Articles Written / The Memory Palace

Essay by Prof. Emeritus Helmut Lueckenhausen for the Catalogue for The Memory Palace, a Survey Exhibition of his work covering 37 years of exhibiting, presented by Warrnambool Art Gallery,
11 April – 11 June 2015.

The Memory Palace

“And so you may have in small compass a model of the universal nature made private.”

Francis Bacon ‘Gesta Grayorum’, 1594

I started in the mid 1970s with the question with which my early experience of teaching art and design to Tertiary Orientation Program (a precursor to TAFE) students required me to come to terms– from where do ideas come? When one is creating a context for experiential learning, how does one avoid each student simply regurgitating what they know within a set assignment, whether they know that they know it or not, and instead use the experience to put more in, to take in new knowledge?

Looking back from the vantage point that 2015 offers me, I can piece thoughts and concepts together that occurred developmentally, and certainly not always in a logical or linear sequence over the years of my practice – as well as retire some ideas that have not stood the test of time and survived the benefit of hindsight, and create a philosophical context within which I can hope to understand my work trajectory. The shoulders are ready for an older head.

So, unremarkably within the visual arts, I started with the world we can see – both the natural world and the world mitigated by human endeavor.
Yes I know this is a vast oversimplification - if there is a natural world category, what on earth could an unnatural world category possibly be? However one had to start somewhere, with broad categorisations in order to move gradually to a more encompassing, more subtle, complex, continuum.

If I was going to make this work for my students I had to make it work for myself so I undertook close study through detailed drawing – drawing as seeing more than drawing as expression – of a variety of seedpods and seeding fruits. I then made my first works beginning with a cradle for my daughter evolved from a Currajong (or Kurrajong) seedpod – a cute metaphor to say the least. As to the skills and materials knowledge required that represented a whole other learning curve.

It was not my intention to construct a manifesto - I was a few millennia too late to identify the natural world as muse in artistic expression in any case – but simply to build a teaching program which linked visual study with the extension into new forms in an appropriately mannered way, in a way that gave students struggling with finding a pathway into the creation of new ideas a leg up. And I wanted to do more than find inspiration for surface decoration, rather a catalyst for the development of form not necessarily limited to the core geographic icons of modernism – the square, the circle and the triangle.

Of course all those years of development started, they didn’t end there. One of the most successful eventual flowerings of my work dealt with reconciliation of opposite influences – geometry, architectonic forms with curvilinear, zoomorphic forms, and natural timber colours and textures morphing seamlessly with highly finished lacquers in saturated colours. So rather than struggle with the pure design values of my 60s industrial design education I created a mannered collaboration in which the biological and pretty soon zoomorphic creations of my imagination ‘landed on’ and blended symbiotically with their geometric hosts. Even when my works manifested at their most expressive and/or decorative they were designed on an undercarriage of pure design such as the golden mean.

The word Teraph1 is utilised in many of the titles of this period – cropping up periodically every since. Teraphim are early Hebrew household gods, the idea of the humble, benign and protective kitchen god that also finds a place in many Asian belief systems appealed to my sense of the object as domestic icon finding its place in, and protecting the ritual of home life.

Much of what we do is informed by what has happened in the past but we don’t always understand that, instead moving habitually along well-worn paths that we don’t recognise or attribute appropriately. The debt our contemporary work owes to history, including the continuing role of myth and metaphor – and how that which we inherit affects the choices we make, warrants reconsideration.

We can only conceive questions and answers within whatever frames of reference are available to us. I have come to realise that our contemporary understandings of ourselves, and the social and cultural context in which we exist, have roots that go back to the formative mythologies of our history.

We know that human beings from earlier periods created myths in order to make sense of the world within their, usually limited, frames of reference. The capacity for imagination and abstract thought, which we believe is only given to humans, can manifest as a burden and bring with it the fear of the unknown. Myths gave pattern to existence and allowed people to locate themselves within that pattern, in effect to anchor themselves in an otherwise unfathomable eternity. Inevitably, in periods of history where logic and rationality became the dominant methodologies for inquiry and understanding, faith in the emotional and ritualistic waned proportionately.

Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) and Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE) argued for a philosophical understanding of the world, which privileged logos (logic) over mythos (myth).2

However even at this seminal time in the development of Western thought, logic and myth were not totally separated. As Karen Armstrong has noted in her book, A Short History of Myth:

“…philosophers continued to use myth, either seeing it as the primitive forerunner of rational thought or regarding it as indispensable to religious discourse…despite the monumental achievements of Greek rationalism during the Axial Age, it had no effect on Greek Religion. Greeks continued to sacrifice to the Gods, take part in the Eleusinian mysteries and celebrate their festivals until the 6th Century of the Common Era, when this pagan religion was forcibly suppressed by the Emperor Justinian and replaced by the mythos of Christianity.”3

In a more recent timeframe, the Industrial Revolution and the development of technologies rooted in scientific enquiry saw the culmination of a trajectory towards Modernity in the West, which began at the end of the Middle Ages. Again, and this time in an arguably more encompassing manner, logos triumphed over mythos. The Enlightenment in Western civilization saw the suppression of mythology as a widely utilised strategy for the creation of social anchors.

Importantly, we can recognise that the domestic ritual of homemaking, the assembling of a narrative of personal and social space, also sits within a sort of contemporary mythology – a story about self. Most important in this context is the understanding of the home as a sanctuary – the space, in some cases the last, or only, place, in which the primacy of the occupant’s world and his/her place in it is unchallenged. This is a perceptual-cognitive category that includes a strong emphasis on domestic or personal space, that explores the relationship between people and the objects they gather about themselves to mark and to protect their environment - and which includes a place for the decorative elements to which people are attracted as a form of benign, personal graffiti.

Western design education has, since the early 20th Century movements that flowered most impressively through the Bauhaus and its later successors and satellites such as the Ulm School and the Chicago Institute, contributed to the maintenance of an elite style that even today leaves little room for vernacular and/or other-cultural manifestations of the built and manufactured environment.

What do human beings cling to for comfort and a sense of belonging? It’s contemporary design and high art far less often than planners and modernists and design educators would like. Why? Using ugly and controlling language such as ‘Kitsch’ might make us feel superior but here’s the thing – 99.9% of the world doesn’t care.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, the things we design and produce sit within a range of political, social, commercial, religious, institutional and personal narratives.

Contemporary design frequently emphasises principles of simplicity and understatement and describes approved work with prosaic terms such as having clean lines and being uncluttered. Adolph Loos in his seminal essay Ornament and Crime4 in which he equates decoration with moral degeneracy and laces it with some circa 1908 racist ideas about decoration being uncivilized or, if manifest in the West, as criminal or degenerate, illustrates the quasi-religious mission taken on by the International Style or Modernism (note the difference between Modernism and Modernity - the latter being understood here as the outcome of the enlightenment).

A hundred years on, and in the dialogue of designers, educators, writers, curators, critics and their fellow travelers - the core values of minimalisation and understatement, remain paramount.

In the visual arts and the built environment, the late Twentieth Century development: Post-modernism, created a new space for eclecticism, celebration and visual theatre. As a movement, Post-modernism is currently suffering some reverses and is under attack for being too relativist as a philosophy, having rejected belief in an absolute cannon of truth and beauty, and also for being too much of an undisciplined pastiche as an aesthetic movement.

Both movements (argued by some to be aspects of the same movement) are located in the values and practices of Western or Western-influenced societies. The design community is a manifestation of, and a toolbox for, that phenomenon.

Modernism realised in architectural and urban design, industrial design and industrial production, including furniture and the broad realm of endeavor called the decorative arts, was seen by its early champions as a force for social good and equality – a means, by the agency of which, the everyman could access a quality environment and improve his/her life. This was left wing Modernism, an honourable mission that is still cited in the context of the search for truth and beauty, as a positive social phenomenon by its supporters today – even allowing that some of its developments, such as that of Italian Futurism, which were enlisted in the service of Fascism before the Second World War, became decidedly right wing.

Furthermore, the worst and most alienating manifestations of contemporary design of all categories have periodically been cited as examples of Modernism in the hands of an uncaring power elite. Fritz Lang’s film ‘Metropolis’ is an early criticism of this perceived phenomenon and an unfortunately large proportion of the post World War 2 built environment now reproaches us similarly.

