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Above: Elliat Rich, photography by Justin Kennedy.
With a creative output as vast as the territory she inhabits, Elliat Rich is at the centre of a shift in the way design can unify cultures and improve the quality of everyday lives. Rich moved north-west from Sydney to Alice Springs with her partner, James Young, in 2004 – a place, she says, “…sometimes feels like a Noah’s Ark – two people from every profession came on board”. Through her training at Sydney’s College of Fine Arts (now known as UNSW Art and Design) and living remotely, Rich says she has “the opportunity, and possibly the responsibility, to take on varied briefs from unique circumstances”.
Together with Young, the town’s first bespoke shoemaker in over 50 years, Rich runs Elbowrkshp – part studio, part retail space and part workshop. The pair work independently and collaboratively, having just secured international distribution for a range of vessels made from local sand- stone, called Core Collection.
From this unassuming and unexpected precinct, Rich works across many creative disciplines, applying what she describes as a “more spherical than linear” process to graphic design, furniture, product, public artworks and conceptual projects, engaging the broad cultural base that exists within the local community. “Throughout the process your position shifts until you arrive at as central a point as possible,” says Rich, “equally answering all the constraints, nuances and practicalities (immediate and intangible) of that brief.”
Collaborating with the Centre for Appropriate Technology, a not-for-profit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group, Rich has produced a chair range for the Australian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennial. The project provides employment and experience to local Indigenous apprentices and is one of many creative endeavours that highlights Rich’s place “at the forefront of Central Australia’s very active creative community,” says Luke Scholes, curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. “Each new project speaks not only to her community and those around it, but also to the world.”
Speaking to Rich, it is clear how place informs her practice and just how connected she has become to the local landscape. “Alice Springs is an island surrounded by oceans of wilderness, a micro-cosmos of our country’s psyche,” she says. “Here we bear witness to the ongoing process of colonisation, coupled with moments of reconciliation and a deepening understanding between a richness of cultures.”
Ewan McEoin, senior curator at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Department of Contemporary Design and Architecture, says, “Through the unique path she has forged, we see alluring glimpses of a future where Australian designers find their own place and meaning – relevant, context- specific, building culture.” McEoin also alludes to Rich’s “pioneering spirit and lyrical approach that is free of pretension”, suggesting that her work is “less about commercial transactions and more about interactions, memories and rituals”.