- Article by Gillian Serisier
Founded by Lou Weis, Vincent Aiello and some of the best designers in Australia (Charles Wilson, Adam Goodrum and Trent Jansen), Broached Commissions is effectively a core group of designers working within themes from Australia’s heritage under the direction of Weis. The process, however, is not limited to the three key designers. Rather, it is devised to include different Australian and international designers, plus a curator for each project. And while Weis is the director, he is not alone; the very specific talents of Vincent Aiello of Euroluce have been added to the mix, that is, the golden advice most can only dream of: the practical nuts and bolts of manufacture and strategy.
The approach Weis takes is highly structured, with himself as director, advised by Aiello. Subject and curator are predetermined by Weis before the group invites three external designers to join the project – only then does the briefing and curation seriously begin. With a 12-year history of creating conceptual briefs for designers, Weis feels his approach, which has roots in filmmaking, lends itself to the visual dynamic of design. “They are almost like scripts, screenplays, the stories that form can be developed from,” he says.
This particular talent led him to understand this model as a means for instigating the creation of ideas in a fluid and responsive manner. “I saw it as a way of translating what is a very cumbersome and slow process of creating large architectural scaled things to creating small products to sell that were no less conceptually driven, no less about a relationship to design,” says Weis.
Broached evolved organically from a single idea of using heritage timber from the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens within a high design application of limited edition, referencing its colonial heritage. Despite this idea being rejected by those with permission to use this timber, it remained sound. Opportunely, while the idea was still fresh, Goodrum and Jansen approached Weis for assistance with an exhibition. This was something Weis considered without much enthusiasm, until the two ideas merged and became the impetus for shifting to a whole new brand. Aiello was the next to join and, at his suggestion, Wilson, for whom Weis already had a very high regard. In short, this is a very tight group with a very specific set of skills.
Under John McPhee’s curatorial direction, Broached Commissions’ inaugural exhibition, Broached Colonial, explores the highly active design period from 1788 to 1840, when the Industrial Revolution made itself known in Australia. As Weis explains, while he alone selected McPhee for the task, it was as a guide befitting key objectives rather than dictatorial. “It was important to everyone that we looked outside the existing cliques of the product design world in Australia, which is very small, very insular. [We needed] someone with a really deep knowledge, not just of product design, but of Australian history and applied arts,” says Weis. “John was just unbelievable to work with. I mean, there was not a single idea that any of the six designers came up with that he wasn’t able to respond to with a book, a reference or an entire lineage of practice. And they were all startled by that.”
McPhee apparently astounded them all by commencing with an exhaustive lecture on the subject. “All the guys at that point were just engrossed,” he says. “That was it. They were hooked.”
The invited designers (in this case Max Lamb, Lucy McRae and Chen Lu) are holistically selected, based on the specifics of the project, rather than saleability or kudos. “Max Lamb is perfect because he uses such simple mechanisms to create his work, which is all the colonials had at their disposal when they first arrived here. He turned out to be an awesome collaborator: a mixture of fastidious, optimistic and curious. It was a killer combination.”
One of the signifying differences between the Broached design team and others is the strict adherence to their own vision, whereby each designer has stayed within their own milieu.
In effect, the work is guided collaboratively through ideas and response, but from there each designer has pursued their own path. And rightly so, says Weis. “Adam, Charles and Lucy are intuitive designers, and Chen, Max and Trent are researchers – more conceptually led designers – but even within that they have very different emotional and professional mechanisms that enable them to arrive at their design outcomes.”
Within the overriding concept of colonialism, the delicate cabinetry of Wilson’s precariously angled Tall Boy is very much in keeping with his aesthetic, while the introduction of colour to Goodrum’s ‘Birdsmouth Mast Table’ is similarly consistent with his oeuvre, as is the quirky take that Jansen brings to his ‘Brigg’s Family Tea Service’. The invited designers, Lamb, McRae and Lu have also embraced this direction with wholly unique solutions specific to their style. McRae’s ‘Prickly Lamp’ is a particularly pleasing response and an entirely desirable object. In another rather interesting move away from traditional structures, each of the guests is invited as a shareholder. This initiative, instigated by Aiello, shares not only the fiscal rewards of the group, but also the responsibility and motivation for its success. The immediate application for this project is as an exhibition with works for sale and generating future commissions. Moreover, commissions can take myriad forms, from installations suitable for architectural scapes, to bespoke curatorial explorations and private commissions.
Regarding the work itself, while it may be responding to a concern, it is imperative to understand its stand-alone position as design. As the only high-end, limited-edition design brand in Australia, it was important – and the outcome of much debate – that the group structure comprise designers, rather than a core of designers with the occasional artist. In so doing, the group’s strength is undiluted and maintains the niche depth that is central to the particularities of its talents. This, in unison with Weis and Aiello’s business acumen, positions Broached Commissions as an exceptional and interesting model. However, the proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating, and what becomes apparent at a glance is the absolute success of the designs, which are engaging, desirable and innately Australian.
