The Australian Chair Survey exhibition featured at the Gallery of Australian Design, ACT from June 16–July 23, 2011.
Review by Rodney Hayward reprinted from Wood Review magazine, issue 72.
While you’re up, get me a Grants’ was a tag line in a late 1950s ad for Grants scotch whiskey. The request was from a man in a chair that told the reader precisely the kind of power and affluence to associate with Grants whiskey. The Eames lounge chair used in that ad has, over the years, appeared in scores of other promotional campaigns for exactly the same reasons: it is both extraordinarily photogenic and connotative of status.
A brand is a concocted thing to assign consistency and meaning. Narratives create and legitimise brands: memories and associations are acquired and evoked. Through our furniture, these could have the connotation of a lifestyle that frames and carries the signification of ‘Australian’. Is there an Australian posture—broad, expansive, even sprawling?
The low chairs of Jon Goulder (Amore Mio, 2010), Chris Hardy (Oru, 2010) and Charles Wilson’s (Heron, 2009) are all great stages from which to deliver incisive wisdom to a circled attentive gathering. Yet, with the body reposed, the mind instantly jumps ahead to the unsettling question of getting out of the chair. Actually, getting off the floor with our freshly disciplined or rested bodies is the problem with Simon Alexander Cook’s Mercy Seat series (1993–2010) and Nicola Macklin’s strip of artificial turf, Second Nature (2009).
This diversity flags one of the challenges of this exhibition. Is this really a survey of Australian Chair Design? Through her personal, ‘outsider’ choices, the curator Ramona Barry opens a dialogue with us that her broader view of seating reveals something that is normative and palpably ours to behold within Australian design. The generations of Rombi stools by Paul Morris; TAIT Outdoor with Justin Hutchinson giving us Jak and variants; CNC cut Ply Crates (2009) by Dale Rock and Drew Martin, and Darcy Clarke with his evolving Ned stool series—are all irreducible minimums. They are workman-like, possibly ‘Aussie’ and have some hint of that act of ‘making do’ as we park ourselves—against a wall, in the shade, in the sun.
Craft and design in Australia flow pretty much as separate streams. In a few talented people they meet: in Jon Goulder or in Justin Vecchio and his Chair Two (2008). In the latter, Vecchio reworked the understructure of the traditional wooden chair and highlighted negative space and small-section, recycled spotted gum.
Perhaps we will be eased into reflecting this country by our awakening sense that Australia’s resources are finite. The crafted chair is an effective transmitter of this complex story and along with the pieces by Goulder and Vecchio, Simon Zablotsky’s Blackwood Laminated Chairs (2007) and Michael Conole’s Ludovic (2011) are slowing things down and maybe speaking of Brand’s ‘long now’.
Other designs pushed away from the traditional material of wood. With the only option for realising their complex designs being low volume, craft fabrication, both Laura McCusker’s Origami Stool (2009) and Meagan Oglesby’s Trellis (2009) in their value language challenge our commonly held view of plastic seating.
The world’s most ‘famous’ chair is not a design icon, but it is one of those cheap plastic things that lurk about everywhere; usually in white they slip past us and somehow we don’t see their numbers in millions. Unrepairable, landfill sites are stuffed with them. Contrastingly, the stool by McCusker is imbued especially with high-end language through its precisely crafted origami-like complexity and shiny surfaces—and, it even hints that it is repairable.
Language is often everything: haute cuisine boasts the semiotics of exclusivity for its sophisticated ‘savagery’. To this end, the ambiance is well supported by the kangaroo-fur backed chairs by Ross Didier, Tiller: Vue de monde edition (2010). With the recent political and social consciousness generated by the live beef trade, and on-going protests over kangaroo culls in places like the ACT, this chair is something of a loaded gun of associations pointed at the Australian psyche.
Plywood is never far from explorations of seating. Used as joined flat sections there is the angularity of Christina Waterson’s Lift Seat (2009), or the cut outs might be stacked and the form become extrusion-like as in Andrew Thornton Hick’s chair, Foranaft (2009) or with a tweak, Chris Hardy’s Pleat (2009).
Thus, does there arise out of this survey exhibition a sense that there is something called Australian design? Well, not really. The identification of real or imagined nuances of ‘Australian’ was promoted as key in the curation of this survey. However, the assembled design quotations have become as elements of a play: one whose script is neither cliché nor authentic embodiment of ‘Australian-ness’, but rather it enunciates their complex negotiation.
Rodney Hayward is an academic and craftsman, and was Head of the Wood Workshop, ANU School of Art from 1999 to 2010. He has written several stories for Australian Wood Review.