Friday, July 30, 2010

Holding a sense of place

Tayenebe is an important exhibition that has just finished at the NMA and will be moving onto the Queensland Museum. It documents the rebuiling of basketmaking skills among Tasmanian Aboriginal women over the last decade or so. Thirty seven women were involved in a series of workshops throughout the state, and more than twenty of those women have pieces in this small but exquisite show.

With funding from the NMA and the Tasmanian Art Gallery & Museum, it is dedicated to the memory of Aunty Muriel Maynard who had long been involved in basketmaking and other Indigenous making skills as documented in Crossing the Strait, edited by Kathryn Wells to accompany an exhibition in Wollongong in 2003.

The Tayenebe project has seen skills learnt and handed on, knowledge of country and its plant resources and the revitalisation of the particular Tasmanian weaving style. The baskets themselves talk to their sense of place, their evocation of where they were made, where the plants grew and were harvested, and why they were made. These simple, often small objects are more than eloquent reminders that the Tasmanian Aborigines have against extraordinary odds, maintained self, place and culture.

Dulcie Greeno
Lackerrernunne, 2008
larapuna (Eddystone Point)
white flag iris (Diplarrena moraea)
400x230 mm

waranta palawa, milaythina nika

Sunday, July 25, 2010

An Anniversary

Gazelle table, Judy Kensley McKie - Mahogany, paint, glass, 34"H x 60"W x 18" D

Pritam & Eames Gallery in East Hampton, New York is perhaps the best known commercial gallery focusing on studio furniture in the US today. Since 1981, the gallery has shown just about all of the major makers in the States.

Over June, the gallery held an Anniversary show which included Judy Kensley McKie, Wendy Maruyama and Rich Tannen. Bear with the rather odd layout of the Pritam website - for whatever reason they seem very reluctant to use Flash to display the images...

They will also be holding a show, Seating, from August 6 which should also be very interesting....
"Eggo" Wall vessel, Don Miller - Bleached white oak, 31"H x 18"W x 7.5"D

Monday, July 19, 2010

Melbourne's Design:Made:Trade

The Design Files reports on last weekend's Design:Made:Trade show at the Exhibition buildings in Nicholson Street, Carlton.

Finders Keepers are running much smaller but not dissimiliar market type events regularly in Sydney, including being part of the WinterLand Festival at the Carriageworks in Redfern markets each Thursday to Saturday.

If you've had the chance to wander up Gertrude Street in Fitzroy and meander back to Carlton via Johnston Street, Brunswick Street or Smith Street of late, you will have noticed the astonishing number of shopfronts selling the designed and the made. Some big name, but much of it local startups, and much of it much closer in aesthetic and nature to the crafted object captured in Handmade Nation.

These are the objects made to be worn, used, bought, traded, swapped, cherished, worn out and bought again. These are the lived in objects of craft. They do not aspire to being exhibited, to play the role of sonorously semiotic serious, but with humour, care and a light touch are found at markets, small shopfronts, festivals and online. They are not burdened by a sense of themselves as art but crafted design. They are about small scale micro making businesses. Often they are also about careful consideration of sources of materials, environmentally friendly making practices, making things that until you handle them, you did not realise that you had a need for such a thing.

One of the problems when making furniture or interior objects is the investment in time and materials implicitly tied to the object. A small hall table may have a minimum of $300 worth of timber and/or substrate plus veneer. It may take ten hours to make - during which lights are burning, machines running, workshop rent accumulating - it is difficult to sanely make furniture in your lounge room or kitchen - all of which means that that little table already owes the maker a minimum of $800 before it goes to market. Someone browsing at the next Finders Keepers market will perhaps happily spend $80 on a felt laptop case, but baulk at $800 for a table. Designers such as Indeco have developed a pitch perfect range of kitchen and dining wear that straddles the small object with a big design idea paradigm beautifully. It is an intriguing problem to develop furniture that is able to do the same.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Peter Dormer is dead but

long live Peter Dormer.

In 1994 Dormer published The Art of the Maker. It was derived from his PhD research at RCA. It is idiosyncratic, at times rhetorical, and brilliant. In many ways, it was a rallying call already a decade too late as craft makers flocked to the promised lands of Art. Writing in a Britain coquettishly engaging with New Europe, yet sagging under the strain of years of conservative rule, Dormer was not calling for a nostalgic return to evening carving classes and embroidered footstools, but insisting that the devaluing of craft skill in the plastic arts was Not a Terribly Good Idea.

Re-reading it at the moment, I was more than a bit shocked to discover that it is currently out of press and worse still, this small paperback is now selling for upward of $130 secondhand online. Thames and Hudson, you need to re-release this book. Particularly given the attention Richard Sennett has received for his publication The Craftsman (oh look it's gender specific - gosh) which I read, frowning. Lent to a friend who also frowned, and after a couple of glasses of a suitably emboldening NZ sauv blanc, we decided that a. Sennett had not actually MADE anything in his life, and b. the jacket design on the Penguin paperback was rather good. (Glenn Adamson was even less impressed as per his review in Design and Culture - I don't think he even liked the jacket)

But this quick post has been prompted by hunting for something on the Object website, and becoming as I often am, just a little irritated by its unnecessarily clever website which is rather fiddly to navigate. And whilst being irritated by the homepage, suddenly noting that while the website title is showing on my Firefox tab as Australian Centre for Craft and Design, the word craft was noticeably missing, missing until I had done the fiddly navigating thing down to the entry on Craft + Design Enquiry, quickly abbreviated to CDE.

