod of approval from an exclusive set of high priests known as gallerists and curators. The experts in the arts determine what is and is not valuable. The gallerist sells work for a profit via a commercial gallery (a privately owned gallery), the curator commissions or exhibits works for ‘the public good’ usually in a public not for profit institution. The curator has limited budget and expansive expertise. So what
they choose reflects this supply demand inequality. There are far more commercial galleries than public institutions, so when an artist is collected by or curated for a public institution project it immediately elevates the status of the artist and the potential sale price in the commercial gallery context.
Everyone, including most collectors, is dependent on this exclusionary system. The closed system explains why the sale of visual art has not spread to the web like other areas of the creative industries, especially music. Artists get their luster through association with not in isolation from the status quo.
Curators from public galleries are always looking for new works that epitomise a social condition and will, in future, be iconic representations of a particular time and place. One off and limited edition product design also fulfils this collection criteria. But I ask; where are our champions of high-concept design?
Modernism was the initial reason why design was isolated from galleries and conceptual driven forums. Although the credo of form follows function died a slow and painful death some twenty years ago, seventy years of focusing on manufacturing for the masses left its mark. What has changed the role of design most radically is digital design. They have made it possible to design the function of an object and its ornamental form simultaneously and inexpensively. These digital tools also put designers back into the mainstream of the creative process, designers now use the same or similar software as web designers, animators, video artists and filmmakers. Digital design more than anything has made it possible to move beyond the brutal functionalism of modernism.
But Australian history started modern, our pioneering colonial origins means our design always fulfiled utilitarian, essential, rather than ornamental functions. We cannot look back beyond modernism to a time when we did things for beauty.
The digital revolution has facilitated a new era of Romanticism; the primacy of the individual vision rendered in form is the driving concept behind a cluster of new brands: Made by Meta (UK), D&A Design Lab (Netherlands) and Established & Sons (UK) are facilitating a fusion of high-concept design with traditional artisan practice.
The resulting works attempt, through an incredible attention to detail and the history of particular forms (the wardrope, the coffee table, the lamp, the dining table, the chair), to cause a pause and reflection upon what it is we want from high design.
Maybe our lack of a Romantic period, or of a Renaissance for that matter, is what motivates our inability to see design as conceptually rigorous. But I doubt it. We have a burgeoning generation of now mid-career Australian designers who are acquiring commissions in the most celebrated design houses of Europe. And even though the economy has experienced a beating we still have a large enough local, cashed up and erudite, population to engage with the idea of spending $35,000 on a limited edition table.
What’s more there are, as in the visual arts, major public institutions curating shows and collecting works of our most important product designers; the National Gallery of Victoria opened in 2009 with the Cicely and Colin Rigg Contemporary Design Award, the Powerhouse has its collection and Object Gallery in association with the Melbourne Museum exported to the Milan Triennale in May 2008 the exhibition Freestyle; one of the most ambitious presentations of Australian design staged off shore in years.
The missing link are commercial galleries exhibiting and collecting contemporary design (and the absence of curatorial investment from our key public institutions in design). Acquisition by public and private collection should equal increase in market value. However, there are no galleries, developing the prestige value of our leading designers and selling it to collectors. And it is not because such designers are unwilling to commit to the same kind of intensely rigorous
process as visual artists such as Fiona Abicare.
There is the example of Anna Schwartz Gallery’s long-standing association with Susan Cohn, and Roselyn Oxley gallery’s ‘back in the day’ representation of Marc Newson. But on the whole there is still an unhealthy representation of designers in the commercial gallery system. This leaves designers, with a conceptual approach to their work, with few forums in which to present and sell.
If we are to truly elevate the status of our local designers we must make icons of their work. To do this we must follow the lead of the local visual arts scene and through a rigorous intermingling of critique, collection and commercial sale, manufacture a prestige value around limited edition works.
If you are interested in viewing contemporary limited edition and one-off design you may like to visit the following links to galleries abroad.
Fiona Abicare / COVERS / 2008 / Photography John Brash
Brodie Niell / Remix / 2008
Marc Newson / Lockheed lounge / 1985
A raconteur, Simone LeAmon is interested in fostering conversation on what, why and how we design – and, make the things we do.