Judith O’Callaghan

June 1, 2009

Influential curator, Judith O’Callaghan muses on her post 1945 curiosities, her experiences with the NGV during the 1980s, and founding Sydney Design Week.

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JH: When were you first attracted to the world of design and why?

JO’C: In terms of recognising that there was a ‘world’ associated with design, or at least one in which I could potentially find a place, it was during my MA preparatory year at the University of Essex. One of my research projects was to mount a tiny themed display in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I can’t recall too much about the exhibit, but I vividly remember being taken behind the scenes, meeting with curators and being shown the most extraordinary objects and archival collections. It was a world in which design was taken very seriously and I was totally hooked.

JH: You have a particular interest in design post 1945. What was the catalyst that ignited your curiosity?

JO’C: Working as a curator at the National Gallery of Victoria during the 1980s and being exposed to the very best of contemporary work in all fields, not just my own. It was also there that I began to take a real interest in Australian design of the 1950s, particularly after Terry Lane’s insightful exhibition on Grant Featherston in 1988. The 1950s were generally so underrated that it was great to have the opportunity a few years later, at the Powerhouse Museum, to develop The Australian Dream – the first major exhibition and book on the broad span of fifties design.

JH: As senior curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design at the Powerhouse Museum in the 1990s what influenced you to become involved as a founder of Sydney Design Week?

JO’C: I was very excited by what was being produced by young Australian designers like Marc Newson, Caroline Casey, Chris Connell, Schamburg and Alvisse and others, and felt it wasn’t being given the exposure it deserved. We were certainly collecting their work, but museums and galleries on their own can do just so much. I wanted to provide not only a display environment, but a forum for these designers – a context in which their ideas and their production could be publicly accessed, discussed and debated. And it was important that the context be international not just local.

The problem of course was how to accomplish it. Then out of the blue Ross Muller called from the Sydney Morning Herald looking for a venue for the Young Designers Award. We got talking and quickly saw the obvious potential of a partnership – the Powerhouse to generate and provide the venue for exhibitions, lectures, master classes and other public programs and the SMH to not only provide the exposure, but also sponsor the participation of an international design ‘star’. That’s how Sydney Design Week was born and it proved to be a wonderful partnership.

In the first year we showcased the work of MAP and brought out Ron Arad as the international guest. The following year it was Caroline Casey coupled with Renny Ramakers of Droog Design and the next – my last year at the Powerhouse – Robert Foster, Dinosaur Designs, Schamburg and Alvisse, Ovo Design and Bang Design with Carl Pickering.

JH: You have been involved in many aspects of design throughout your career. Which area do you find to be the most challenging and the most fulfilling?

JO’C: It’s always what I’m doing at the moment and now it’s teaching as well as research and writing. There’s also consultancy work, one of the most rewarding projects has been working with the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales on the commission of a major silver centrepiece for Government House. Teaching, of course, is always a challenge as it’s not only about helping students to develop and expand their knowledge and skills; it’s also about enlarging their sense of what’s possible. That pertains to the way they think about design, but also to how they imagine their futures.

JH: If you had the power and the opportunity to improve the health of design in Australia today what would you do?

JO’C: I have no concerns about the health of Australian design. It’s alive and well. However, new models of thinking in relation to production and consumption need to evolve and a necessary part of that process is providing more opportunities to interrogate what’s being produced now in all fields of design – through exhibition, public debate and informed critique. We still don’t have enough of that.

JH: Is there a watershed moment or event associated with design that made an integral difference to your life?

JO’C: It was a person rather than an event. Way back at the beginning of my career, when I started as an assistant curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, I thought I knew what was what about ‘design’. In fact I knew very little. Thankfully I was lucky enough to have an exceptionally talented and erudite curator, Margaret Legge, take me under her wing and teach me a few things. Her most important lesson was that in matters of design – as in life – you always begin with the question ‘Why?’. I am forever grateful.

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