Furniture design featured in Melbourne Design Now
By Ella Bourke
What on earth, you might ask, is a fluffy sheepskin rocking horse for fully-grown adults doing in the National Gallery of Victoria? Sprawling in scope, Melbourne Now is an ambitious attempt to showcase contemporary art, architecture and design that reflects the cultural identity of the city. Billed by NGV Director, Tony Ellwood, in the Melbourne Now e-book as ‘the largest single show ever presented by the Gallery,’ it is really more like a smorgasbord than a single meal; not everything will be to your tastes but you can’t complain about the spread.
Melbourne Design Now installation. The project Melbourne Design Now is supported by The Hugh D. T Williamson Foundation.
Looking to satisfy our appetite for furniture design using wood, we headed to Level 2 of
the Ian Potter Centre to the collection of contemporary furniture, lighting and objects curated by Simone LeAmon. The Hi Ho rocking horse, designed by Jarrod Lim is immediately compelling and invites adults to indulge in childlike play with its outrageously fluffy sheepskin head and body. This piece could easily tip towards the absurd but the use of wood for the rockers evokes more traditional rocking chairs, balancing the fantastical quality of the object with a grounded appeal.
Jarrod LIM (designer)born Australia 1977, INNERMOST, London (manufacturer)England est. 1999, Hi Ho rocking horse 2011, wood, upholstery, sheepskin, 100.0 x 45.0 x 100.0 cm.
Lim also uses a combination of materials in his Koi chair – high back version. A scalloped steel-frame back, based on the ‘repetitive form of a fish scale,’ rises to regal heights. Yet the frame structure means the chair retains a lightness that a solid back would not afford. The slatted seat evokes a garden feel and the variation in the colour of the slats relieves the uniformity of the dark steel. Although intended for indoor settings, it seems a chair fit for the king of the garden.
Jarrod LIM (designer)born Australia 1977,INNERMOST, London (manufacturer)England est. 1999, Koi chair – High back version 2010, steel, wood, 111.2 x 102.6 x 65.0 cm
Staying outdoors, Ash Allen’s Sticks & stone, outdoor table and stools also combines wood with another material, in this case, ‘stone’ made of concrete composite and recycled car tyre rubber. Inspired by the stone and bamboo of Japanese rock gardens, Allen has used Tasmanian oak dowel offcuts to achieve sharp lines in the legs. You wouldn’t know it to look at it but the lot can be flat packed and put together without tools or glue. Very nifty for reaching a global audience without gasp worthy shipping costs. You can see Allen putting a stool together here.
Ash ALLEN (designer)born Australia 1973, ASH ALLEN, Melbourne (manufacturer)Australia est. 2012,Sticks & stone, outdoor table and stools 2013, concrete composite, recycled rubber, Tasmanian Oak, 45.0 x 42.0 x 42.0 cm (each) (stools).
In contrast, there is nothing lightweight about the substantial, yet counter intuitively named Brief, table by Damien Wright. Wright clearly enjoys a challenge, regularly using indigenous timbers that LeAmon describes as ‘difficult and uncompromising to work with’. A case in point, Brief is mostly made from 10,000-15,000-year-old red gum that was found in a quarry, imbuing the table with a weighty sense of history. Wright’s craftsmanship is impressive and Brief features perfect dovetail joinery and ‘invisible’ drawers. Indeed, some of the grain on the boards in his workshop would be enough to make many wood working enthusiasts back away in fear.
Damien WRIGHT (designer)born Australia 1969, WRIGHT STUDIOS, Melbourne (manufacturer)Australia est. 1994, Brief, table 2013, Ringed Gidgee, Redgum, 78.0 x 96.0 x 270.0 cm
While Melbourne Design Now gives prominence and perhaps additional gravitas to projects like these that would not normally be displayed in a gallery context, LeAmon’s collection is let down by the fact that it is merely a display. Design grapples with function in a way that art does not. But there is no way to engage with the functional purpose of these projects. You can’t rock on the rocking horse. You can’t sit on the chairs. You can’t open the invisible drawers in the table. Ellwood writes that a primary aim in planning Melbourne Now ‘has been to create an exhibition that offers dynamic engagement with our audiences,’ so it’s a shame that the NGV missed the opportunity to engage visitors with the functional design elements of these particular projects. It’s particularly frustrating because a number of the projects incorporate textural elements that are crying out to be touched. For example, we suggest that anyone who doesn’t feel the urge to pat the Hi-Ho rocking horse should immediately get their pulse checked. While we wouldn’t suggest that the NGV let us put our potentially filthy mitts on one-of-a-kind pieces such as Brief, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason that we couldn’t be let loose with limited production pieces such as Sticks & stone.
It’s wonderful to see the NGV recognise furniture designers and makers as contributors to the cultural identity of Melbourne in the same way as contemporary artists. Moreover, the particular designers chosen by LeAmon are clearly accomplished practitioners. However, where designers have excelled in meeting a functional need in a unique way, it is essential we be allowed to experience the skill of the designer fully.
Melbourne Now runs until 21 March 2014 at the National Gallery of Victoria. The projects reviewed in this post can be found on Level 2 of the Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square.
Ella Bourke is a freelance writer and tweets at @ecbourke.