Fair cop, we may say, this is a reasonable expectation. For even if we, as cosmopolitan Australians, see ourselves as part of the global picture, those on the other side of the globe often still envision Australia as a far-away exotic place.

Australia does also tend to propagate this image as part of its marketing, and 40° is no exception. The press release for the exhibition in Berlin reads:

“40° is a uniquely Australian perspective stretching across an isolated continent of extremities, a perspective melded in the consciousness of Australian interior design, art and manufacture, and manifested in a passionate, intelligent collection of designers
who create everyday products afresh with vivid reinvention.”

Helen Punton from Modernwhite, the group organising the exhibition, admits that she is using this statement to partly capitalise on the mystique of Australia. It is a way of getting the audience through the door.

But with the show she in fact wishes to displace the image of “desert and kangaroos”. Punton believes that “Berliners have no idea of what to expect”. She hopes they will be “impressed by the quality and diversity” of the work.

Punton was not looking to create any particular design image. The designers selected are “all different personalities that have different ways of working”. Her selection criteria were more intuitive than prescriptive, in her words the initial impact of the work needed to have a good dose of “sex appeal”.

But this sex appeal needed to be the result of thoughtful and considered design, displaying the innovative use of materials, unique production processes, environmental awareness and a very high level of quality, detailing and resolution.

But even though Punton was not looking for work which displayed any discernible ‘Australian’ qualities the question remains; as a cohesive but diverse collection of over forty individual designs, what does it say about the society and culture from which these were drawn? If design is indeed a carrier of culture and a mirror to the society that creates it, what is it that we see in this mirror?

This seems to be the perennial question. Over the last decades there have been numerous attempts to isolate an ‘Australian Identity’, often through design competitions.

There is also a long list of publications and journal articles dealing with this question. But predictably the answer remains largely elusive.

It is always problematic to quantify the ‘Zeitgeist’ of a given moment when we are in the middle of it, even the greatest philosophers and theorists struggle with this.

But this does also raise the counter question: Is such a culturally or geographically specific design identity relevant or even possible within our highly globalised milieu, especially in a country as culturally diverse as Australia?

From my experience few Australian designers concern themselves with the notion of a local identity. What we may classify as ‘high end design’ is informed by an active and vibrant international culture.

The Internet, international publications and journals, travelling exhibitions, digital television ensure that we are informed and up-to-date on all facets of international culture and current affairs.

A Melbourne based designer may be influenced more by a current design movement in Amsterdam or Brussels than by his or her peers.

To find an Australian approach towards design one must scratch beneath the surface, it is not necessarily apparent through any design language or styling features. One must look at the condition under which the designers design.

What is striking is that the Australian designer of high-end domestic consumer goods such as furniture, lighting and objects are designed almost exclusively without a client.

Projects tend not only to be self-generated, but also self funded and managed, including manufacture and marketing. This is because there are simply no corporate clients such as Edra, Vitra or Alessi in Australia to commission such design, but there are customers.

Whilst it may be common for a designer in Europe or elsewhere to initially develop their own design prototypes and samples for exhibition or limited production, it is generally in the hope that one of the countless manufacturing or distribution houses dealing in high quality design will discover them and offer them commissions.

This is certainly the established role for the designer, to design for a client. But examining the websites of Australian designers reveals no such client base.

Instead we find an impressive range of product, which they produce and market and a series of one-off projects executed for architectural and interior design practices. 

This reveals an aspect of the Australian condition. Even though we are electronically connected to the rest of the world we remain geographically isolated.

Our small market cannot support large production runs of what are after all specialist goods and international markets are difficult to reach. 

Because there is neither the market to warrant large scale mass-production nor the economic capital to finance it, designers must turn to a more specialised low volume production logistic.

Fortunately in this sphere resources are not all that bleak. Thanks partly to the existence of a substantial motor industry that requires an extensive supply-chain, there is an ample inventory of expert jobbing shops that provide specialist services such as rotational and blow moulding and laser and water-jet cutting that are ideal for low to medium run production.

Designers have not only become expert at utilising this industry but also at developing or mastering their own production techniques.

Robert Foster, for example, explains how he utilised and perfected explosive forming – a technique originally developed to produce aircraft nose cones – to produce the complex forms of his ‘explosive’ vase. “When I developed the vessel I first made three prototypes by hand forming.

"I then had to work out how these forms could be made as a production piece. There were no traditional industrial processes available to produce these forms.”

For his six-sided bowl Foster specially developed the machine that would make this product. “It was a two way process where the idea required the new machine, but the machine then influenced the design; we were not sure how the final bowl would turn out”.

Like Foster, the design team of Janos Korban and Stefanie Flaubert (Korban & Flaubert) have an equally fluid relationship between process and design.

Korban refers to their practice as an experimental workshop where they prefer to work with materials such as metal that are a structure in themselves.

The work of Korban & Flaubert is certainly a combination of very refined design and innovative craft. Korban believes there is a somewhat negative connotation to the concept of craft in Australia.

He rather enjoys the “German take on craft which is more akin to the Japanese approach” where craft is not only taken very seriously but embedded in the cultural psyche.

Korban elaborates: “Take the word fine, in German ‘Fein’. In Australia to say that something is fine tends to mean it is OK. In German however to tell someone something is Fein is a great compliment, it is a very noble and complex word”.

There are numerous other examples from the exhibition of designers becoming intimately involved in the production process. Marc Pascal, for example, has created a highly innovative process to produce his range of woven plastic lights.

Pascal developed a technique of dying plastic to achieve an extensive and consistent range of rich and vibrant translucent colours. Pascal also conducted extensive research into the type of plastics best suited for this purpose to achieve a quality product that will not fade or deteriorate with exposure to heat and UV light.

Anna Lorenzetto needed an intimate knowledge of leather goods manufacture to develop and perfect her sensual leather homewares.

The majority of designers selected for the Berlin exhibition work in this manner. They have created a hybrid discipline melding design with craft, manufacturing technology and marketing, but the end result is still very much in the realm of design.

Many of the designers have also tended to specialise in a certain product type or even material. It was never the intent of Punton to assemble a set of designers who work in this way; it simply appears to be the reality of the Australian context.

But as with any good story there is always another side. Matthew Butler, from Blue Square, prefers to keep as far away from the production and making side as possible.

Butler has placed himself in the enviable position of being able run his entire business from a laptop; he could be in South America or the Australian hinterland. He receives an order via email or e-fax and then from a spread sheet shoots out instructions to the various component suppliers.

Each supplier is responsible for passing on their component to the next until the completed product arrives at the doorstep of the customer who ordered it. 

The work represented in the 40° exhibition belongs very much to an international design culture. It would be difficult to pick up any one piece and determine its country of origin.

Yet as a larger body of work a narrative does begin to unfold. The work is not the product of large corporations but the result of personal pursuit and expression. The high level of quality and design resolution is testament to how serious the designers are about their craft.

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