Material Culture
Aspects of contemporary Australian craft and design

Introduction | Foreword | Structure | Narrative | Transfomation | Artist biographies | Biography


Mark Edgoose 'Circle' 2001 titanium, aluminium and nylon brush, National Gallery of Australia Mark Edgoose 'Circle' 2001 titanium, aluminium and nylon brush Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Australian craft and design has been collected by the National Gallery of Australia since its establishment in 1973 and forms an important part of its historical and contemporary Australian art collection.1 The earliest works in the Gallery's collection are from the period of first European settlement in Australia and illustrate how the European design styles of the late 18th century were interpreted through the learned or acquired skills of the settlers. The objects that they produced reflect their new environment and show their responses to the unfamiliar raw materials at their disposal. Standard techniques and working methods for European woods did not readily translate to Australian native timbers or achieve the same design results, and this led to regional variations on fashionable English and European styles, and eventually to a strong vernacular tradition.

Such adaptations continued to influence the design of Australian objects through the 19th century, culminating in the adoption of the principles and stylistic language of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a style that would serve the burgeoning nationalism of the Federation period of around 1900 to 1910.2 Craft training, within the growing field of technical education, began to offer a more professional approach to the production of functional and decorative objects and advance the use of an Australian idiom in design. The 20th century saw various craft skills brought to edge of extinction through disuse or irrelevancy, while others, often debased, served as a foundation for rehabilitation and to educate several generations of students in the applied arts.

Material culture gathers from the planned as much as from the spontaneous, the banal as much as the enlightened, the local and the global. It can translate into poetry or dross, the mawkish or the transcendent and its progress is as much about timing as it is about technical or artistic achievement. The flowering of Australian studio crafts in the period from about 1965 to 1985 was not planned, but it progressed with committed and timely support from Government funding agencies and craft organisations.3 It has left a unique material legacy of extraordinary innovation that remains undervalued, lightly assessed and somewhat in eclipse at the beginning of the 21st century, even though it has spawned a new generation of craft artists. It is possible to examine work of that period and gain insights into a material culture that reflected the Australian environment, yet acknowledged the achievements of overseas craft practitioners and designers as they too interpreted their own traditions in the spirit of modernism.

Today, a blind adherence to tradition is seldom part of the practice of an Australian craft artist or designer. The artists whose work engages us have not subsumed their values to those of another time or culture, but sought to give form to the realities of this time and place. However, searching for an identifiable Australian style in contemporary craft can be futile. What unites the works illustrated in this catalogue is a sure and confident sense of inquiry into the nature of materials, the observation of structure, the inherited and indigenous traditions of design and manufacture, the natural environment and the human body itself.

Janet DeBoos 'Large vase' 2001 glazed porcelain, National Gallery of Australia Janet DeBoos 'Large vase' 2001 glazed porcelain Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

The objects in Material Culture demonstrate an easy physicality, a sense of lightness, a confidence, a precision and their makers' pleasure in controlling and manipulating materials. Each object is a theatre for experimentation and interaction where intuition, design and the mastery of skills are a cause for celebration. This is an art that communicates through the head, the heart and the hand.

In a world that seems to be increasingly volatile and unpredictable, crafts operate in an environment of control and discipline over materials and form. Their uniqueness contradicts globalisation and the corporatisation of the world of commodities.4 Their makers eschew mass production and work to avoid compromises that can come from designing and building to cost, material availability and production schedules. The values implicit in a slower, more intuitive creative process are transmitted through the finished object; its complexities of surface, form and texture invite intimacy and the inquiring gaze. The shifting relationship of an object with light and its interaction with its surrounding space and environment is shown in the work of many contemporary makers, who are increasingly at ease collabor-ating with other professionals such as architects and interior designers.

Objects that are the result of a long process of design decisions, compromises on materials and manufacturing, marketing analysis and merchandising imperatives can often fail to engage us emotionally. Their appeal can appear as manufactured as their marketing strategies and the short-term thrill of fashion fails to sustain them beyond a season of coordinated marketing and promotion. Cutting across the mainstream can be misunderstood in an environment that encourages planning, five-year strategies, measurable outputs and outcomes. The handmade comes with a nervous uncertainty that allows it to transcend the merely fashionable, to posit a set of values that must be encountered, if not embraced before hidden subtleties can be contemplated.

