Articles Written / A New Suit - Craft in Contemporary Design and Production.

Lueckenhausen, H, and Austin, V. A New Suit - Craft in Contemporary Design and Production.
Proceedings – Designing Minds Symposium, University of South Australia, Adelaide, 2000, pp 49-52

The published aims of this conference - to create a better understanding of actual and possible relationships between craft, design and manufacturing in Australia - echo arts and industry developments which have been occurring throughout the country since the 1970s. Crafts practice, having lost yet more battles in its 100-year war for acceptance by the arts into their exclusive academy, remembered its historical role as the precursor to modern, industrialized production and looked for a contemporary manifestation there.

Crafts organizations, for example Craft Victoria, witnessed the parallel appearance of the designer / maker phenomenon and toed the fine line stretched between public funding and private practice. People, such as me, who were perceived as being able to bridge crafts and design practice, were invited in.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century arts organizations in Victoria are agonizing over the recently announced decision by Richard Pratt, the billionaire modern day Medici, to redirect the support of his foundation away from the arts and towards social services. In Victoria at least, the unique generosity of the Pratt Foundation has helped to disguise the gap between diminishing public and rare private and/or corporate funding endemic in this country - which leaves Australians with neither the European model of state support nor the US model of private sponsorship. Now, as in the 1980s, a model of practice which allies creative endeavour with the rewards of the market via commercially attractive product has the attraction of marrying a conceptual with a financial strategy in an invigorated context for the crafts.

In Victoria, in the late 1980s Arts + Industry Pty Ltd (A+I), a non profit company with arts gift and corporate (Jennings Industries) seed funding was set up to realize that strategy by doing what the name suggests—creating a context to allow the kind of creative exploration undertaken by artists, craftspeople and designer/makers to be credited as R&D for manufacturing.

Anna Griffiths became the first director and all that was needed (it was suggested) was to create links with industry, create a new partnership, increase the creative component—read design quality—of Australian products, and all players would benefit. The brief for Artists and Industry was originally understood to be to provide linkage, to broker between artist/designers and manufacturers. One method involved scraping together funds to pay designers for concept drawings. Bruce Filley, later to become the second director of A+I was one of those designers, but the next step never happened, it didn’t go ahead. When he took on the job of brokering for others he became disillusioned with the catch 22 inherent in not having successes to cite to skeptical manufacturers without the support of whom those successes could never eventuate.

The membership of A+I was mostly made up of young students, the work of whom was often highly expressionistic – and who mostly didn’t design for any particular target market. Their work was perceived by manufacturers as 'one off' art work, not designed for use by a mass market and therefore not suited for production runs. Much of the work was seen as 'fringe art' rather than design or, for that matter, craft product. The brokering role gradually evolved into that of an incubator for new, small manufacturing ventures. The participants had come to the conclusion that the emergence of designer makers was a clue to the potential for seeding new, albeit small-scale, manufacturing opportunities rather than for grafting creative skill onto a (as they were discovering, resistant) manufacturing sector. Finally, the strategy became that which many creative individuals, including design graduates without an identified conduit to a manufacturing and distribution capacity, had already discovered: showcasing excellence through exhibition and product presentation.

With the original funding from Jennings Industries coming to an end the only hope was to realize some tangible showpieces, if not in manufacture then at least with the potential for manufacture. When the running of the Fringe Furniture show, an aspect of the Melbourne Fringe Arts festival became available, Artists and Industry took it over. The shared vision of the first Fringe Furniture show was of furniture as an expressive manifestation, of the functional object as art. The reality for those involved was architectural jobbing which in turn funded some experimental work

Designer makers were thrilled, the fringe was entertained, manufacturers couldn't have cared less. Ironically, when the sixth Fringe Furniture exhibition, was moved to an up market city central venue, the image lifted to approximate that of mainstream furniture marketing, it created a schism. By bringing it closer to the interests of the participants interested in design, production and marketing, it alienated the fringe politics constituency.

