Articles Written / Shifting Truths - Design, Craft and Furniture

Lueckenhausen, H, Shifting Truths - Design, Craft and Furniture,
Craft Victoria Bulletin 2, 1996 pp 1-3

The location of crafts practice within contemporary cultural theory supported by initiatives such as the five part lecture series (with a proclaimed intent of just that) recently presented by Craft Victoria, involves the periodic reassessment of our categories for that which Buchanan and Margolin call the artificial. They maintain that:

Design is the conception and planning of the artificial, that broad domain of human made products which includes: material objects, visual and verbal communications, organized activities and services, and complex systems and environments for living, working, playing, and learning.

In the last of the ‘Cultural Theory & Crafts Practice’ lectures, Justin Clemens reminded us of Foucault’s contention that the definition of craft isn’t fixed, that in fact, what comes to be known as craft in one particular historical and socio-economic circumstance may not be known as such in another.

I propose that this (Postmodern) concept of shifting truths, linked with a reasonably ‘catholic’ interpretation of design (which includes, or at least overlaps with, that of craft) allows me a convenient context within which to continue my exploration of contemporary furniture, begun in Craft Victoria Magazine No 226.

For organizations such as Craft Victoria, as well as its state and national counterparts, the implications of changing definitions of craft include a changing constituency. The politics of maintaining a credible rationale for ongoing public funding beg an exploration of the fine line between a universal vision and the need to focus on a power base. We are all aware of a huge change in the programs and allegiances in crafts organizations since the seventies, as well as a perpetually evolving aesthetic. I am happy to argue for a vision of contemporary crafts practice (with some primary discrete attributes), which overlaps some of the current initiatives in furniture taken by designers, designer makers and designer manufacturers.

When we leave behind the nostalgia attached to traditional materials and methodologies, what remains is the timeless, essential materiality of a sentient world that is common to all—the post-industrial technologies of a new virtual reality notwithstanding. The artificial objects which relate most immediately to our touch are, naturally enough, those predicated on it—clothing, jewellery as well as the things that we not so much drape on ourselves but rather drape ourselves on—furniture. Every designer understands (if not masters) human factors engineering, or ergonomics— the science of making things fit the body. Unconscious exceptions to that fact enrich chiropractors while conscious exceptions have enriched (in more ways than one) a pantheon of famous twentieth century iconographers.

The implication of materiality and touch, of the verb craft, in the sense of work, of skill—of doing—to our culture, may be that it helps to explain why a category (and cohort) of crafts practice retains contemporary relevance. Sometimes one finds support for that view in unlikely places. In the previous article I touched on the bitter disappointment Bruce Filley felt when, as Director of Artists & Industry (A&I) he not only failed to get support from the furniture industry for Australis Cognita but was treated with hostility. How refreshing 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 has that ‘calls a spade a spade’ characteristic described by a supporter as ‘up-front and refreshing’ which may well come from taking failure as much as success in his stride—he makes no bones about Module International “falling over” in 90/91. What makes that fact pertinent to this story is the lesson he learnt 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 in two years 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, with improved networking and a vision. 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.

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 expects the National New Product Parade, an FIAA initiative to be presented in the Melbourne Exhibition Centre this year, with a section dedicated to designer-maker prototypes (do I hear some of the A&I fallen turn in their graves?) to help create effective linkages.

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?

Helen Quinn, along with her architect partner Graeme Coop and the seemingly indefatigable Valerie Austin has agreed to help set up the designer-maker/design student/small manufacturer section of the National New Product Parade. Helen, a relatively recent figure at Melbourne’s small, if sharpening developmental edge, with a catholic set of interests across design, manufacture, education, exhibition, marketing and retailing has quickly become one of the stalwarts on the circuit. Her base is Detail, a small gallery/showroom—a shop front for the partnership: Detail Design
Productions (DDR)—which saw ten shows presented in ‘95.

Having honed her ideas gaining an Honours Degree in Furniture from the University or Tasmania, she realizes them within the current fashion for biomorphic forms, often combining timber fabrication with cast aluminium. Her pieces are few, measured and—as with the work of most of us (designer-makers)—mannered. Each comes with a contextualizing rationale, a monologue that proclaims the place of the artificial object within a broader personal and social narrative.