The celebration of the local, the regional, the private and the personal, and the value of experience and memory, is territory that many contemporary designers and makers seek to articulate and make real. For them, the interpretation of the achievements of the past is both a technical and aesthetic challenge and a statement about the loss of values in mainstream culture.

The growing anxiety at the ease by which systems can be corrupted by such things as viruses or terrorism gives us cause to question the processes, the use of resources and the consequences of any form of production.5 In designing and making objects, craft artists are perhaps more aware than others of the value of materials and labour.

Kevin Perkins 'Cape Barren Goose cabinet' 1995, Huon pine, crossfire and birdseye Huon pine veneers, satin sycamore, Ceylon ebony, purpleheart, bevelled glass and silver, National Gallery of Australia Kevin Perkins 'Cape Barren Goose cabinet' 1995, Huon pine, crossfire and birdseye Huon pine veneers, satin sycamore, Ceylon ebony, purpleheart, bevelled glass and silver Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

For example, jewellers have had to consider the politics of precious metal and gem production and distribution; textile and fashion designers, the implications of using cheap offshore labour and environmentally damaging production processes, and furniture designers, the depletion of indigenous timber resources. The natural environment of Australia has been a source of pleasure and compelling subject matter for artists for thousands of years. Indigenous craft practices used scarce animal and plant resources for the refined, minimal kit of tools necessary for survival as well as for expressing myriad regional cultures.

In a world that is simultaneously widened by globalism and narrowed by local and regional issues, the dilemma for craft artists and designers is finding supportive and appreciative audiences and clients. A growing number is increasingly defined by the images of their work on websites, in specialist design and craft journals as well as in the popular fashion and lifestyle press, yet they are still limited in their ability to deliver it in reality. We may be global in our reach, but the long distances between Australia's cities and overseas markets remain, presenting artists with the continual problems of the cost and logistics of freight and supply. The importance of collecting contemporary craft and developing knowledgeable audiences has been recognised nationally, regionally and locally through the acquisition and exhibition policies of public and institutional museums and art galleries.6 The resulting collections reveal a rich and diverse interpretation of contemporary Australian material culture and the viability and relevance of craft practice as part of both visual art and design.

Works by 34 Australian craft artists and designers, recently acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, are included in this catalogue. They are grouped on this website as they are in the exhibition, to illustrate themes of structure and material expression, narrative and history, and the transformation of materials and meaning. Collectively, they show aspects of the eloquence and diversity of contemporary Australian craft practice as it engages with the currents, issues and contradictions of urban life. Individually, each invites us into the world of makers as they articulate materials in the service of imagination.

Robert Bell
Senior Curator, Decorative Arts and Design


Robert Baines 'La Columbella tea and coffee set' 1992-1994, titanium and sterling silver, National Gallery of Australia Robert Baines 'La Columbella tea and coffee set' 1992–1994, titanium and sterling silver Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

1. See John McPhee, Australian Decorative Arts in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1982, p.7.
2. See Robert Bell, 'Designing the Australian experience' in John McDonald, Federation: Australian Art and Society 1901–2001, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2000, pp.22651.
3. See Grace Cochrane, The Crafts Movement in Australia - A history, Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1992, pp.11318, pp.24854.
4. See Noris Ioannou, 'Old paradigms for new: designer-makers' models and the dilemma of globalism versus regionalism' in Robert Crocker (ed.) Designing Minds – Contemporary issues in craft, design and industry (Proceedings of the Designing Minds Symposium), Adelaide: University of South Australia, 2000, pp.2328.
5. See Helmut Lueckenhausen and Valerie Austin,'A new suit craft in contemporary design and production' in Crocker, op cit, pp.4952.
6. For commentary on the development of collections of Australian craft and design in three Australian state art museums, see Decorative Arts and Design From the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 1991; Robert Bell, 'Craft and design' in State Art Collection – Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1997; Christopher Menz, Australian Decorative Arts – 1820s–1990s: Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 1996.