Tall Boy, by Charles Wilson
Lou Weis: Although an enthusiastic participant from the start, Wilson was probably the most uncertain as to whether his investigation of the historical premise would result in a design outcome. Generally, Wilson’s work follows an efficiency rationale as to how a product could be improved. In this instance, the tall boy typology was chosen because it provided the opportunity to have a special place for storage of small pieces (clothes, jewellery or documents) that broke down the ubiquity of modern wardrobes and cupboards. Once Wilson had a typology that was relevant to the Australian colonial period, he then set about accumulating local and international references that could be seamlessly synthesised. He prefers formal consistency, and that is why we wanted him as part of the team. After a few afternoons with John McPhee, the Tall Boy had one key influence confirmed: the makeshift craft traditions of bush furniture and agricultural structures, such as 19th century water tanks. Wilson then looked for a way of refining the seemingly random use of timber, and decided to use the gentle tapering lines of Biedermeier furniture. To bring harmony between the fine legs and bulk of the seven drawers, Wilson used Macquarie’s Obelisk as the main reference. With this, the overall harmony of the piece was confirmed.
Prickly Lamp, by Lucy McRae
Lou Weis: Lucy and I met through a family friend of mine, who was not entirely sure what either of us did, but knew it was tangentially related. We immediately clicked and have been in a collaborative dialogue ever since. Although I have secured a few clients for Lucy, Broached Commissions is the first project we have collaborated on directly. The Prickly Lamp is the first permanent object Lucy has created – all previous work being made for presentation in photography or film. Our dialogue for this commission started with an investigation of living conditions for women in the first decades of settlement. John McPhee provided some early examples of convict handicrafts and we also sent over excerpts from books that detailed the intense exploitation of women that occurred basically from the moment they stepped ashore in Australia. We initially looked at objects from the period, such as rotoscopes, that provided Lucy with the opportunity to still work with images and not make the sudden leap to objects. Some months passed and then Lucy took a few days of testing – where she chose objects that could adjust in size and had joints that moved in a humanoid fashion. This enabled her to apply a skin to an industrial object to make it appear polymorphous. The slow and intimate process of dying and applying the small pieces of wood to the found objects illuminated the simple point of the piece: growing a new skin for an old body, adapting to a new environment, is a process that requires great care and attention to the details of your surrounds.
Birdsmouth Mast Table, by Adam Goodrum
Lou Weis: Adam loved the initial meetings with John McPhee. He was probably the only designer who called straight after the first collaborative get-together to say how much he appreciated the rigour of the process. He was also uncertain, in those initial moments, as to what an understanding of the colonial period would yield in terms of design. After working with John a little bit, and after receiving a wealth of information about furniture-making in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Adam quickly realised that his love for mechanisms (folding furniture, for instance) was entirely matched by the industrial innovators of the period.
The Adam Goodrum design takes one of the central tools of the expansion and maintenance of the Empire (the ship mast) and turns it into a gentle jewellery-like leg mechanism for a table. We were all excited about the use of the Birdsmouth mast as one of the features of the piece. The most intense design dialogue for Adam’s piece focused on the table top design.
Several versions of the table top were done that oscillated between a modernist slab to a more ornate Chippendale-style table top. We were conscious of the fact that most high-design dining tables are usually simple sculptural forms. However, we wanted to create a table that provides dual functionality: an eating surface and storage elements.
Briggs Family Tea Service, by Trent Jansen
Lou Weis: Alongside Lucy McRae’s piece, the Briggs Family Tea Service is the most intricately handmade piece. Trent had for some time been working with the idea of a family of objects, literally conveying the aesthetic characteristics of the mother and the father, and passing these attributes on unevenly (as it happens in life) to the children.
The commission represents the marriage of George Briggs, a free settler to Tasmania, to Woretermoeteyenner of the Pairrebeenne people, and the four children they had together. The tea service represents that wild and combustive moment when British free settlers tried to establish a life for themselves on the coastlines of Tasmania, a time when Indigenous Australians of that region struggled with the rapid transformation of their entire world. It is not simply because Trent was mentored by the Marcel Wanders Studio that he has a narrative-led design practice; design for Trent is the result of passionate human relationships. I don’t think he could make an object unless it emerged from a sympathetic relationship.
Trent has a sophisticated design rationale and his passion for narrative-led design is deeply couched within a sustainability agenda. He wants the emotional connection between a person and an object to result in them keeping it for longer.
Made from lacquered bull kelp, wallaby pelt, slip cast porcelain, copper and brass, the Briggs Family Tea Service brings together the traditional water carrying vessels of both cultures. The tea service is a limited edition of five.
Hawkesbury Sandstone Collection, by Max Lamb
Lou Weis: One major focus for Broached Commission is to provide the context for international collaboration. The colonial period obviously calls for a British designer – Max Lamb was our first choice. His passionate engagement with historical materials, and the fact that he had only the most surface knowledge of Australia, made Max the perfect designer for Broached Commissions’ inaugural exhibition.
It was always Max’s intention to focus on the first few months of settlement. The focus initially was on clay – Governor Phillip sent clay samples to Wedgewood timber. But then some readings revealed that Governor Phillip had explored the river systems that lead to what is now Gosford. This pushed Max towards the creation of another quarry project, his 10th.
We set aside a month of work on the ground in Sydney to create the sandstone pieces. Initial inspections of Gosford Quarries revealed that it was unlike any of the various quarries Max had worked in before, all of which had overburden boulders. Gosford Quarries is meticulous in its preparation and maintenance of its quarries; all loose stones are buried once the quarrying is complete.
The absence of loose boulders moved the designer towards the creation of a highly refined collection of objects cut from regular ashlar blocks, each one with a direct correlation to his research on colonial period art, the necessary resourcefulness of the first colonists, and the geology and topography that is unique to Sydney.