The next game plan for Detail is for three shows annually and to retail product in between. The four primary objectives are to launch products, to celebrate (where appropriate) examples of professional survival, to create an enabling network and to promote a core cell group. Promotion includes pro-active national and international agency, already well under way with presentations having been made in Singapore and New York. Groups within the cell could include the like of 96A, ISM, MAP, and the Jam Factory. Individuals, as do the groups, reflect Helen’s position at the artist/designer/industry interface in the tradition of much of A&I’s and now, fortuitously, the FIAA’s efforts.

Personal ego, professional responsibility, public conscience, optimistic vision and a generous allotment of energy radiate from DDR and Helen in ever increasing circles. Those circles have also encompassed education and training, Craft Victoria and —circles within circles—Fringe Furniture 10. In 1995 she coordinated the tenth celebration of what has been an annual tug of war between the classical fringe open door policy and a selective, professionally hopeful showcasing. By allowing for two categories: Built Work and Design Ideas she signalled a preference for focussing on research and exploration. Her considerable energy notwithstanding, she has greased the Fringe baton for easy passing.

In 1993 Helen was highly commended three times and commended twice by the judges of Australis Cognita, the national furniture design competition coordinated by A&I. Paradoxically it was that very initiative that damaged A&I’s credibility in the eyes of the Merchants of Australian Product (MAP) partnership. ‘Marking Territory’ an exhibition celebrating ten years of work by partners Christopher Connell (designer) and Raoul Hogg (very much the merchant), the last five years of which has been as MAP, was presented at A&I in March, 1996. Valerie Austin, well meaningly referred to recently as a design zealot, has indeed zealously, and with very little support, made things better, healing rifts not of her own making.

Valerie’s unabashed high modernism undoubtedly sits well with MAP. To quote Raoul, “I don’t think of Australian culture—this whole showroom [referring to the MAP showroom] could be transported to Milan without a hitch. Internationalism is the way—the world is global and so is the world market”. The idea of an essential Australianism doesn’t ring true to him, with the possible exception of a certain freshness of attitude, the freedom of being less governed by historical concepts of how things are meant to be. The down side of that, he recognises, is that Australians don’t have the deep cultural (albeit subconscious) richness within which, for example, some Europeans and Japanese live. Not that Australians are ignorant—it’s just that they “…have had fewer opportunities to have that awareness made manifest”.

MAP ascribes a gutsy can-do attitude to being free of “… institutionalisation, including education, as imposing frameworks of limitation”. The mission statement lists familiar corporate ideologies such as win/win, whatever it takes and increase dividends in the context of dreams, quality, service, imagination and emotional health. “People are starting to realise how good the stuff can make you feel”.

The product integrity MAP claims for itself, including “…integrity to the space…” is on show for everyone to judge—their Pepe chair is firming its place in contemporary iconography. The seamless Internationalism evident in a collection of forms represented by forty products developed in the last five years sit unambiguously within that ideal of beauty accessible “…via geometry, the angle, the dissecting point…” championed by Valerie. The attention to detail, particularly in a production context should appeal to Graeme Cock’s pragmatism. Intensely self-focussed, MAP, at least as represented by Raoul, will however allow of little direct connection with FIAA, much less any indebtedness to other networks.

According to Valerie it is the lack of coordination between the various organizations that is the problem—the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), A&I and the FIAA, amongst others, need a coordinated approach. A&I still attracts people the major interest of whom is design as object. The passion for idea embodied in materiality doesn’t wane, regardless of the transient aesthetic within which it is realised. “There are lots of people with brilliant ideas [the question is], how can they be enfranchised—not only financially, but perhaps intellectually and educationally”. She despairs of the ability of the A&I Board to deal with the resource problems, of her own ability to continue to carry the can and of a lack of government funding for design outside of the arts gift. The long term planning and support needed for product development does not match arts values such as the promotion of the cutting edge, newness and individuality.

If one manages to stick around long enough, one finds one’s self passing the same point for the second or third time. While the issue about the absence of long term funding and infrastructure support for furniture/product development would get FIAA agreement, the supposition that it is less true for the arts, might cause the arts/craft, organization-board weary amongst us to lift an eyelid. Financial resource/infrastructure support, matched with creative (design) inventiveness and in turn with material opportunity is a carrot still not quite within our collective reach.

For an Australian furniture tradition to develop and mature, we also need to look more closely at how our educational and training institutions service the profession. That will mean looking at industrial design, interior design, architecture, TAFE, craft and apprenticeship courses and gaining an overview of their differing (or similar) attitudes to furniture design. We also need to look at the range of responses individuals—who have been educated/trained in these (or other) ways—make to the challenges of working in this area. I will look at these imperatives in a future article.