Features

Survey: Art or Industry?

July 4, 2014

The furniture and objects of our domestic environments are some of the most intimate collectables we own. What is the place of Australian designers within this massive market? We talk to leading practitioners to see what the future holds.

Above image: The Chinaman’s File rocking chair designed by Trent Jansen and produced by Broached Commissions. Image: Scottie Cameron

Text: Lou Weis

Philippe Starck was probably the last real superstar of object design. Piero Gandini, CEO of Flos, says, “Achilles Castiglioni built the house of Flos and Starck [a generation later] opened its doors to the public.” Even in our local market there is no equivalent to Starck.

Our most successful creator of ‘beautiful’ objects in recent times was not strictly speaking a designer – Ken Done, an artist doing homewares. Yes, that observation is partially designed to outrage the object design community.

Done did what no signature designer in Australia can seem to do currently: he crossed over into the mainstream living room. There is not one object designer in Australia whose fame equals that of our top celebrity chefs: those who have made millions through their rise to the top of Australian food culture.

Australia does not have an equivalent to Sir Terence Conran. Brands like Dinosaur Design and Mud corner the market within their specific material and industrial niche, but do not appear to leverage their popularity to diversify into media and other products.

Collection of Vue chairs designed for Vue De Monde by Ross Didier for Ross Didier. Image courtesy of Ross Didier

Collection of Vue chairs designed for Vue De Monde by Ross Didier for Ross Didier. Image courtesy of Ross Didier

Also, unlike in Europe, Japan and the US, the creativity of our object designers rarely transcends generations. Schiavello is arguably one strong example of intergenerational success, but why haven’t the likes of [Grant] Featherston, [Schulim] Krimper, [Paul] Kafka and [Frederick] Ward, the great Australian mid-20th century artisanal designers, resulted in flourishing businesses that continue their legacy with new designs? Why did none of them become the Flos or Moroso of Australia?

Another connection between our lead chefs and designers is that they tend to work together. A critical part of Shannon Bennett’s

Vue du Monde Rialto interior has been the engagement of Australian designers and artisans. Ross Didier created the kangaroo fur-covered chairs for the restaurant to build upon the narrative of Australian high design and refined cuisine.

Didier likes to think of his “furniture pieces as functional pets or working companions” and that these objects will add “to the personality of a space with their inherent natures”. As a third generation furniture maker, Didier knows the nimbleness required to achieve intergenerational success in Australia. Indeed, he prefers the word ‘producer’ to ‘maker’ because it reflects the reality of the condition of making, which must continually change to reflect the current economic conditions in Australia.

The fragility of this success is acknowledged by Didier. Like many of the designers interviewed for this article, he felt that the intergenerational continuation of their brand was probably not likely. Nor was it desirable for Australia, given the difficulties of a life in object design. Helen Kontouris represents the exception to this rule. Having worked in Europe and for Schiavello, Kontouris sees a model for private equity investment in companies that have, like Didier’s, been family held businesses.

101 Chair designed by Helen Kontouris and manufactured by Schiavello. Image courtesy of Helen Kontouris

101 Chair designed by Helen Kontouris and manufactured by Schiavello. Image courtesy of Helen Kontouris

For Kontouris, the main problem to achieving sustained growth is finding suppliers – reliable and skilled – who share her vision.

Kate Stokes of Coco Flip, points out that many of the fabricator suppliers are micro-operators, as is her company. As such, the fragility of the dependent manufacturing sector matches the fragility of the object design sector.

There are structural reasons for this; our manufacturing sector lives in the shadows of our primary industries, in particular resource booms. When politicians talk about mining, mining figureheads come out and talk back.

When politicians talk manufacturing, who stands up and waves the flag for manufacturing? Simply writing the question brought an amused smile to my face. This community no longer exists.

The Australian furniture retail industry is worth $8 billion a year, yet local design and manufacturing has not captured even a fraction of this market. Homeware objects and lighting similarly have a retail presence of a few billion annually. Yet both are considered mature industries, they are not dynamic and changing, attracting new players in a volatile market.

In this stable market, it seems local designers and leading industry commentators are making an equally mature response. Instead of seeking out annual increases in market share, the designers are looking for meaningful and interesting relationships with manufacturers, with clients and collaborators.

Instead of diversifying into other services, just as Marcel Wanders and Patricia Urquiola took on interiors, these designers are committed to the creation of furniture, lighting and objects.

Rather than bemoaning globalisation, Kate Stokes, Trent Jansen and Ross Didier all feel that this shift is leading to a focus on self-expression and the emergence of international micro-cultures that link digitally. This is the model of object designer as artist. Self-expression and community are primary, the relationship to a scalable industrial process is secondary. For Jansen commerce is not even a consideration.

The trend may reflect former Vogue editor and design consultant David Clark’s comment that the “glut of ‘stuff’ in the world means that the justification for making anything new needs to be deeply considered” and rooted in beauty and meaning, its functionality of the highest order. For Clark, there is “little need for new objects, we can acquire most of what we need from the industrial waste stream” or through the refurbishment of secondhand product. What is required are genuine experiences, and again this is where object design plays a part in the bigger vision of restaurateurs and interior designers.

This place of the object designer as the creator of beautiful objects for a niche audience is a return to the feudal role of the artisan – a middle class aesthete, someone with privileged access to the wealthy (so that they can accurately create products for them), but never grows to match their clients’ levels of income.

The knowledge that is accumulated by each of these designers and their manufacturing partners is the IP (intellectual property) of their work, more so than the outcome. This knowledge and the accompanying skills are what can be used again and again by future generations. This is the joy experienced by local designers when they enter the great design houses of Milan. Many are only two or three generations old. I would like to see some smart venture capital build those legacy brands here. But, for this to happen, the designers need to come out of the shadow of the primary industries and see themselves as industry operators.

Lou Weis is the creative director of Broached Commissions and creative strategist for MissChu and Ramus Illumination.

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