The practice that dare not speak its name?

Are we so brand obsessed, so convinced that audiences, the public, people out there can't make a distinction between the craft of crocheted toilet roll covers (which in the right creative hands...) and the craft of Oliver Smith? If words may indeed break our bones, then all the more reason why we all need to carry a copy of Dormer's The Art of the Maker to bat them away.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Working in 3D, visual input is more a process of winnowing than lack of stimulus. We live in cultures saturated in the visual; static or otherwise. Built environments from the remarkable ugliness of Parramatta Road to the bucolic beauty of Central Tilba. Architecture imposes its influence both in the solidity of its external form, but also within the internal spaces it defines. Coming across an image of Elizabeth Bay House, I wondered about the subtle influence that such places impose upon one's aesthetic.

Now surrounded by a high density urban enclave, Elizabeth Bay House was built for the Scottish administrator Alexander Macleay, Colonial Secretary of the colony of New South Wales. Something of a folly to high Victorian obsessions of caste, learning and compulsive collecting, its history includes neglect and decline, the loss of its original 28 hectare curtilage, and division into sixteen flats during World War II.

As a young child, I visited the house as an old friend of my mother's had the upstairs Eastern flat. Aunt Mickey would position an overstuffed chair at one of the windows, and I would spend hours happily watching the buzz and hurry of a working port from the heads back up the harbour. I also remember the joinery - vast cedar skirting boards and door architraves laughingly enormous in comparison to the mean painted 1960s joinery of home. But what I remember with all of a child's awe is the staircase.

Flats had been created by erecting fibro walls, like so many film sets, but the sheer scale and form of the stairwell could not be subsumed. It creaked, it was somewhat worse for wear but it was an extraordinary march up and up and up to Aunt Mickey's flat for a small child sliding her hand on the handrail, grasping her mother's hand in the other.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Earlier this year, I received an invitation for a group show. The overarching concept embodied in the show's title, A Container of Memories, is as open as it is frustrating. Sometimes the most open of briefs are the most difficult.

Apart from the issue of memory, who had been invited to exhibit and why formed part of the intellectual process that might go into the design of the piece. What I knew as the Canberra School of Art in the late 90s (now known as SOA, ANU) had evolved from the courageous notion of a national craft school, based on the atelier system, launched in the early 1980s. An antipodean Bauhaus. The founder of the Woodworkshop, George Ingham, stood down as head of workshop in 1999, to be replaced by Rodney Hayward in 2000. The show was to involve students and visiting artists who had been part of the workshop over the last ten years, but also to perhaps remark upon the aesthetic memory any maker carries after going through a course.

Because my two undergrad years at CSA were those of George leaving and then a temporary head of workshop, the aesthetic baggage I might carry is more of the English modernism that Ingham exemplified than the European sensibilities of the Krenovian tradition that Hayward has brought to the workshop. This is partly due to aesthetic preferences I'd already formed and partly about disposition - I am really more of a tinkerer; hence describing myself as an object maker - it hides a multitude of sins. Curious as to how to solve the problem in the simplest way possible. At times blind to the potential promise of decoration; unmoved by the gaudy qualities of timber. A mechanic's daughter. Rodney's legacy is for me most profoundly centred on his nuanced holistic philosophy of making not just as process but its unique intellectual space, combining head, heart and hand.

So - quite how do you respond to a brief called A Container of Memories?

Last year, the SOA Gallery hosted a retrospective of Ingham's work. And as always Ingham's miraculous virtuosity as a technician sang from the pieces and remains on display in the accompanying book. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the design gods, the sheer achieve of the thing can on occasion render a coldness to some of Ingham's pieces. A Brunellian mechanical clarity that fires one's inner engineer but doesn't quite warm the cockles of your heart. Discussing the show afterward, what I thought really interesting were the number of women who focused on two small cabinets Ingham made in 1990. A metre high by 150mm wide and deep, they were six sectioned cabinets with doors and a back panel each decorated in leather and a narrative line of decoration. Wall mounted, they sat at average eye level so the top of each was about 1800mm from the ground (I stand to be corrected on that figure). I do think George was a very gendered maker, particularly when his work is viewed against the work of his partner, Pru Shaw - but I suspect that was very conscious on Ingham's part. For whatever reasons, those two cabinets were seen as approachable and defined as such in ways that other pieces were not.