Both political poles involved concepts of social modeling, and yet the aesthetic values lived and celebrated by most members of the public, the essential everyman, remain apart. Evidence and observation simply do not support the idea that the average person orders his/her environment on the basis of an abstract theory of beauty and structure or the development of theories of social good. The sparse and minimal high design interior of the architectural and interior design magazine is actually a minority phenomenon. Most people’s personal spaces - the primal site of the built environment - are populated with an eclectic mix of objects sitting within a personal and/or family history and are chosen within quite prosaic values of comfort and cultural recognition. Human beings are comfortable with what they know, and they know what they have experienced or that which they have inherited – memory is one of humanity’s anchors in a fast changing and sometimes alienating world. Domestic culture, as does Culture writ large, evolves naturally and cannot be ordained or easily manipulated into an agenda.

On a more prosaic level, nor do most people have recourse to an interior decorating movement where external agents propose themes and integrated looks to homeowners who have lost authorship of their own stories. The idea of surrendering one’s living environment, populated by icons of a past and continually evolving personal and family history, to a neutralized, uncentred narrative underestimates the key role of the domestic environment as a meaningful personal space.

We can measure the difference between a themed space and our personal spaces by comparing, for example, our emotional connection with (albeit) good hotel rooms to that of our homes. The hotel interior may not be bad, it may even be very good, but what it demonstrably is not, is located in our own life story – how could it be?

In The Meaning of Things5 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and
Eugene Rochberg-Halton present a study of the significance of material possessions in contemporary urban life, and of the ways people carve meaning out of their domestic environment. Objects with accrued meaning – such as a cup from Grandma’s kitchen turned out to have higher value than expensive art or design work. The authors suggest that human capacities for the creation and redirection of meaning offer the only hope for survival.

Most important in this context is the understanding of personal space as a sanctuary – the space, in some cases the last, or only, place, in which the primacy of the occupant’s world and his/her place in it is unchallenged. I specifically mean an attitude, perhaps a category of design that explores the relationship between people and the environment they construct around themselves to mark and to protect the understanding of who they are - and which includes a place for the decorative elements to which people are attracted as a form of benign, personal graffiti.

All of us, designers, makers, consumers – actors and audience alike – respond to our geographic, cultural and for many, spiritual, context. Our social constructs and behavioral frameworks manifest as patterns and systems. We can categorise ourselves by how we relate, or conversely choose not to relate.

My colleague Professor Allan Whitfield maintains that:

“… categorisation is…one of the elemental ways in which we form meaning. Categorisation involves grouping objects together as similar and distinguishing them from other objects. It further involves being able to identify new objects that we have not seen before, and assigning them to a category…In doing so we also extend our category structure - we expand it and articulate further connections, i.e. we therefore ‘understand’ more.”6

The propensity to create this category structure is embedded in our natures as human beings. Something motivates us, from childhood on, to acquire and elaborate systems for categorisation. Whitfield maintains that the motivation is pleasure, and that this comes from mid-brain emotional centres that are activated during the process of articulating categories. It is for this reason that children learn, otherwise, it is suggested, why would they bother?

Of enduring interest to me, in my attempts to understand where my work might fit into a bigger, historical, picture of material culture has been the Cabinets of Curiosities, particularly those of 16th and 17th Century Europe. Known in the German-speaking world as the Wunderkammer, for some reason the evocative word Wunder is most often reduced in English to the slightly puritan sounding curiosity. I prefer to reflect the appreciation of the marvelous by calling them the Cabinets of Wonder.

Some of the primal motivation for making and collecting ‘cultural artefacts’ (production and consumption) can be read into these historical collections. For the contemporary designer/maker, the Wunderkammer represents an early rationale, the development of a mannered philosophical context, that underlies how we think about the categorisation and display of collections even today. While some contemporary, postmodern, theories challenge long-held beliefs about the nature of human endeavour, of object, and not least the scientific rationalism that has underpinned at least four centuries of institutional classification and presentation, that challenge is itself inherited from the dialogue that accompanied those early collections.