Policy implications for Artists and Industry via the classical SWOT test were seen as: strengths - designer/makers, weaknesses - manufacturers were not interested, opportunities - this was the big question, threats - designers were not skilled enough in business and professional practice. A critical decision was taken. If links with manufacturers were to remain elusive, the small-scale production capacities of designer/makers might provide the tangible products that were desperately needed for showcasing and to get into manufacture by the back door. The result was a new program - Retail Active.

The method used was to set up advisory panels to critique, even to workshop ideas brought forward by designer/makers. Retailers such as Ross Maddern could comment on packaging, labeling and presentation, an accountant on costing - whatever critical advice was needed to make the idea work on all levels could be had through this process. A good idea but impossible to resource in the long term from the arts gift alone. That key corporate sponsor, the industry visionary to replace Jennings and match Ministry funding was never found. Bits of project funding were garnered from a variety of sources but no solid core was established.

The original brief of Artists and Industry to embrace a broad range of products seemed by this stage to have been replaced with one of privileging furniture. Opportunism, always a factor in planning, surfaced in this case in the person of Walter Jehne who had been funded by the National Industry Extension Service (NIES) to work with the Furniture Manufacturers Association of Australia (FMAA) to put together the Furniture 2000 agenda.

Thus came about the next platform for Artists and Industry - Furniture Cognita, a national furniture competition the goals of which were not surprisingly, quite close to its original brief. Juried winners were to have their designs prototyped. Interest from designers was, as ever, overwhelming but the initial expressions of interest from manufacturers were not matched by action and funds raised were way under target. None the less, eleven prototypes were realized, three were sent to the FMAA promotion in Japan and one was bought and further prototyped by an American company. The lack of take-up by representatives of the Victorian furniture industry while disappointing was not in itself surprising but the intensity of the hostility directed at Bruce and Cathy Demos, coordinators of Furniture 93 or Furniture Cognita, was.

The uncomfortable fact about innovation is that it is threatening to those responsible for the status quo. New ideas imply a deficiency in those who haven't had them. How refreshing it was then, to hear Graeme Cock of the Furniture Industry Association of Australia (FIAA) wax lyrical about the potential for designer-makers and craftspeople to add to the national stock of value.

A principal of Module International, a company which logged up twenty-eight years of achievement in the national and international arena, Graeme Cock has worked with the Featherstones and the Lowens in as ‘main’ a furniture game as ever there was in Australia. He makes no bones about his company, Module International, “falling over” in 90/91. What makes that fact pertinent to this story is the lesson he learned from that and which he now carries with him—”we chased price instead of design”.

Graeme is (as much as is anyone) the architect of the FIAA’s transformation from the reflection of the stodgy conservatism of the industry (of which the creative fraternity so despairs) to a national body with a national voice, representing 95,000 individuals associated with 3000 companies. He is less positive about sectors of the industry itself, which he claims is staggering on by default, with producers and retailers copying each other and trying to undercut each other in a negative spiral within which creativity and quality feature all too rarely.

How disappointing then, to hear the consequent criticism that these were empty words, his real agenda, it was claimed, being a pitch to use designer maker’s work to value add to the pine timber trade.

What is needed most, is for resources to be utilized around design. In a happy parallel for those designer makers and craftspeople who have found it difficult to bridge their concerns with those of the mainstream manufacturers, Graeme advocates for material awareness, with all its value-added implications to be re-affirmed within the design process, within the process of marketing—and not least—within the process of selling. It is, as much as anything, retail support that designer makers and craftspeople need. He believes that if we can credit the design profession in Denmark for building on a tradition of (amongst others) boat building to create an internationally recognized industry—without Australia’s advantage of having an abundance of raw materials—how much easier to credit the potential of design creativity, skill and material as the core of a major export initiative?

Just in time for Furniture '95,Valerie Austin became A+I’s new Director, and curator of the exhibition. Her desire was to see the "re-invention of the simplicity and poetry of minimalism: The way a thing can be absolutely right without artifice, decoration or pretension". Dismissive of previous connections to the fringe culture, she looked, in her words to the "big community of people" who want to see more lineal, hard edged designer products, who in her opinion appreciate the beauty of Modernism via geometry, the angle, the dissecting point, who understand and love the architect influenced product. The confusion between real design and craft and art product had, in her opinion, grown out of the Arts and Crafts movement of the 20's which magpied the political space from modern design. "Design is a discipline, very often craft is something else."
Echoing the zeal of Adolph Loos who felt decoration was not only 'shit' it bordered on the immoral and the criminal, she could not help but find the exuberant theatricality of the Fringe (and by implication much crafts practice) celebrated not only over designed kitsch but also the immorality of conspicuous consumption.

