Do you want ethics with that? New platforms for designing trust

Keynote for ConnectED Conference, University of New South Wales June 2010

My apologies first. This is not an academic paper. I won’t bring you an exciting new theory or methodology. What I hope to offer you is an emerging context for design. As the Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji says, ‘culture is not only a heritage, it is a project.’ The project in this case is to find a platform for ethical design that is more than window dressing, but offers real possibility for collaboration between the two halves of the world. To be successful, this project will need design educators to prepare students for the opportunities ahead.

So let me lay out the problem.

Which chocolate do you choose?


Let’s start with a familiar dilemma. You’re having a dinner party tonight. You decide it would be nice to offer your guests some chocolate with coffee after dinner. At the supermarket, you find there are two shelves of chocolates. The bottom shelf promises exotic flavours and organic ingredients. It guarantees to please the taste-buds of your dear friends. But the upper shelf tells a different story. These are Fair Trade chocolates, which may not taste better, but offer a better deal for the people who produced them. Which do you choose?

Increasingly, people are choosing Fair Trade. Why? It could be because they are noble minded and genuinely like to improve the lot of mankind. Yes, that would be nice, but we know human foibles too well these days. Perhaps they are aware of the global inequity. But our inner cynic suggests that rather than confront it by donating large amounts of excess cash, they prefer the easy way out—to assuage their conscience while indulging their appetites at the same time. Alternatively, perhaps they are more concerned to impress their guests. Nowadays, there’s kudos in being seen to support a social cause, whether it’s indigenous welfare or global poverty. Inserting some Fair Trade chocolate after dinner is a subtle way of making the right impression.

Whether you subscribe to the idealistic or cynical reading, ethics is becoming an increasingly important element in consumption. In this paper, I’d like to trace one particular ethical theme as it emerged from colonisation and examine where it might be leading in the future.

Global justice is ‘so 80s’

The very positive story of globalisation as opening societies and markets to international exchange has also unlocked the negative story of obvious inequity in the distribution of resources. This is the story of the ‘other half’—how the North discovered the great potential for wealth in the South and developed strategies for acquiring and keeping it.

As a lucky country, the efforts of colonisers in Australia were rewarded with rich mines and fertile farms, particularly for sheep and cattle. But not everyone was so fortunate. It was the role of missionaries to help those ‘unlucky ones’ dispossessed from their land for the sake of national prosperity. They were not there to stop the march to progress, but as Daisy Bates expressed it, to ‘smooth the pillow of the dying race’. The principle theme here is pity for the inevitable victims of progress.

Since then we’ve become a little more ambivalent about Western civilisation. Indigenous peoples are seen to represent not only an inevitable casualty of our greed, but also a common humanity. It was the Beatle, George Harrison, who in 1971 initiated the alliance between popular music and global suffering with A Concert for Bangladesh, to help victims of the Bangladesh Liberation War. The story of popular charity reached a peak in the mid-eighties, with Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid concerts to aid famine relief in Ethiopia and Michael Jackson’s We are the World, the fasted selling single of all time, dedicated to raising money for Africa.

While noble in its time, such popular gestures seem naive in retrospect. They were big on symbolism and camaraderie, but the link to practical gains was never clear. In retrospect, we might call them, ‘feel good exercises.’

The 21st century heralded a realism in popular mass philanthropy. In 2005, the Make Poverty History campaign, led by celebrities like Bono, targeted the G8 Summit in Gleneagles with a mass campaign involving concerts and silicone awareness bracelets. It was focused on specific systemic reforms, such as the cancellation of debt to third world countries.

While commendable in its realism, such campaigns are vulnerable to the criticism that they imply an image of a passive South that requires the intervention of the all-powerful North. One unfortunate side-effect of such an asymmetrical arrangement is a ‘compassion fatigue’. Our spirits sink at yet another image of starving children with bloated bellies.

Recently, we have seen an attempt to counter the ‘do-gooder’ appeal of philanthropy by making it sexy. The issue of Vanity Fair that Bono edited contained positive stories about a creative and optimistic Africa. And there are now many fashion companies that are marketing their third world roots, such as Juno, a company in New York that places Kenyan fabrics on the cat walk. But this path is inherently unsustainable, as the very feature of fashion is its temporary nature. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.’

With such changes in the nature of popular philanthropy, it is easy to reduce it to the fashions of the day. While we might be pleased that celebrities find it fashionable to align themselves with the fight against poverty in Africa, we know that fashion is cyclical and there will be an inevitable reaction against this in time. Oxfam have sensed this danger and countered with a new campaign that makes a virtue of 80s retro embarrassment, saying ‘giving never goes out of fashion.’ While fashion offers a way out from the smugness of global ‘do-gooders’, it is a particularly fickle conduit for exchange between North and South.

Where does design fit into this? During the history of this popular philanthropy, the world of design tended to be identified with the world of excess. The designer world was one of luxury and splendour available to only a few. But this changed in the mid-2000s. This turn-around for design reached its mea culpa moment with the confession in 2007 of Philippe Starke on the TED video site.