In Naturalia and artefacta, Dagmar Eichberger affirms that “By arranging and ordering those remnants of the real world, the collector defines man's place in the universe according to his own set of values and beliefs.”7

Similarly, this touches on the human tendency to classify by the separation of the similar from the different. The search for a pattern was only made possible by the complementary process of recognising that some things elude the pattern. If everything that is identifiable as essentially other can be excluded, what is left must belong. It occurs to me that the ‘art craft debate’ i.e. is craft art? - which is sometimes claimed to be well and truly over, although certainly not by those who lost the argument within Australian institutional and funding contexts such as the Australia Council - is a case in point.

I usually describe my work within four group headings.

1 Commercial
2 Ceremonial
3 Exhibition
4 Domestic

These groups are not entirely discrete. A good deal of overlap exists between for example, private and public ritual or private and public collection. The groupings may best be seen as a convenient system for organising my narrative - a mind map of sorts.
All four groups are made up of works that have a use function – that is, there is a physical job of work they need to do. That job is one of containment, protection and often display. Some are mannered investigations into functions similar to those of the Wunderkammer. Their use function extends to various manifestations of physical space in the service of human beings, from architectural fittings to miniature containers. However, the use function is not the only reason my work is chosen by collectors and clients, nor does it cover the whole spectrum of functions required of it. The use function is taken as given, the capacity for the work to bring a personal narrative into a working relationship with the client/collector’s historical or intended narrative, and thereby to create provenance is the key decider. This is equally true of individual/personal and collective/corporate narratives. The category of objectives I have attempted to establish is predicated on this narrative being recognised as a function and therefore part of the functionality per se, not a separate aesthetic, or other, aspect of the work.

The narrative within which the works sit is primarily located in the fact and iconography of the works themselves, secondly in the circumstances surrounding their coming into being, thirdly in the meanings ascribed to them by the designer/maker, fourthly in the meanings understood and added to by the owner/collector and finally, by the critiques and commentary of experts in the field.

In the The Memory Palace, Edward Hollis, writes that:

 “… in ancient times, orators who had to learn long passages of speech by heart, believed that they could remember them better by assigning reminders of small parts of them to imaginary places...They called their constellations of reminders and places memory palaces …”8

 Almost 40 years of past conversations through my work flood back and it occurs to me that it both sits within, and is of itself, a continuum of memory palaces within which, and through the agency of which, I have developed a narrative of objects sitting within domestic, as much as high ceremony. Objects that presume to express personal and tribal meaning - and then in the possession of new owners accrue further layers of meaning.

I recently read The Island at the Centre of the World by Russell Shorto – a history of Dutch New Amsterdam – the precursor to New York – in which he writes about the Netherlands as a crucible for enlightened liberal society and argues it’s formative power for the realisation of New York as the quintessential Western liberal, modern-economy city state.

One of his key claims claims is the role of Dutch inspired new thinking at the time on private space and mixed ethnicity.

“The Dutch at the beginning of the (17th) Century were…among the first to separate their homes into public areas (downstairs) and private living space (upstairs). It was the Dutch of this era who invented the idea of the home as a personal, intimate space, one might say they invented coziness (Gemütlichkeit)”.9

 As a migrant child in Australia I witnessed the German friends of my parents clinging to the domestic paraphernalia and environments associated with ‘gemütlichkeit’ – which translates literally as comfort, but can also refer to a total, cultural and socially located, sense of wellbeing. And even then I understood the familiar stuff they gathered around themselves to be a life raft in the sea of cultural strangeness and insecurity surrounding their new home.

Again, as industrial design students in the late 60s we were much given to the use of disparitive terms such as kitsch to describe the decorative, culturally diverse paraphernalia of bourgeois domesticity with all the arrogance of youthful creatives comparing the failings of the actual achievements of others with the imagined successes of their as yet unrealised futures.

 A few years and a bit of extra perspective does afford one some extra insights and, one hopes, greater humility.

In a private note written during the period I was discussing my PhD work with him, my colleague Prof. Whitfield at Swinburne University of Technology, generously summed me up within his professional framework of cognitive psychology as follows - so, again, to him, the penultimate word.

