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If you’re anything like me, prior to her nomination on the IDEA Gold Medal shortlist, you may not have heard of Janne Faulkner – but that doesn’t mean her aesthetic eye hasn’t had an impact on your life. Her company, Nexus Designs, has advised many of Australia’s product manufacturers on their product ranges, colour trends and forecasting. As Nexus Designs itself describes it, ‘Janne has had a great deal of influence in the items most people use in everyday life. This has ranged from the colour of their Laminex kitchen bench [to] the design on their toilet tissue paper, the Colorbond steel roofing on their houses or even the colour of their telephones.’ This means colour – more specifically, Australian colour – derived from the natural landscape. Faulkner and Nexus Designs commenced their mission to Australianise domestic and commercial interiors in 1967.
Faulkner recalls that Australia in the 1960s ‘was the days of red brick houses, velvet curtains and moquette suites’. But the design scene was experiencing a rapid transformation. To quote Babette Hayes, who arrived from London in the mid-60s and became an influential stylist for home magazines: ‘The mid-60s saw major changes taking place in home decorating as new, radically modern furniture, furnishing products and brightly coloured fabric designs started to arrive in Australia, due to an inspired group of designers, architects and prospective importers, who, while travelling overseas, ordered and brought back what they had found – bold fabrics, modern furniture, radical designs in kitchen and home accessories from Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, France and America.’ Observing this internationalist trend, architecture critic Robin Boyd wrote in 1970, ‘Australia jumped from being a dependent colony to being a subscriber to the international culture of the late 20th century without an intervening period of national cultural identity. The problem of the world-conscious Australian is not to search for Australia’s identity, but to escape from it.’ But among this borrowing from other cultures, there was a movement towards an Australian style. Our attitude to our own environmental landscape was changing – ‘tree ferns and tan bark replacing the roses,’ as the architectural historian, Conrad Hamann, puts it.
It was this thread that was taken up by Faulkner and like-minded designers. Idealistic project home builders started to offer an alternative to the AV Jennings suburban model. Pettit and Sevitt in New South Wales employed architect Ken Woolley, and Merchant Builders in Victoria employed Graeme Gunn, who had recently won a top architecture award for a courtyard house in Essendon that presented a severe bunker-like fac?ade to the street. ‘It was a brave new concept and led to the development of a more appropriate informal Australian lifestyle, with their open plan kitchen/ living spaces, the use of big natural timber beams, split floor levels, high wall areas, large sliding doors and windows, and plain painted fuss-free walls, which lent themselves to softer colours such as gum leaf green combined with white walls and the natural unstained timbers,’ writes Hayes. ‘Melbourne had its groundbreaking counterpart [to Pettit and Sevitt]: open plan, flat roofed project homes built by Merchant Builders, designed by Cocks Carmichael and Graeme Gunn, using Janne Faulkner of Nexus for the interiors with her unique colour mix of soft offbeat colours.’ It was Faulkner’s involvement with Merchant Builders that launched her career in interior design.
In 1967, Faulkner was a 34-year-old mother of two, who had recently moved from Tasmania when she met David Yencken of Merchant Builders at a dinner party. ‘I was very, very lucky in that I had no formal training at all. I didn’t go to any of the colleges,’ says Faulkner. ‘And one night I sat next to David Yencken at a dinner party and he said to me, “Whose work do you really like?” and I said, “Graeme Gunn’s doing a fantastic house in Essendon and I think it’s the best of this generation”.’ The next morning she was hired. Important contemporary interior designer, Jeffery Copolov, was friends with her son, Simon, in secondary school, and spent time at the Faulkner’s long before he had any idea he would become a designer himself. ‘I remember a wonderful contemporary house, that was always surrounded by great art, including indigenous art,’ he says. ‘She was one of the first people that I can remember having Aboriginal art. There was a lightness and a freshness to her interior.’ According to Copolov, Faulkner’s reputation began with the interior design of her own home and, because of her associations and strong word of mouth, it all resulted in her doing interiors for friends around Melbourne.
In lieu of formal training, Faulkner attributes her success to her upbringing outside Launceston. Her father was the principal of ‘a very innovative’ farm school, says Faulkner. His can-do attitude rubbed off on his daughter. She tells the story of how he got up one morning and said, ‘I want to start a pottery kiln for the school,’ which they all thought would take ages to organise and, within three months, the parts had been imported from Europe and it was up and running. ‘I just assumed when I came over here that I would be able to do the same sorts of things,’ she says.
