13 mins reading

By Will Cox

A flurry of exhibitions and annual events are shining a light on Melbourne’s design prowess, reflecting the city’s evolution into a creative hub seeking to rival the world’s best.

When the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural Melbourne Now debuted 10 years ago, some of its curatorial choices turned heads. It was a sprawling exhibition surveying the city’s art and design scene, from painting to installation, the cerebral to the utilitarian. We were used to seeing chairs, ceramics and furniture in a gallery setting, but consumer goods? And contemporary ones at that? Showerheads, pillows and tents? It seems uncanny for some to see a painting or sculpture or multi-channel video work alongside a rake available from Bunnings for $43.50.

In 2023, the return of Melbourne Now is another soaring look at the city’s cultural output, taking over three floors of the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre. Once again, both consumer goods and design are at the show’s heart, grounding it as a look at the way we live today.

“I think we need to interrogate what we mean by a contemporary gallery space,” says Simone LeAmon, the NGV’s Hugh DT Williamson curator of contemporary design and architecture, and the person behind the Design Wall that presents some of Melbourne’s most innovative product designs. For LeAmon, the idea of a gallery being a home solely for contemporary art is something of a 20th-century throwback. “These days, when we talk about the contemporary art space, we mean all creative cultural production,” she says.

In 2023, Melbourne’s design scene is at an exciting turning point. Industry leaders say the city has grown into a globally recognised design hub, a beacon of creativity drawing on a wealth of local talent who look both out and in.

According to a 2019 report compiled by Creative Victoria, there has been an 11 per cent increase in the number of design consultancies in Victoria since 2015, growing to more than 6000, with almost 100,000 people employed as designers across the state. The infrastructure has grown to meet this surge. In 2015, the NGV created the Department of Contemporary Design and Architecture. In 2017, Melbourne Design Week was launched to showcase the work of Victorian (and Australian) designers, and its program has grown from containing just under 100 exhibits to more than 370 in 2023.

With this rise in interest there is also a growing understanding that design isn’t just utilitarian. It’s about the world around us, and it’s about ideas.

“Design is for the world,” LeAmon says. “Design was not conceived, like modern art was conceived, for the space of the gallery alone. But in product design we see creativity, innovation, and the best of humanity. These designers are making things that are there to help us live the lives we want to live.”

As the curator of the 2013 Design Wall and its 2023 sequel, LeAmon is responsible for putting the aforementioned rake in the gallery,

alongside guitars, fans, suitcases, tents, taps, doorhandles and oxygen masks. Sitting design alongside purely aesthetic, cerebral works forces us to consider these objects— their purpose, their form, their place in our lives.

Promotional material says there are more than 200 artists in Melbourne Now, but realistically there are more than 300. There are 25 design studios represented in the Design Wall, and each might have up to 20 people behind it.

LeAmon says that while there were plenty of design firms operating in Melbourne 10 years ago, the difference today is the localised end-to-end manufacturing that exists. It’s quicker, more sustainable, and means each product is uniquely Australian, and in many cases, uniquely Melburnian, drawing on our customs and traditions.

Sussex Taps, for instance, presents several pieces from its Calibre range in Melbourne Now. The company produces its taps with recycled brass processed at their own foundry in Somerton, in Melbourne’s outer north. The taps are then sent down the road to be coated using environmentally friendly technology borrowed from the aerospace industry. It’s all done in a tiny radius, meaning the company has full view over its production chain and carbon footprint, while also preserving local craftsmanship and manufacturing. Sussex’s website states that in 2021, they became Australia’s first carbon neutral tapware company.

“The genius of product design is that these aren’t one one-offs,” LeAmon explains. “It’s about designing for volume—hundreds, or thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. It has to be robust not only in production and delivery but successful in the market. That takes a particular type of genius.”

Similarly, Savic Motorcycles’ C-series emissions-free e-bike is produced from 80 per cent recyclable aluminium in West Melbourne, recalling the days when Victoria was the nation’s automotive manufacturing hub. Established in 2016, Savic is known as Australia’s first high-performance electric motorcycle manufacturer.

“The genius of product design is that these aren’t one one-offs,” LeAmon explains. “It’s about designing for volume—hundreds, or thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. It has to be robust not only in production and delivery but successful in the market. That takes a particular type of genius.”

Of course, Melbourne makers cannot always compete in the global market on price. But today’s consumers look at more than price. They think about sustainability. They think about durability. They think about the connection to their local community.

Nicole Durling, executive director of Craft Victoria, believes our connection to buying local flared during the pandemic. “Our world got very small for a while and people started saying ‘well, actually we’ve got it pretty good here’,” she says. “People started thinking about provenance. Where is my food coming from? Where are the glasses on my table from?”

“We’re more aware of the production methods of fast fashion and its drawbacks, of fast furniture, of environmentally destructive practices. It costs money to have good design and good materials, but prioritising these things is part of who we are and how we want to live.”

Craft Victoria’s contribution to Melbourne Now is a collection of works from 15 artists spanning a variety of materials, cultures and traditions to explore one the simplest design forms: the vessel.

“Think of a simple teacup, or a serving plate, and how we gather around these vessels,” Durling asks. “The exchanges that happen around these humble objects. They can be humble but they’re weighed with a lot of social and cultural meaning.”

