Australiana: Self-respect

Jun 30, 2009

by ANDREA JONES

Call it nostalgia, maybe even patriotism – but you would never call it kitsch. The latest explosion of Australiana in design is a sophisticated homage to our landscape and cultural icons.

Consider Johnny Chamaki’s Outlaw chair: a sinewy interpretation of artist Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly art work. Chamaki says his chair is inspired by a fond memory of creating a Ned Kelly mask at school.

More recently, Catherine Martin, production designer on the film Australia, was inspired by her research into outback homes and interiors of the early 20th century. The upshot has been the launch of Martin’s range of wallpapers and rugs, the Australiana Suite, depicting lyrebird feathers, eucalyptus and wattle silhouettes. She describes her designs as “patterns that have a sense of sophistication, fun, luxury and also a sense of history”. Later this year, she’ll launch a companion range of bed linen and homewares.

“There’s a new sophistication emerging in the interpretation of Australian motifs in contemporary Australian design,” says design curator Anne-Marie Van de Ven of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. “I doubt that it’s just nostalgia. I think there’s a maturing in the linking of simple historic elements with sophisticated design. There’s a new confidence there.”

It’s a view shared by Yosi Tal, whose company Designer Rugs commissions Australian designers – among them Catherine Martin – to apply their signature motifs to limited-edition rugs. “When we started, back in the 1980s, there was a view that in order for something to be good, it had to be from Europe or the US. But I think we have come of age in the last 10 years. Australians are in demand today: look at Akira [Isogawa] and Easton Pearson in fashion, our foodies are popular, even our Holden utes are very big. And people like Marc Newson are taking Australian design to the world. It’s a much-maligned phrase, but we do punch above our weight in the world.”

When Tal’s company recently adapted art works by the late Aboriginal designer Minnie Pwerle onto rugs, the response was global – even Tommy Hilfiger ordered one for the fashion label’s Amsterdam headquarters.

It could be that the recent popularity of Aboriginal art is partly responsible for this enthusiasm for Australian symbols in design. As Van de Ven says, “The huge contemporary art movement has allowed us to revisit and reinterpret Australian motifs in an abstract and natural way.”

Curiously, one of the leading exponents of this new view in design is an Englishwoman. Julie Paterson arrived in Australia 20 years ago after a career designing traditional floral fabrics for the English interior-design market.

Mesmerised by the colours, shapes and strangeness of the Australian landscape after she had spent years creating pallid watercolours, Paterson designed striking new textiles such as Kangaroo Paw, Looking For Water and Two Up. Her company, Cloth, supplies these designs to luxury resorts and designer homes, as well as selling them by the metre to craft and decorating enthusiasts.

If you’re an expatriate feeling homesick, how about Rock Martin’s Kangaroo Seat? Melbourne designer Drew Martin says, “For me, the kangaroo is something familiar, something that feels comfortable. I’m from Far North Queensland and I grew up in the bush around kangaroos.” Just in case you’re wondering, Martin says, “People have often said, ‘Hang on, that’s the Qantas kangaroo.’ But there is actually quite a huge difference in the shape.” Look closely – it’s all in the tail.

Also pushing our nostalgia buttons are old bus and tram destination blinds – now popular as wall art. Perhaps you caught the No.42 tram to Melbourne’s Mont Albert as a schoolkid? Well, now you can celebrate it in your living room. In fact, Sydney designers Alice Flynn and Marika Jrv of PrintDolls have adapted the real thing onto smart, screen-printed canvases they’ve called All Stops To

“They are not actual reproductions,” Jrv says. “Original blinds tend to have the destinations listed in alphabetical order. We wanted ours to be geographically based, so it would relate more to the actual areas [in which] people lived.” Among their expanding range are the Palm Beach blind, listing all of Sydney’s popular northern and peninsula beaches, or the Geelong-Torquay blind, which takes in all the scenic stops along the Great Ocean Road.

But when it comes to playful designs, you’d be hard-pressed not to laugh at Suzie Stanford’s Tea Towel Chairs, whose covers are stitched together with old-fashioned souvenir tea towels. “I have been blown away by the response,” Stanford says. “I have had commissions from judges in the Northern Territory, TV personalities wanting to bring a piece of their family background into their lounge room, even international commissions for mining-themed chairs.”

All of these designs point to a renewed enthusiasm for depicting the Australian experience but, best of all, they’re touched with an Australian larrikin streak. As Drew Martin urges, “Take ’em home and make yourself smile every day when you look at them.”

Source: Qantas The Australian Way July 2009
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