Faulkner remembers very well the day in 1967 that Yencken asked her to join Merchant Builders. ‘That morning I was in a Balenciaga suit, with white gloves, walking the dachshund on a lead, and David Yencken pulled up in a Mini Minor, which was very cool then (and probably still very cool now) and he said, “Would you like to come and work with me?”‘ She thinks of the people involved with Merchant Builders as a local version of the Bloomsbury Set in London. ‘They consisted of the most interesting skills in Victoria at the time. David worked with Graeme Gunn, Daryl Jackson, David McGlashan, Cocks, Carmichael and then there was Ellis Stones, Bruce Weatherhead was doing graphics, Merlin Cunliffe was bringing in Marimekko and furniture from London, and the whole group became very friendly and very influential in Melbourne in that time.’ They had an ambitious agenda: to educate the suburban house buyer and transform suburban architecture. ‘We’d spend a day looking for one hinge,’ explains Faulkner. ‘It was all very idealistic. Money didn’t come into it; it was the product that was important. And to try and change housing in Australia, to suit the Australian landscape and the Australian environment.’
‘Nexus’ was originally a product name for a kitchen storage system that, according to a 1969 article in Melbourne broadsheet, The Age, was ‘based on modular units of standard sizes, which by the use of an adjustable unit can be varied to suit a number of conditions’. The Nexus kitchen system was designed specifically for the interiors of modern project houses developed by Merchant Builders. Very soon, Nexus the product became Nexus Designs Pty Ltd, an independent client design service. ‘When design consultant, Janne Faulkner, first walks into a kitchen to see about renovating it, the eyes of the woman in the house invariably light up. They always say immediately how glad they are to have a woman in charge of their kitchen,’ a 1970 Age article noted. ‘Nowadays they’ll refit any room of a house with their especially designed cabinets, and advise on all fittings, other furniture and colour schemes. They’re preparing a range of office furniture too.’
In 1974, Nexus Designs got its first commercial client, the State Savings Bank of Victoria. Copolov remembers visiting a building site on the Mornington Peninsula as a teenager, ‘and I thought it was marvellous – she’d used these eucalyptus colours’. In 1980, the company commenced the first of 90 store interiors for Country Road in Australia and New Zealand. Copolov thinks this was a ‘stroke of genius’ because the fit between the two companies was so good. The result was ‘not showy; it was taking a relaxed Australian casualness, a natural palette’, he says. ‘She saw something in this country, in this land and the light, and the skills and the craft, and somehow wove it, to me for the first time, where it was Australian and it wasn’t imported. And I don’t know how she did it.’
When asked which project stands out in her long career, Faulkner names Yulara, the resort at the edge of Uluru in the Northern Territory, designed with architect, Philip Cox, and completed in 1984. ‘We had a staff of six, and had never done a major project. It was huge for us,’ recalls Faulkner. ‘It was very hard to get products suitable to the interior of Australia – we had to get everything made up especially.’ It is this drive to achieve harmony with the Australian landscape that led to the greatest innovations by Faulkner and Nexus. ‘That’s why I think she is worthy of the Gold Medal,’ says Copolov. ‘I think she was absolutely an innovator – and if anyone managed to find an Australian vernacular to domestic design, and then went on to commercial design, I think she did.’ Faulkner received an Order of Australia in 1982 ‘in recognition of service to the arts, particularly as a designer’.
‘What is it in your work that captures Australianness?’ asked Copolov once, when interviewing Faulkner. ‘I think it came from all those friendships with that group [surrounding the Merchant Builders] – we were very conscious of the difference in the landscape, and early on nobody else thought very much about it,’ she replied. ‘The colour of Australia is completely different from anywhere else in the world.’
About the IDEA Gold Medal
Of all the IDEA award categories, the Gold Medal is one of the most prestigious. First introduced to the awards in 2010, this award recognises the distinguished contribution made by an Australian designer to design culture over the course of their career. Nominations for the IDEA Gold Medal are put forward by the jury.
The IDEA Gold Medal is sponsored by Designer Rugs.