Design Museums: A country tour.

March 16, 2009

Traversing the continent, we visit the most influential and relevant design museums and galleries in Australia today.

Thanks to the global financial crisis, newspaper coverage of the event was pushed toward the Bronx end of New York Times real estate, but for the design community it was front page news when the new dedicated Museum of Art and Design (MAD) recently opened for business just down the road from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, one of the most coveted destinations for any design lover.

The opening marks a new milestone in the surge of newly opened design museums, while more and more art and technology museums around the globe discover design shows to be true audience magnets. Many agree that this new development comes as a corollary of an increasingly design conscious public, while limited edition design objects fetch auction prices usually only reserved for fine art. Closer to home, the territory is also shifting as design is becoming gradually acknowledged as both an art form and an indicator of good taste.

Despite agreement that design exhibitions are becoming more frequent, however, a survey of the major players has revealed that design shows in Australia are more often than not only one part of the quest to create something larger.

Depending on the organisation’s focus, this quest ranges from boosting retail sales to helping designers find manufacturers for their product and establish new markets. Interestingly, the stereotype in which Australian designers are often cast – that of the designer/maker – appears to also play a major role in exhibiting design in this country, as the mandate to showcase design has been taken up mostly by organisations formerly dedicated to craft and the handmade. These include Sydney’s Object, Adelaide’s JamFactory and Melbourne’s Craft Victoria, as well as Form in Perth and Artisan in Brisbane.
Object in Sydney leads the way. The organisation has long overcome any distinctions between craft and design, showcasing local makers from a plethora of backgrounds in its exhibitions. In recent years, the former New South Wales Craft Council has ramped up its exhibiting activity significantly, with one of its major exhibitions, the 2006/2007 highlight ‘Freestyle: new Australian design for living’, a touring exhibition currently on display at the Triennale di Milano.

Victoria’s counterpart, Craft Victoria, appears to have deliberated over the craft/design divide a little longer, but now recognises that in a country like Australia – where designers are busy manufacturing their own designs in the absence of patriarchal manufacturing greats such as Cappellini – distinguishing between craft and design is “useless” (or so says Joe Pascoe, newly instated artistic director of Craft Victoria and former head of the Visual Arts Board at the Australia Council of the Arts). Instead, Pascoe suggests that his organisation views craft as “the soul of design”. He sees the future in focusing on the social aspects of design, on the context in which objects are made, utilised and sold.

In 2009, Craft Victoria is planning the start of ‘Craft Cube’, a program including exhibitions, lectures, seminars and discussions involving both local and international designers, as well as utilising digital and online technology to broadcast and publicise the organisation’s activities beyond geographical boundaries and to reach new audiences.

Craft Victoria isn’t alone with its vision that exhibiting design should be part of a larger purpose – one that will help designers and makers form new connections, improve their skills and technology, and ultimately give them a leg up in reaching new markets and manufacturing their work in a way that makes sense commercially. Object also has great plans to expand in this direction. Although its wonderful exhibition space, a Sam Marshall-designed refurbishment at St Margaret’s in Surry Hills, is only a few years old, the team has big plans to develop further by 2015, setting up in new facilities to not only grow its floor space for exhibition purposes, but also to include educational facilities and more room for networking and debate.

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In this respect, Adelaide’s JamFactory is a pioneer, with designers working at the facilities producing a range of items that are distributed to over 120 galleries and stores around Australia. Combining workshops, manufacturing facilities and mentoring, designer residencies, seminars and other events, JamFactory’s four exhibition spaces serve predominantly to publicly showcase what’s going on behind the scenes. Its managing director, Stephen Bowers, suggests that for JamFactory, exhibiting design is nothing new, nor is it a growing phenomenon, but concedes, “The numbers and the success of exhibitions held at the facility have increased over the last four years, and so the levels of design in our presentations has also increased.”

