December 2010

Looking back, looking foward; Australian Character is what?

Cover (probably the most uninspired part)

Flett Henderson Arnold

Neil Turner

Robert Rosetzky

Bruce Weatherhead

Grant Jorgenson

Elda Charous

Darryl Thompson

Ken Done

Mark Hackleton

David Lancashire

Kel Naughton

Denis Veal

Brian Sadgrove

Mimmo Cozzolino

Garry Emery

Australia is not a place known for celebrating it’s creative obscurities. If one is interested in experiencing the past it is often a case raiding public collections, studio archives, second hand dealers and personal records.

The Unique Australian Character is a hard cover publication developed by Spicers Paper, circa 1984. Designers, illustrators, artists of the day were asked to visually define their version of the unique Australian Character.

Thought this publication is a minute slice of work, it is interesting to see how Australian designers respond to cultural identity in a time well before the personal computer and graphic software, the proliferation of design publishing, mobile phone, the internet, and when fax machines became affordable.

It is also interesting to observe the aesthetics, themes and execution of work. It has been enlightening to compare this project with similar projects developed in recent years such as The Australia Project.

Reviewing the work of 1984 reveals a confidence in output which is bold, individual, quirky, sometimes odd, raw, refined. As compared to contemporary work which tends to document, be observant, slick rather than interpret, create versions or variation of local cultural ideas. One may want to blame cultural cringe driving Australian designers away from local cliches to seek influences from distant shores. Yet history has proved, time and time again, that the idea of home can sate the most restless of souls.

One can continue to rant here about the idea of making work and then the idea of making work that is new. A past colleague, Marco, and I used to discuss often new work we came across. Marco said at the time that – new work, is rarely new work. It is an annoyingly simple idea which remains with one all ways.

What one takes from the work above is that it made in a time when people enjoyed the doing, rather than worrying about its history, or the potential of an audience reviewing it. It is, what it is, warts and all, and maybe that’s all that matters.

That said, one can’t help looking at Sadgrove’s wonderful pictures of gum tree trunks dashed with striking colour, and think that the idea of new often comes from the most unexpected places – like a trained accountant, who became a designer, offering the viewer a unique Australian vision, lovely still nearly thirty years on…

Thanks to Bruce Weatherhead for lending us this wonderful time capsule.

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