A couple of months before my daughter's tenth birthday in April, madam was in full flight about her plans to be an inventor. At ten, she still has a child's form - curiously rectilinear; three sectioned; legs, torso then head. A scale of about 2:3, the top of her head comfortable for resting one's crossed arms on; a large marionette. In full flight, her hands and feet were cutting a dancer's lines through the air, whilst her torso stayed centred and still. In that moment her form, its scale, reminded me of Ingham's two cabinets. But it also raised the issue of memory.

One of the enormous privileges of parenting is having the chance to play Jane Goodall to a gathering of children, to do fieldwork in their natural environments. And the surprising issues and thoughts that are so often raised either by their questions or observing their patterns and actions. Memory is particularly interesting, as the clarity children have about events that adults don't even note, the intense seizing onto some memory as validation of definition of self is no less certain than an adult's. Memory is the only means by which we can truly define the individual self - without our own and the interlocking memories of those around us in our social webs, we are no longer who we may believe ourselves to be. The insistence on memory as validation is just as intense with a four year old child as it is for a eight nine year woman struggling to retain her recall. But memory is not truth, nor concrete, nor permanent. Neurologically, it is a marvel of electro-chemical engineering balancing evolutionary pressures but truth as we might like to define it, has little use to a highly evolved primate as a principle of memory. How the neurons of memory are laid down, under what conditions, and the frequency and how with which it is recalled, profoundly affect each memory. The rise of numeracy and literacy within human cultures is a culturally evolved response to the limitations of human biological memory.
In that moment of my daughter reminding me of a cabinet, lay both the certainty that she wont remember that conversation - it being just a transient moment in the flow of a household - but equally that I will remember, that it will become one of my strongest memories of her as a child as her boundless enthusiasm, potential and embodiment of potential memories (the future is, after all, a memory yet to happen) were encapsulated in the moment of her twirling hands and feet and stilled torso.

So I have a basic form at this point, referencing Ingham's cabinets but I'd like to introduce an element of movement to suggest Mim's physicality as well as scaling and situating the piece in relationship to her ten year old size. Movement also adds a discourse about the cabinet as holder of aide de memoire - in most domestic settings, things, bits, pieces, objects, are grouped on display - in cabinets, on mantelpieces, bookshelves; artfully or otherwise. Things kept, held, are to whatever degree precious - placed objects in a cabinet are more precious yet, an exclamation point of notice. However, usually a display is static, and in Japanese aesthetics, an object worthy of display must be viewed only from a single perspective - honored by the right aspect. The static siting of an object is central to Ingham's two cabinets, the preciousness highlighted by the doors securing the space. Asking someone to place their preciousnesses in something that swings and spins will mean that the object will be viewed from perspectives not at all expected, and is also something of a headfuck - movement threatens the equilibrium of an object. The possibility of one's sixteenth century Korean tea bowl tumbling onto the floor and breaking is not a comfortable prospect for most people.

Initially I'd machined up some boards of blackwood, Acacia melanoxylon - the remainder of a flitch I had bought in about 1992 and carted around since. On dry fit, the grain and tonality were awful - my fine sentimental mutterings about the tree's demise on a roadside in northern NSW after a bout of careless Council spraying were not going to make it work. Urban salvaged oak I'd bought 12 or so years ago from Richard Parsons in North Richmond offered hope, but the boards were extremely deformed and twisted. An oak grown somewhere on the Cumberland Plain near Penrith promised interesting grain but equally promised all the appalling habits of evil bastard wood. The memory of its past life resides in the cambium, years of little rain in tightly lain down cell lines, the patterns of medullary rays opening up in the wet years. It machined up much better than I had expected, but to use 120mm long mitres on 9mm stock means the joints are not at all load bearing. This also meant I had to figure how to hang the cabinet without any of the joinery being weight bearing.

Physics also insisted that for the cabinet to hang true, there had to be some manner of adjustment. As the back is also solid timber, if the cabinet is set to hang when empty absolutely vertical front to back, it will tip forward with any objects in it. Using 1.2mm steel wire captured in automotive electrical grommets wedged onto the 4.76mm steel rod allows for line lengths to be finely adjusted and to hold when the cabinet is fully weighted. As the rods can also be shifted sideways, balance points can be found across the vertical from side to side if necessary. It's pretty simple, but it requires a degree of finesse, an engagement by its user to its built requirements, to remember why the adjustments may need to be made, to develop a routine of tweaking to ensure it sits true, shelf gaps are even, lines run parallel or at even angles. A memory of engagement.

Finally, the cabinet also contains the memory of movement. As it swings and spins, it is responding to the touch of a viewer, a gust of wind, the curiosity of a child, a bump from a dog or passing vacuum cleaner. It is made for a domestic space, and as such will hopefully respond to the ebbs and flows of movement and being. In its name, Swing, what it will do is given but it also ties back to the moment with my daughter. For most of us, a common metaphor of childhood would be those hours spent on a swing - exhilarated, thrilled, terrified, expectant, exultant, comforted, held. Swing offers to hold the things that perhaps matter, the aide de memoire of precious.

A Container of Memories - SOA Gallery, ANU, Canberra
July 8 -31, 2010

Cross-posted at Slow Making