Explaining Helmut

“Categorisation is a basic function of life. It involves separating the similar from the different. Mentally, we make sense of the world by constructing categories into which we put items that are similar. Some of the categories are so important that they are wired in to us, and the rest we acquire from learning. However, the propensity to create this category structure is wired in to us. So is the motivator that from childhood encourages us to engage in this; that is, to acquire and elaborate our category systems. This great motivator is, of course, pleasure, and this comes from mid-brain emotional centres that are activated during category articulation. That is why children learn.

Much is known about how cognitive categories are internally structured and differentiated from one another. We recognise objects by matching the features of things in the external world against the features that we have stored within our cognitive categories. In order to do this at microsecond speed, we match external features against prototypes that are stored within categories. A prototype contains the most typical features of that category. For example, the most prototypic features of our bird category are likely to be feathers and fly. Legs and wings would not differentiate as well. Having made the match between external features and stored prototypes, then memory systems are triggered that provide stored information about the external object that we have recognized. After all, there is not much point in recognizing something without knowing what that something does. Without this additional capacity our ancestors would have been eaten.

Your work exploits this latent predisposition towards categorical learning. It does so by providing an interesting interplay on the theme of categorical identity. There appear to be four distinct categories present within your work, and these operate at two levels of salience. At the higher level of salience are the basic level categories of furniture and sculpture. In processing your work the brain accesses both. At a secondary level we access what might be called a mythological category and a highly synthetic category (a kind of ‘Memphis’ style). The former derives from the shapes/forms that are employed, while the latter derives from the colours. So, we have what might be called a plot and a sub-plot. In combination, they create a categorical incongruity that we (the brain) are challenged to unravel and incorporate into our category structures. The skill of the work is not in having four distinct categories. After all, anyone can put four categories into a piece of work. Rather, the skill is in so integrating the four that they fuse into a new apparent category. How this is achieved is not known. What is clear, however, is that you are tapping into the brain’s propensity to construct categorical meaning. In this sense the fusion creates a new categorical entity and, by implication, new categorical knowledge. This is not linguistic knowledge; rather, it is perceptual-cognitive knowledge.

One measure of the existence of this new knowledge is whether a new category actually forms. Interestingly, a perceptual-cognitive category now exists that contains the prototypic features of your work. That is how people recognise a Helmut Lueckenhausen.”

For myself - I have now come to think of the works of my imagination, of my hands and the hands of my collaborators, as Teraphim hearth and kitchen spirits, occupying the quiet corners of our memory palaces. I wrote about one of the domestic works in this exhibition something that could be true of all:

“Yet Another Heir can be placed anywhere and at its most prosaic this work could contain fruit, eggs or some collection of decorative objects.
At its most poetic it manifests as a domestic reliquary.”

Professor Emeritus
Helmut Lueckenhausen
PhD, FDIA, FRSA, JBK(H)(Malaysia)


2 K. Armstrong, ‘A Short History of Myth’, Canongate Books Ltd., 2005, p. 102.
3 K. Armstrong, ‘A Short History of Myth’, pp. 102-103.
4 A. Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’, Ariadne Press, 1998
5 M. Csikszentmihalyi and E. Rochberg-Halton, ‘The Meaning of Things, Domestic Symbols and the Self’, Cambridge University Press, 1981
6 A. Whitfield, ‘Aesthetics as Pre-linguistic Knowledge: A psychological Perspective, p4.
7 D. Eichberger, ‘Naturalia and Artefacta: Dürer's drawings and the concept of nature in early private collections'. Paper presented at conference, Albrecht Dürer and Cultural Transformations in 16th Century Germany, Melbourne, University of Melbourne, 1994, p. 11.
8 E. Hollis, ‘The Memory Palace, a Book of Lost Interiors’, Portobello Books, 2013
9 R. Shorto, ‘Island at the Centre of the World; The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America’, Doubleday, 2005

Reference in this essay has been made to:

H. Lueckenhausen, PhD, ‘Iconism, Narrative and Contemporary Mythology in Design – Creating a Perceptual Cognitive Category’. 2006

H. Lueckenhausen, Grand Designs and Grandmas Vase. Design symposium "Urban Living", organised by the HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd, the MFG Innovationsagentur für IT und Medien and the Design Center Stuttgart, Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, 2014.

H. Lueckenhausen, Quiet Conversations – speech made for the opening of Quiet Conversations - ceramics survey exhibition, Skepsi@ Montsalvat August 17 2014