Read: Who gives a … ? Contemporary design and an ethic of care.
Date: March 1, 2014
Author: Jesse Adams Stein
The act of selecting twelve candidates – designers, innovators, and creative collectives – could be interpreted as an attempt to produce a new ‘canon’ in Australian design. Is CUSP: Designing into the Next Decade just another endeavour to shape a recognisable, future-oriented Australian design identity, w
hich has for so long seemed elusive, just out of grasp?
Such efforts to name and categorise a specifically Australian design ‘style’ have been undertaken at various points in history. The 1967 Australian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo, the Bicentennial events in 1988, and the cultural program that accompanied the Sydney Olympics in 2000 – all these events incorporated a search for a unifying
Antipodean design aesthetic. Australian design, it was claimed, was inspired by the nation’s distinctive natural environment. It was fresh, functional, and bold.
Yet, as design critic Tony Fry quipped in 1988, such ideas were not borne out by reality: “There is no such thing as Australian design.” By this he meant there were not enough examples that were exclusivelydesigned and conceived here to stitch together a convincing narrative.
That may well have been the case in 1988, but as we hurtle at what feels like an alarming rate into the twenty-first century, it is tempting to take a crack at naming what we see around us. But giving a name to the present has always been a challenge (and the wisest historians avoid this entirely). There is always the risk that, in defining the present, we slip into old habits, not seeing the folly of our ways until hindsight slaps us in the face.
Internationally, historical understandings of ‘design’ and ‘design history’ emerged from art history and connoisseurship, particularly in Anglo-European contexts. In this traditional view, ‘design’ was limited to an appreciation of style and functionality, in a rather limited set of manufactured objects, such as furniture and appliances (or, rather, making ‘high art’ of the smaller things that went with architecture). And as design historian Simon Jackson has observed, earlier attempts at characterising Australian design tended to fall back on nineteenth pioneering clichés: Australian design innovation was supposedly ‘no-fuss’, ‘rough-and-ready’, and agricultural in its emphasis.
Consequently, in Australian design history the much-lauded Sunshine Harvester and Stump Jump plough get a thorough run, at the expense of other, less well known Australian design innovations, such as the cochlear implant and the CSIRO’s WLAN technology (essentially the beginning of what we now call ‘wifi’).
As Jackson explains, in mainstream interpretations Australian design was produced on a ‘shoestring’ budget, and the creators of designed objects weren’t designers, they were inventors, hardy outdoors types: white, male, and tinkering in their sheds. In 2006 Jackson argued that it is high time we move on from this reductive understanding of what constitutes Australia’s design tradition, as this lingering concept has the potential to restrict contemporary practice.
At this point I should make some clarifications about canons, design, and national origins. Firstly, this essay does not make the claim that CUSP is about a new canon of Australian designers. The idea of a canon is tied to an outmoded system of connoisseurship in art and design. Nonetheless, the language of ‘great men’ and ‘canons’ continues to infiltrate popular discourse, which is why it is necessary to be clear here.
Furthermore, the Australianness of these designers is not what is significant about them. Their concerns, motivations, and potential impacts are global in scope. The fact that they come from an Australian context does matter, but not in terms of a unifying style, aesthetic, or national identity.
What does an Australian context mean for design practitioners today? For one, it is a rather privileged position from which to make creative work. But it also means grappling with the challenge of producing innovative projects within a post-manufacturing economy that is competitive, high-tech, and globalised. Australian design practice (in the broadest sense of the term) is largely unsubsidised by government, and right now it features a bit of unwanted bling – in the form of a high Australian dollar.
More importantly, the notion of design itself has opened up in recent decades, and CUSP recognises and embraces this broader interpretation. Design is no longer restricted to a discrete category of autonomous products. It does not merely distinguish the ‘chic’ from the poorly made and pedestrian. Design – in this expanded field – is understood to encompass the material world in all its complexity: objects, material culture, embodied practices, ways of thinking, and interconnected systems. Design is networked, interdisciplinary, and all-encompassing. Design’s ubiquity is both terrifying and exciting, depending on whose interest it serves.
Art critic Hal Foster is concerned about the ‘in whose interest’ question, perhaps unsurprisingly, given his essentially Marxist background. Back in 2002, Foster identified an expanded world of design, but he warned of harmful consequences for the apparent filtering of design into everyday life:
“With the spread of a post-Fordist economy of tweaked commodities and niched markets, we experience an almost seamless circuit of production of consumption,” […] “The aesthetic and the utilitarian are not only conflated but all but subsumed into the commercial, and everything – not only architectural projects and art exhibitions, but everything from jeans to genes – seems to be regarded as so much design.”
Foster’s view here is bleak. For him, design, in all its guises, can barely escape the clutches of “the near total system of contemporary consumerism”. Design is merely the surface gloss, the novelty that distracts us from the power dynamics of late capitalist society. Foster’s understanding of design tends to concentrate on big business: the ever-replenishing sets of new Nike sneakers and the constant stream of new-but-nearly-obsolete Apple products.
A broad and generous interpretation of ‘design’ can incorporate much more than this. CUSP acknowledges and celebrates this expanded interpretation of design, as it enables us to appreciate the innovative work being undertaken in fields as diverse as housing, horticulture, music, software, gaming, and health.
Despite his pessimistic emphasis, Foster leaves a tiny gap, a small creative space, where resistance to the status quo is theoretically possible, under certain conditions. He recalls the Austrian essayist Karl Kraus’ terminology – ‘running room’. Put very simply, running room is the space in which culture can continue to grow, challenge, and transform mainstream society. This space is not always available, but when it is, it must be nurtured.