If anyone is isolated from both the Australian as well as the international design circuit, it’s the community of Tasmanian makers and designers. So it’s not surprising that the Tasmanian Design Centre – an old organisation housed in a new, Richard Leplastrier-designed building – suggests as its major task the promotion of local makers in other parts of the country as well as internationally. Aside from exhibiting design, Astrid Wootton, its general manager, says the Centre focuses on helping designers push their work over the line to be able to manufacture their work in both a sustainable and commercially viable fashion. A recently instigated Awards program is to see to that.

Just as the last issue’s article divided international organisations into tiers, Australian organisations also show design for a number of purposes. The larger general and applied arts museums, namely the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, followed by the Melbourne Museum, are to a lesser extent advocates of the local design community, but are rather responding to a growing public interest in design and designed objects. Melbourne Museum continually plays host to design events, as well as showcasing nationally and internationally touring design exhibitions, while the Powerhouse Museum, with its past rooted deeply in technology, houses the largest and most impressive collection of Australian design and devotes considerable energy to preserving and explaining local design history. In addition to its permanent design exhibition, specially curated shows like the acclaimed, Grace Cochrane-curated ‘SmartWorks: design and the handmade’ of 2007 illustrate the dynamics, problematics and opportunities of the local design scene, rather than simply focusing on the object.

Among the hustle and bustle around newly curated design exhibitions, it’s a little disappointing to see that the dedicated state and government funded art galleries are yet to disassociate design from the decorative arts department, and dedicate some serious floor space to contemporary developments and more recent design history. (Although some are becoming increasingly interested in touring exhibitions – ‘Freestyle’ toured to the Art Gallery of South Australia in late 2007.)

The good news is, however, that there is plenty of movement when it comes to showing design outside of the realm of museums and galleries. “The most exciting developments probably come from within the retail sector; there are some really interesting approaches,” says Brian Parks, director of Object in Sydney. An outstanding example of these developments in his city is Metalab, a studio collective of jewellers and sculptors in Surry Hills, who also run a retail space that doubles as a gallery for the artists’ own work and invited guests. Melbourne’s e.g.etal, a jewellery retailer with a focus on local makers, takes a similar approach and has more recently expanded its operation to include two spaces, while Pieces of 8 in Melbourne is a new addition similar to Metalab in its approach. Yet it’s not just with jewellery that retail and exhibition space merge into one. Larger furniture retailers – Anibou in Sydney being the most prolific – as well as fashion stores such as Melbourne’s Alice Euphemia come up with their version of ‘curated retail’ (as it’s been dubbed through the work of trailblazing stores like Collette in Paris) to add value and prestige to their range, as well as enticing the design community to visit their spaces and giving unknown and local designers a chance to present their work.

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With interesting exhibition concepts being presented at more and more regular intervals, not all areas of design are experiencing an equal surge in popularity on the exhibition floor. Suzie Attiwill, the director of RMIT’s Interior Design Program, who also maintains a successful practice as a curator of design-related exhibitions, agrees that Australia is seeing a rise in design exhibitions, yet criticises the fact that most exhibitions perceive design as product-based. “The exhibitions we see are usually either showcases or historical surveys. The exceptions are few, yet very exciting,” she says, pointing to a 2004 show at the then newly opened Tarra Warra Museum of Art, titled ‘Melbourne Masters Architecture’ and curated by RMIT Innovation Professor of Architecture, Leon van Schaik.

Another notable example of architecture-related shows was the ‘Pavilions for New Architecture’ show at Monash Gallery in 2005. A long-standing educator at that university, Warren Taylor, has more recently opened the most exciting new gallery space if you’re into anything graphic design and typography. The Narrows Gallery in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane has become a destination for graphics lovers and type nerds. Here, Taylor presents a changing program of local showcases and international work.

Further design exhibitions, not simply relying on design as product, will surely be on the cards when Melbourne’s planned Design Hub, part of RMIT’s Design Research Institute, will open in a purpose-built, Sean Godsell-designed facility smack in the centre of town. The Hub will also incorporate a gallery space that will no doubt be the home of some interesting exhibition concepts, with many of them perhaps closing the gap by presenting shows on design research, the nexus between design and technology and, hopefully, architecture.

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