The unresolved dilemma of an industry far from convinced of the value of local design input, against the perennial problem of there being no shared idea about what excellence, or for that matter design actually means, saw the doors of A+I close at the end of 1996

Could it be that the original model was too much part of the arts as tourism agenda of Arts Victoria? Had culture become an industry in Victoria serving an entertainment and tourist audience? The result was that the funding for failure model was enshrined—too much (from Arts Victoria) to stop and too little (from Industry) to succeed. The suggestion remains that there now needs to be a shift by Government and Industry groups to a support of design ideas.

In respect of A+I, Valerie maintains that a new way of exhibiting was needed, a way which can reach a target audience and create a debate about issues of design, of production, of use, of the environment and of the consumer economy. The field needed to be scrutinized and critiqued. The A+I manifestation of her time annually exhibited a range selected from the work of over 500 applicants. Highly resolved installations placed work focussed on the design/manufacturing nexus within the aesthetic of the professional design fraternity. The expectations of all players was high, the realization, as we now know, disappointing.

That which the design fraternity accepts as good design is appreciated by a very small share of the market. The word design, like the fine arts, can be interpreted as a culture (in extremes, even as a faith, with its own consecrated deities)
and in a contemporary critical context we might ask: is it the designer’s idea of goodness, rather than the public level of appreciation, which requires further debate? The craft making and consuming section of our material culture refuses to fade away and the actual continued existence of craft practice is beyond policy makers and design (as a culture) zealots to determine. Therefore both craft goods and goods manufactured outside of the minimalist good design cannon, which between them constitute the greater part of all goods created, distributed and used by the peoples of the world need to be engaged with in any serious consideration of material and economic culture.

Current uses of ‘designer/maker’, certainly as exemplified in the Designing Minds conference and exhibition beg the question of whether we are really exploring the borders of craft, design and production or reliving the replacement of craft design by industrial design.

Looking past the glossy product presentation we in the design fraternity love, how much closer are we to highlighting key points about the future of craft, design and industry in Australia? What questions arise from those points?

Firstly, how can we assure that Australian material culture attributes the contribution made to it by its manufactured products? Unless we learn to understand the place of designers in the partnership that leads to that part of our culture, what is the point of continuing to educate them? Our systems and models for educating the designers and creative workers of the future will be a key element.

The colleges of advanced education, the technical stream of tertiary learning rooted primarily in a teaching culture (within which the last vestiges of the atelier model of art learning has maintained a struggling presence) have now become new—or been absorbed by existing—universities. The end of Australia's binary system of tertiary education, when the two streams were melded, heralded a struggle between a complex range of imperatives, amongst which vocational training has proven to be somewhat vulnerable.

On the other hand which, if any, of the new imperatives guiding craft and design education can be said to be better preparing creative people of all persuasions to contribute to our material culture?

Ernest Boyer, President of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, USA, in his book Scholarship Reconsidered, recognizes the full range of scholarly activity by university educators. Boyer suggests four inter-related categories of academic endeavour: the scholarship of discovery, the scholarship of integration, the scholarship of application and the scholarship of teaching will help us to identify those imperatives. (Boyer, 1997:15-25)

The first, discovery, comes closest to the traditional concept of research; that is, the advancement of knowledge. This should, in principle, relate beautifully to creative study, development and innovation.

The second, integration, may be the most challenging. It involves making multi-disciplinary connections and asking what discoveries or findings may mean.

The third, application, is about the service that knowledge, skills, and talent can perform. This is the area in which scholarship can be linked to vocational, applied outcomes, providing the location for the traditions and essence of crafts making which retain contemporary relevance, and for the potential loss of which so much concern is currently being voiced.