The expanded view of design enables us to assess creative production through a lens that focuses on more than beauty or utility. Understanding design in this way pushes us to ask deeper questions about what motivates design practitioners and innovators to produce work, and to consider how they are responding to the world around them. What do these designers do when they are given a little running room?
Design is always driven by specific motivations and concerns, and these are easily apparent at a few pinpointed moments in Australian history. During the Great Depression, for example, public works were spurred on at a fast and furious rate. Buildings and infrastructure projects were thrown up swiftly and haphazardly, foundations were laid before final plans drawn up: all in the interests of providing jobs and stimulating the economy. What was produced did not matter quite as much as keeping the cogs turning, keeping people employed. During the two world wars, innovation was mobilised in the interests of national security and the war effort (sometimes through compulsorily acquired patents, secretively stored by government). After World War II, large industrial projects were needed to keep a growing and technologically skilled Australian workforce employed. Holden cars were one solution, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme was another.
All this brings us to ask: what are the underlying motivations driving contemporary designers to produce new work? Is design, today, ultimately about individual creative expression? Is it about making our lives more efficient, productive, and organised? Or is there something bigger at stake?
Certainly, the CUSP practitioners use interdisciplinary methods: science merges with art, the analogue cavorts with the digital, nature and technology converge. But something less tangible drives these CUSP designers and innovators. From Leah Heiss’ and George Khut’s sensitively designed health technologies; to Stephen Mushin’s aims for an ecologically savvy zero-waste future; or Alison Page’s efforts to bring economic viability to the work of Indigenous designers; or Healthabitat’s simple objective to “stop people getting sick” – all twelve CUSP practitioners and collectives are united by an ethic of care.
Yes, these designers are future-oriented in their approach, but this is not a feverish, dreamlike excitement for tomorrow. It’s an earnest gaze into the future, filled with concern. Through these disparate design practices, CUSP demonstrates genuine care about what the future might hold in the context of a dramatically changing climate, and a world with finite resources and growing demand. This is essentially an attitude founded in the principle of intergenerational equity, motivated by an authentic concern for the health and well-being of others (present and future), a desire to produce work that is truly sustainable, rather than tokenistically green tinted.
In short, these designers ‘give a shit’. They care. And caring is the antithesis of being cool. We have come a long way: from a world where design was pigeonholed as chic high-end commodities, or marginalised as an agrarian blokey practice of bolting things together in a backyard shed. Today, design is a fundamental strategy in mitigating the worst possible outcomes for the planet, and with this comes mutual responsibility and huge transformative potential.
Image: Visitors to the Australian Pavilion at Expo 1967, in Montreal, Canada, courtesy the National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
 For a more detailed analysis of this process, see Simon Jackson 2002, “The ‘Stump Jumpers’: National identity and the mythology of Australian industrial design in the period 1930-1975,” Design Issues, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 14-23,.
 Ann Stephen and Philip Goad 2008, ‘Good evening America: Australia’s pavilion diplomacy,’ in Stephen, Goad, and Andrew McNamara (eds), Modern Times: The Untold Story of Modernism in Australia, the Miegunyah Press in association with Powerhouse Publishing, Melbourne and Sydney, pp. 174-85.
 Simon Jackson 2006, “Sacred objects – Australian design and national celebrations,” Journal of Design History, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 249-51.
 Philip Goad 2001, “Competition and circumstance: Urban legacies of the Olympics,” in Jennifer Barrett and Caroline Butler-Bowden (eds), Debating the City, An Anthology, University of Western Sydney and the Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, pp. 143-63.
 Australian Government 2013, ‘Australian design,’ in About Australia, online at http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-design.
 Tony Fry 1988, Design History Australia: A Source Text in Methods and Resources, Hale & Iremonger, Power Institute of Fine Arts, Sydney, p. 14.
 ibid. See also, Tony Fry 1989, “A geography of power: Design history and marginality,” Design Issues, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 15-30.
 Clive Dilnot 1989, “The state of design history, part 1: Mapping the field,” in Victor Margolin (ed.), Design discourse: History / theory / criticism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, pp. 221-26.
 See Jackson, “The ‘Stump Jumpers’”, and “Sacred objects,” as above.
 Jackson, “The ‘Stump Jumpers’” p. 21. For more information on CSIRO’s invention of WLAN technology, see the CSIRO’s website: http://www.csiro.au/Outcomes/ICT-and-Services/People-and-businesses/wireless-LANs.aspx.
 Jackson, “Sacred objects,” pp. 253-54; “The ‘Stump Jumpers’”, p. 19.
 Jackson, “Sacred objects,” p. 254.
 See for example: IP Australia 2013, “History of Aussie innovations,” in IP Australia, online, http://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/understanding-intellectual-property/ip-for-education-and-training/history_of_aussie_innovations.
 Victor Margolin 1989, “Introduction: Design studies as a new discipline,” in Design Discourse, pp. 3-30.
 Lucy Kimbell 2011, “Rethinking design thinking: Part 1,” Design and Culture, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 285-306.
 Hal Foster 2002, Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes), Verso, London, p. 17.
 ibid., p. 25.
 Foster, pp. xiv, 17, 25. See also Karl Kraus 1965, Werke, vol. 3, p. 341.
 Cobden Parkes 1973 [Former NSW Government Architect], “Personal memoirs of Cobden Parkes,” in Parkes Family papers relating to Cobden Parkes and Sir Henry Parkes, State Library of NSW, Sydney.
 State Library of Victoria, “Inventions during World Wars I and II,” in Patents, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, online http://guides.slv.vic.gov.au/content.php?pid=87344&sid=683304.
 Michael Taussig 1992, “An Australian hero,” in The Nervous System, Routledge, New York and London, p. 58.