Beyond celebrating what is a world-class design scene, Melbourne Design Week is an invaluable opportunity for Australian designers, gallerists, retailers, collectors and academics to meet and support one another. For your author, after a decade living on the other side of the world, it was a chance to reacquaint myself with the local community and experience the talent up-close. While Melbourne Design Week’s scale might seem modest compared to international design festivals (arguably an ethical competitive advantage – less needs to be more these days), its impact was significant.
So many themes emerged from the 11-day program, during which hundreds of designers showed off their skills through exhibitions around the city while thought-leaders shared their preoccupations at talks and workshops. From the perspective of someone rediscovering the Australian scene, Melbourne Design Week gave the impression that national designers are boldly participating in an evolving marketplace, creating with an open mind, and celebrating the country’s cultural diversity. The Australian collectible design movement was well-represented at the second instalment of Melbourne Design Fair, and this exciting sector seems set to sail (the fair generated $2.7 million in sales in four days, with post-event sales yet to be counted). Several impressive spaces – such as the former grain silos in Burnley, the Meat Market Stables in North Melbourne and Villa Alba in Kew – were activated, adding dynamism to the festival experience à la Fuorisalone. A plethora of design and architecture discussions took place in lecture theatres, galleries, stores and iconic venues such as Robin Boyd’s Walsh Street House and the Abbotsford Convent. This academic aspect of Melbourne Design Week was an invigorating and thought-provoking layer on top of the exhibitions. With regards to the furniture, lighting and objects on display, there was a refreshing approach to materials in both manufactured and collectible design, ranging from the irreverent to the intellectual.
Every product is a product of its environment, and the epic Australian landscape played an evident role, with many designers responding to the local context through materiality. After all, this is a country that is (until the time of writing, at least) famously blessed with natural resources – providing designers with a smorgasbord of raw materials to work with. We should be careful with this finite richness, and mindful that other nations aren’t so lucky. Traversing the fairground and urban satellite programs, I was reminded just how fertile the Australian design environment is. There’s a lot growing under the Southern sun – and one studio, ENESS, literally harnessed it through their research project titled “A Solar-Powered Bench That Spins Ever So Slowly.” The centrepiece of the fair’s exhibition space was a rug-turned-map of Australia’s shifting geology by Emma Jackson. Senior Mualgal artist from Moa Island, Paula Savage, received the 2023 Melbourne Design Week Award for her woven vessels. Inspired by reefs off the coast of the Torres Strait, her works shine a spotlight on Indigenous craftsmanship and natural fibres. A collaboration between Spence and Lyda and Wanda Jelimini, the Innate LS collection re-interpreted Australian landscape paintings by Luke Sciberras, beautifully weaving our white-hot sunlight into a bath and towel collection. Outside, CERES Fair Wood investigated sustainable, local joinery through “Origin to Object.” In these and many other presentations, I noted a strong expression of place.
In the context of recent European design fairs, the presentations at Melbourne Design Week felt particularly daring, diverse and optimistic. Perhaps, as a relatively young design industry, Australia is well-placed to experiment. A common thread throughout the exhibitions was a rethinking of materials. Elliot Bastianon let copper grow beguiling barnacles on his objects while Jonathan Ben-Tovim fashioned lamps out of crumpled car bonnets. Trent Jansen partnered with wood artist Tanja Singer – a Minyma Anangu woman from Indulkana (SA) – to conjure a faceted cabinet symbolic of cracked earth. Don Cameron built ceramic and steel furniture inspired by Brutalist architecture. Oko Olo sat tabletops on sea-sponge legs. Michael Gittings – via Oigall Projects – presented a gleaming metal flower chair whose petals look ready to devour the new owner. Coco Flip’s Linear lights were pleasingly pleated and Claudia Lau’s monolithic “Bone to Stone” vessel at C. Gallery exceeded the boundaries of ceramic manipulation. Each of these pieces – executed with material purity, great technical skill and elegant forms – managed to delight without veering into kitsch.
Pragmatism and environmental consciousness were in the mix, too – once again, seen through material innovation. The program addressed circular design with talks investigating the uses of mycelium, and presented many products made from recycled or recyclable materials, like Eco Outdoor’s Arc chair. Mater x Cult’s “Waste Dream” showed how discarded fishing nets could be used for outdoor seating, while Dutch Studio Thus That introduced vessels made of bauxite by-products. Tom Fereday and Charlie White’s “Versa” exhibited monolithic room-dividers built with repurposed mattress foam alongside lamps made from defect Mud Australia ceramics, and Fereday’s Cove seating (for Cult’s in-house brand Nau) was formed out of recycled aluminium. In an exhibition created entirely from reclaimed materials, the “(No Things) Matters” group show at Villa Alba showcased in-progress material explorations and waste management. As part of an ongoing collaboration between Matters and Second Edition – a Sydney-based spatial studio advocating for resource recovery through thoughtful demolition – the project will unfold outcomes over the next three years.
During tours of the fair and satellite shows, I was excited to see Australian designs sitting comfortably next to international ones, though on a few occasions foreign works did stand out. Experimental designer Tadeas Podracky’s oozing wood and mixed media mirror at FIN Gallery sought to disrupt perceptions of Venetian craftsmanship with a surreal effect. At the fair, Italian design and architecture legend Gaetano Pesce’s melting, twisting urethane resin objects – brought to Australian shores for the first time by Neon Parc – were both radical and charismatic. The ethereal “Shadow Light” collection by Sabine Marcelis, who was born in the Netherlands and raised in New Zealand, was right at home at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert’s fair booth. Next door, Alm Studio showcased Austrian designer Laurids Gallée’s intricate wood inlay pieces with Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek’s glossy, Rubik’s cube-esque tables (pieced together from scrap wood). In all cases, materials were simultaneously unexpected, clever and playful; always used with exceptional skill.
At the highlight event – Melbourne Design Fair – 150 designers making one-off and limited-edition pieces were housed under one roof at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. The clever exhibition design by Wood Marsh struck an effective balance between openness and discovery. The use of partitions instead of enclosed booths resulted in clear visibility no matter the vantage point, created interesting relationships with neighbouring booths, and invited guests to wander multi-directionally. Curated by the National Gallery of Victoria and delivered in collaboration with the Melbourne Art Foundation, the 2023 fair more than doubled in size since last year to serve as a powerful, alternative marketplace to manufactured design.
The event undoubtedly achieved its goal to nurture this growing segment, providing a compelling platform for creatives working at the intersection of art and design, and connecting them with buyers and gallerists. During its four-day program, the fair attracted more than 10,500 visitors and drove the aforementioned astounding economic result. Between this and hundreds of exhibitions, talks and tours happening around Melbourne, it’s safe to say Australian designers are contributing great value and ideas to both the local and global design markets – no matter whether they’re packaged in foam, rope, fungi or car bonnets.
I look forward to comparing these experiences with the forthcoming 3daysofdesign festival in Copenhagen, and to sharing insights thereafter.