The fourth, teaching, similarly links the teacher's knowledge with the student's learning. It is a dynamic, intense activity and does more than create a neutral intellectual space, it fills that space. The old art school model of occasional oversight by the master is not sufficiently pro-active to qualify. That is the hard lesson for teachers struggling with rapid change..

The second question re the future of craft, design and industry is: how do we as a country produce well designed products for the broader consumer market? Are there any reliable parameters for what constitutes good design, as opposed to fashion and style? If we can arrive at some (even limited) consensus, how do we encourage the uptake of what we believe to be good design by the buying public? Despite the socialist, inclusive values of early Modernism, design icons are now reproduced as luxury items. As the name suggests it is the essential iconism that has evolved cultural and economic value. We have arrived at a point of philosophical conundrum where Postmodernism includes the mimicry of Modernism.

Thirdly, manufacturers will not of themselves volunteer support for artists and their one-off products—especially when imported ideas and goods have already been tested and are more immediately profitable.
It can be argued the best design grows from R&D and an analysis of market need. For at least part of A+I’s history a gulf had existed between the exhibitor’s perception of what they were doing and what manufacturers wanted. At the time Valerie took over the management of A+I, a history of exhibitions showing mainly one-off, highly idiosyncratic works to the total disinterest of the industry had entrenched itself. Whether this problem was centred mainly on the conservatism of the manufacturers or the lack of applied focus of the exhibitors or both was the issue then and remains an issue for all of us, including those of us at this symposium.

The catch 22 for Australian design is that at the same time as the
manufacturing sector is importing design ideas and confusing market research with copying ideas from European trade fairs, our designers are going off shore. A culture of designer / makers has evolved over the last decade, which manifests as a small core of self-funded designers, who of their own initiative, and in order to survive and prosper, exhibit overseas.

In respect of the State’s role, the question remains: should design and craft production regain political currency within state arts/cultural funding infrastructure. This area cannot continue to fall between stools—between that of the arts gift and that of government support for industry, manufacture and export. A+I itself fell between two debates: the larger one of the government’s role (or lack of it) in economic development and the cultural, sociological debate of the place of individualism and self-expression within a broad social production / distribution grand plan.

So what new initiatives, what developments can be characterized as the baton, if not dropped, then at least left floating by A+I ?

Valerie was keen to change the yearly showcase into a coordinated annual curated program, Importantly the membership was to have been expanded to include all disciplines, including architecture. The mother of the arts was to have been asked to move back in—and use her superior record of achievements in critiquing and self-analysis to foster a similar critical dialogue for the whole family. A permanent exhibition space similar to Berlin’s Galerie Aedies, at street level, allowing for a continuous parade of work, targeted (once again) to particular manufacturers and a client base—and paid for by the exhibitors themselves,—was a primary component of Valerie’s strategy. The professions themselves have not seen sufficient credit in cooperating to create, and fund, curated exhibition presentations in that space between the arts gift and industry support.

Prizes such as the Victorian Design Awards, particularly the new Australian awards, need to have a more considered conceptual base than that of the traditional model of awarding the hero designer. More scope will be required for a coordinated critique or evaluation process, related to the realities of manufacturing and industry, market needs and broader cultural concerns.

To engage in this discussion one needs to be aware that there is more to design and craft than the product. The territory inhabited by the icons (and humbler manifestations) of the highest ideals of twentieth century Modernism, in which the designer is the key to the design fraternity’s claim on industrial material culture is too small, of itself, to engage the great pantheon of human desire, even when that desire is limited to the relatively small category of manufactured things.

We should now ask: how do we best educate designers, in order to promote design in Australia?
How do we link growth in design with growth in production?
What active links do we need to create between design and innovation and a culture of entrepreneurialism?
How do we create a supportive infrastructure of Government tax and export policies? Australian furniture and other domestic products, for example, are not currently competing in world markets because of taxation disincentives to export initiatives.
What are the broader philosophical questions? Is there a dichotomy between developing niche markets and universal thinking?
This may be one of the larger questions (and such as it is, debates) of twentieth and now twenty-first century material culture. How big, how global, is the picture—and what part does Australia need, and want, to play in it?