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Why art is at the heart of the matter

Catherine Carter

The first time I saw a Bison vase, I was taking a stroll through Harvey Nichols, the swanky department store in London’s upmarket Knightsbridge.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this beautiful object wasn’t, as I’d first thought, an unfamiliar specimen of modernist Scandinavian design. Nor was it an example of stylised Asian ceramics. In fact, it was a fusion and reinterpretation of both – designed right here in Canberra.

Bison vases and tableware can now be found in homes, hotels, restaurants and cafes around our city and around the world. Recent collaborations between Bison and my favourite florists in the world Moxom and Whitney – are a design lovers match made in heaven.

Bison tableware

Bison tableware

Likewise, the first time I came across FINK & Co was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was captivated with Robert Foster’s now iconic water jug, and astonished to discover that FINK & Co was headquartered in Queanbeyan. Today, Foster’s work can be found in the collections of most of Australia’s major arts institutions, which perhaps explains why I came home empty handed from my recent trip to FINK’s showroom. By 11:00 am when I arrived, everything was sold out. Not only the water jugs but brightly coloured aluminium jewellery, vases, tumblers, bowls and other homewares. Everything.

Robert Foster with the iconic Fink Water Jug

Robert Foster with the iconic Fink Water Jug

Today, Foster’s work can be found in the collections of most of Australia’s major arts institutions, which perhaps explains why I came home empty handed from my recent trip to FINK’s showroom. By 11am when I arrived, everything was sold out. Not only the water jugs but brightly coloured aluminium jewellery, vases, tumblers, bowls and other homewares. Everything.

Both Bison and FINK are now well-known, well-established local success stories that have made an impact on the world stage. But they are just two of many.

So, why isn’t Canberra a destination on the international design map?

I recently spoke with Rachael Coghlan, chief executive of Craft ACT: Craft + Design Centre and Artistic Director of DESIGN Canberra.

She says Canberra has a thriving and close-knit creative community, full of designers who live and work locally, have often studied here too, and who are building big reputations internationally.

But more work needs to be done, Coghlan says, “to connect the craft and design sector with the local business community”.

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Rachael Coghlan

We are making some progress. Craft ACT’s annual festival DESIGN Canberra celebrates and promotes Canberra as a global city of design. Last year it attracted 69,000 people. Coghlan promises that this year’s festival in November will be “even bigger, with interstate tourism promotion and new international partnerships”.

Coghlan is determined to establish Canberra as a “city of design” and says we are in an “unprecedented position” to do so.

“This is in our city’s DNA,” she says.

“From the time of Walter and Marion Griffin’s visionary design a century ago, to iconic experimental modernist architecture of the 1950s and 60s, through to contemporary and sustainable design developments today, Canberra has been — and will always be — a living design laboratory.”

This design laboratory is undoubtedly growing. A big movement of artists, makers, designers and craftspeople are emerging from both the University of Canberra and the Australian National University, particularly the ANU School of Art.

Running parallel to this, there are now places to be ‘cool’ in Canberra. One designer recently said to me that NewActon and Lonsdale Street gave her “permission” to stay in Canberra to create. When our built environment displays out-of-the-box thinking, it inspires others to also do something new.

These people include Tom Skeehan, an industrial designer, who dreams up commercial furniture and lighting which would also look amazing in any home – including my own! He recently said that working outside the traditional design hubs of Sydney or Melbourne had advantages.

Skeehan Studio's Ki-Low chair

Skeehan Studio’s Ki-Low chair

“I’m lucky to have the flexibility to travel a lot in my work, but Canberra is a great place to call home,” he says. “We have a very supportive design community and there are a lot of opportunities for independent designers.”

Silversmith Alison Jackson, who designs and handcrafts distinctive, pared back tableware and jewellery, graduated from the ANU School of Art to establish her own silversmithing workshop, Pocket Studio. Alison now runs her own full-time practice and shares her knowledge through a program of short courses.

Handmade tableware by Alison Jackson. Image: Christine Pobke

Handmade tableware by Alison Jackson. Image: Christine Pobke

And visual artist Luke Chiswell’s abstract art has gained a cult following both in Australia and overseas. He’s exhibited in both New York and NewActon – and his latest exhibition (and must-attend event), Borrow Tomorrow, will open at the Nishi Gallery on 7 April.

At its simplest form, artists need space in which to create – and the built environment does that. But there is an inseparable link between art and architecture, and inspiring architecture can feed an artist’s imagination.

At the same time, arts, culture and creativity can help define and enhance a sense of place, and attract tourists and new residents – particularly those high-value knowledge workers all cities are keen to entice. An artistic culture can improve a city’s competitive edge. And it can help build both economic and social capital.

When you look at it that way, art is at the heart of vibrant communities and thriving cities. Our challenge is to bring an underground movement to public attention. And to connect our creative community with a business sector determined to make Canberra a cool capital.

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up a boutique consulting firm, Indigo Consulting Australia, where she retains an interest and focus on urban environments, community building, and diversity. She provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services to a number of organisations including development and construction companies, law firms, and the Canberra Glassworks, and sits on a several boards including Music for Canberra, the National Association of Women in Construction ACT Chapter Council and the Ministerial Advisory Council on Women. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author

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