Timber, ceramics, weaving, textiles, metal and more feature in the exhibition, in both literal and figurative forms. Jessie French works with algae-based bioplastics stitched together with 14-carat gold for her Ghost in the ‘cene. The experimental piece—groundbreaking in its scale—is stable and preservable while also completely biodegradable or reusable. Meanwhile, Vipoo Srivilasa’s large porcelain work Elarat / Ela references Thai literature and the Dungowan bush tomato found in Australia’s monsoon tropics, mashing these disparate ideas together to explore gender fluidity.

“We were trying to run the whole breadth of what designers and craftspeople are creating, and the brief to artists was to make the most ambitious piece they could,” Durling says. “Some you can see as literal vessels, but vessels can carry culture as well. That’s the interesting thing—they can be this hybrid thing between carrying emotion or culture or commodities.”

Some of these works explore traditions going back millennia. Lorraine Brigdale’s coil woven piece Gulpa Ngawalln reflects the artist’s Yorta Yorta heritage and beyond, utilising a traditional southeastern Aboriginal weaving style and locally sourced ochre in a form inspired by the ceremony burial poles of central Arnhem Land. “Having my hands in ochre, many thousands of years in the making, connects me directly to my ancestors,” Bridgale says in the Melbourne Now catalogue. She calls the work a “contemporary exploration of an age-old medium”.

Durling herself first studied ceramics in the early 90s and has observed a shifting attitude to the practice. “No one wanted to talk about it,” she says. “It was very old-fashioned and not considered valuable. Now every second artist is working in these forms. There’s a real movement towards artists embracing traditional techniques or rediscovering old techniques that fell out of fashion. I think a lot of makers today are yearning for that traditional knowledge.”

Design recurs throughout the show as a touchpoint for culture. Lou Hubbard’s Walkers with dinosaurs uses utilitarian objects from personal and domestic spaces, playfully incorporating inflatable walking frames and plastic chairs into sculptural forms. Elsewhere, in a kitsch juxtaposition of the traditional and the contemporary, an 1885 blackwood WH Rocke and Co sideboard is dressed with Mark Smith’s Control, a series of polyester and cotton letterforms. Esther Stewart, meanwhile, responds to architecture and design with a sculptural textile work that recreates her home in the gallery space. The title of that work—The space has been created for something to happen—could be a mission statement for the whole exhibition. The city is the space. Here is what is happening.

“I often get asked, ‘What’s the difference between art and design?’” says Timothy Moore, co-curator of Melbourne Design Week. “People see them as separate, but they have a lot in common.”

Both practices value creativity, innovation and aesthetics.

But while art is maybe best defined as a vehicle for self-expression, for provoking thought, for inspiring wonder; design is seen as being about practical problem-solving. Programming such as that seen at Melbourne Now and Melbourne Design Week suggests perhaps it isn’t so cut and dry.

Presented by the NGV and Creative Victoria, Melbourne Design Week is now in its seventh year, and Moore says it has grown into a globally recognised event. More than 55,000 people attended the 2022 event, making it the biggest of its kind in Australia.

“There has been an amplification of the importance of design,” Moore says, “but also an increased understanding of how design can be used. The basic definition is creating something new to solve a problem, and I think what the world needs now is largescale problem-solving.” There is the pressing issue of climate and sustainability, for one, but Moore also cites accessibility and culture as big drivers.

“We want to keep our program as ideas—driven as possible—it’s about ideas, not just objects. Design doesn’t just have to solve a problem; it can ask a question.”

Melbourne Design Week acts as an aggregate of all these simultaneous conversations. Expressions of interest to exhibit are open to everyone, and the result is a wide-ranging program. Moore says that 90 per cent of this year’s event was organised by the sector, not curators.

“Design isn’t just about economic value,” he says. “It’s about social and cultural value as well. We want to keep our program as ideas-driven as possible—it’s about ideas, not just objects. Design doesn’t just have to solve a problem; it can ask a question.”

If Melbourne Now articulates one thing, it’s that there is no single Melbourne aesthetic or language. Moore’s biggest contribution to the exhibition is co-curation of No House Style in the building’s foyer. The display presents leading and emerging furniture designers and architects whose varying styles are evidence of Melbourne’s aesthetic plurality. He attributes this to a broad range of training opportunities through Melbourne’s five architectural schools and numerous design schools.

“Whether it’s about cultural tradition and expression, or individual expression, people are confident to go their own way,” Moore says. “I think people in Melbourne are surfing the waves of global trends and then interpreting it in our context, whether that’s geographical or cultural.”

There is no house style but there is a chutzpah, or confidence.

“We are certainly bold in our approach. There’s also a lot of support, and a market here. As a result, we punch above our weight when compared to other cities,” he says, adding that he thinks Melbourne Design Week (the de facto Australian Design Week in his view) is comparable to anything happening in New York, Shanghai or Dubai. “Or if we’re not there yet, we will be soon.”

LeAmon agrees that Melbourne has earned its place in the global design dialogue. “I think in Melbourne we’re at this point where, after decades of heavy lifting, we’re finally able to talk about design as cultural production, about how it shapes our lives, how it has an impact on our lives,” she says. “Design is something that can not only give us pleasure but play an important role in shaping the world in which we want to live.”

For Durling, aside from the vital support offered by universities and the NGV, Melbourne’s success as a design hub is down to the artists and makers themselves. “The community really comes together,” she says. “Look at one of our neighbours in the city, the Nicholas Building; it’s a vertical creative community. It’s extraordinary the way the individuals working there, from jewellery makers to milliners, support each other. That’s part of what makes Melbourne special.”

“It always comes from the makers, from the artists. They’re the visionaries, and they will always set the agenda, responding to our environment and producing works they connect with. The rest of us catch up a little bit later.”