2017 Speaker Series - Identity Crisis

It’s no wonder we have an identity crisis here in Australia, with our confused and often destructive relationships with our indigenous people, the ‘tyrrany of long distance’ and colonial status amidst a sea of Asian nations. So in our talk titled, ‘Identity: Who The Bloody Hell Are We’, we set out to discuss what our national design identity is — if there is such a thing — and whether it is helpful to discuss nationality in this global age.


Lisa Cahill, CEO of the Australian Design Centre, and product designer Charles Wilson weighed in on the topic from the Australian point of view. Designer Ruder Novak-Mikulic of Regular Company, based in Croatia, and Japanese, Milan-based designer Kensaku Oshiro, also shared their insights on the topic. As we suspected, it’s not a simple one.

“Identity is complex — it’s about our country, our place in the world. It includes our feelings about ourselves, climate, influences, and multicultural make up,” suggested Lisa. She believes that we, in Australia, do have a national design identity, but it is multilayered and fluid, almost intuitive. “When we see a piece of furniture or product that we know is distinctly Australian, we can see the nuances that make it so”.

For the Against argument, we reflected on images from the ‘North Meets South’ exhibition curated by Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort in 2008. In it, she placed objects, tools, furniture and textiles side by side, which spoke a very similar design language — but were from vastly different cultures and times. These juxtapositions show that design language is universal and can arise from very different influences, processes and circumstances, yet the end result can be startingly similar.

Coming from a comparitively young country, Ruder doesn’t feel that Croatia’s national design identity is established, in contrast with Scandinavia or Italy, for example, which he describes as “Countries and nations with a history of design education and excellence; design is deeply rooted in their every day life”. And although Japan has a strong history of craft and design, and a distinctive aesthetic, Kensaku says, “I don’t like to work within [the boundaries of] iconic Japanese design objects. I try to bring a deep personal philosophy to my work. With great design, I’m not sure you can attach it to a place.”

Charles, self-confessed agnostic on the topic, agrees with Kensaku’s sentiments. With Broached Commission’s Broached Colonial project from 2011 — “We underwent a deliberate process of researching and exploring the cultural identity of Australian traditions, but I’m not sure that somebody looking at it in a blind test situation would recognise that as Australian,” he said.

Charles raised the interesting point that national flag-waving is not common in contemporary Australia. He cites early examples Lucien Henry and Robert Prenzel, who experimented with native fauna flora as a form of nation building that celebrated culture, both white and indigenous. In fashion, Jenny Kee certainly waves the flag; and in art, Ken Done. But a designer today who overtly celebrated national identity? “They’d be toast,” Charles quipped, only half-joking.

As we discussed the topic, more questions came up. Where is the indigenous presence in our discussion of national design identity? How can we develop a national design identity — and do we even want one?

I felt an undeniable sense of pride when I cast my eye over the furniture, lighting and objects of Australia’s designers past and present in January of 2017 in the ‘At Home’ exhibition curated by David Clark held in Old Government House, Sydney. The stories of each of the pieces he included do portray a distinctively Australian situation, attitude and approach to making.

However, as tantalising as the idea of a national design identity is — when we look at other cultures who have it — perhaps our extreme diversity is our commonality. And perhaps it just comes down to practicality. “Australian design is not yet a marketing proposition,” Charles said, referencing a major brand’s market research of the perception of Australian design in the United States. Indeed, when asked, most international designers, curators and thinkers know very little, if anything about Australian design. Which is partly why Local Design, the Australian collective curated by Emma Elizabeth that exhibited in Milan this year, caused such a stir in global media.

Questions about a national design identity never seem to elicit any firm responses, yet we persist in asking them. Why is this? For one, it’s not necessary to have a national stance as a designer. “The goal is to be known as a good designer, not a Croatian/Japanese/Australian designer,” says Ruder. “It has to be universally good, for the context for which it is made.”

And perhaps there is something else to this constant asking of Who We Are, which occurred to me while reading a book titled The Science of Yoga. In it, author Stephen Cope, who is an American clinical psychologist describes the period of adolescent development where psychologically we become obsessed with our own identity. Reading it while preparing for this talk made me wonder — perhaps this adolescence is what Australian design is experiencing. We don’t have the mature confidence of Italian and Scandinavian design, although we are perhaps are slightly more mature than, say, Croatian design. Looking at it this way, this self-reflexivity is natural. So to assist a graceful transition, rather than being consumed by it, ignoring it or angsting over why we care in the first place, let’s agree to keep discussing and debating, firm in the knowledge that rigorous self-awareness will make for a more finely-tuned (adult) design industry.

Podcast Part 1


Podcast Part 2

Related Topics:

Charles Wilson - Identity - Kensaku Oshiro - Lisa Cahill - National Identity - Nicky Lobo - Podcast - Ruder Novak-Mikulic - Speaker Series