Design has a new global sense of responsibility. In 2007, entrepreneur Paul Polak founded Design for the other 90%, which became a touring exhibition starting at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. He argued that, ‘The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.’ Design for the other 90% resonates with the Make Poverty History campaign in two ways. First, it re-directs focus of our energies away from personal wealth-making to global justice. Second, it looks for practical solutions rather than symbolic gestures. But as with global philanthropy, this movement is vulnerable to the criticism that it reproduces an essentially unequal world of passive South and creative North.

New platforms

So how do we get ourselves out of this cycle? The solution, in one way, is quite simple, but also breathtakingly complex. The missing piece in this is the voice of the person who is the subject of this attention—the Global South. Has anyone asked them what they want? It’s widely recognised that the global balance is changing and that nations once silenced by poverty are now leading players on the world stage, such as China, India and Brazil. A great challenge for our time is to find a platform on which we can develop North-South dialogue. Such a platform should not just be a conduit for Western aid, but it should also be a reciprocal medium for exchange.

While celebrities have been putting Africa in the spotlight, on the sidelines there are less glamorous but arguably more effective conduits for development. These are alternative economic and value systems that attempt to factor in more than just market values for consumers. They seek to include also the experience of the producers themselves.

Fair Trade

During the 20th century, the Fair Trade movement has evolved quietly in suburbs and villages to provide consumers with a brand that assures them they are supporting the interests of third world producers. Rather than a mere gesture of support, Fair Trade attempts to embed itself in the economic system and so align consumption with philanthropy.

Fair Trade began in 1950 as a program by the Mennonite Church in the United States to further their missionary aims. It eventually shed its religious associations and became a branded product.The first Fair Trade consumer label was launched in 1988 by the Dutch company, Max Havelaar in partnership with a Mexican cooperative. During the mid 2000s, ­­Fair Trade sales of coffee and chocolate increased at a rate of around 50% a year. The advantage of Fair Trade is that it extends a common standard of labour conditions across the entire range of products. But this very standardisation makes it difficult to generalise in the design area, where one size does not fit all.

Chain of Custody

More specific to the design area are codes that relate to materials finding their way into finished products. The Chain of Custody was developed so that when you buy a piece of furniture you can know something about the conditions in which the timber was produced.

The Forestry Stewardship Council, through its accredited organisations, tracks the journey of material across the production process, from the forest to the consumer. It covers problems that may arise in unethical practices, such as illegal harvesting, violation of civil rights, endangering land of biological or cultural value, sourced from natural or genetically modified forest. Certification covers all stages of the process, from forestry, milling, manufacture and sale.

It’s an expensive process, costing around $50,000 plus travel expenses for creditors. But expense is worth it for high-volume companies that can add value through this ethical stamp. While useful in tracking ethics through a supply chain, the Chain of Custody is specific to material worth. It does not apply to intellectual property, which is one of the main components of design value.

World of Good

The World of Good platform sustains a particular set of concepts for reflecting the ethical value of goods. World of Good was founded in 2004 by two business graduates of Indian descent from Berkeley. Priya Haji and Siddharth Sanghvi . With companies such as Disney and Hallmark, they developed mainstream retail product lines for third world artisans. Earlier this year, their brand and related assets were acquired by ebay. Now the World of Good site within ebay offers products made by poor communities around the world.

There are many such online retailers of third world products, but World of Good is distinct in the development of a platform that commodifies trust as a component of the final product. World of Good works with organisations known as Trust Providers, who provide a guarantee that the products they are selling are of genuine philanthropic benefit. These benefits are divided into social and natural. The overall system is known as trustology. An essential component of the trustology is what is known as the ‘goodprint’ that includes details of the product’s positive moral impact. It’s like a food ingredient label, except for ethics.

So with the case of the Cotton Rounded Hill Tribe shoulder bag, the seller has been verified by the Trust Provider known as Empowerment Works. The product’s goodprint includes ‘a cooperative organisation’, ‘produced communally by women in a minority tribal group’ and made ‘from biodegradable materials.’

As a trading platform, ebay enables communication between buyer and seller, as well as a rating system. World of Good has a parallel capacity for dialogue. Each seller has a section on the site where they can communicate with the buyer. However, the basic moral lie of the land is a world of good rich people purchasing goods from grateful poor people. The potential for exchange is quite constrained.

The Two Hands Project

There is a third platform that is currently in development. This is being developed to support an informal dialogue occurring in the world of design. Many designers are now working with traditional communities in product development. The idea is to generate economic growth in a way that does not harm communities, as would be the case with resource extraction or sweatshops. In many cases, traditional crafts have lost their local markets, due to globalisation, and thus have to export their goods if they are to survive. Here designers come providing information about urban markets so that goods can be adapted to fit retail demands.

Take the example of the work by German jeweller designer Martin Dempf. In Rwanda there was a rich tradition of basket-making using papyrus grass involving dynamic designs. With the introduction of plastic bags, baskets were no longer necessary and thus they were no longer being made. The traditional craft was being forgotten. As part of a German development mission, Martina conducted workshops with women to refine the techniques and adjust the designs so that they could be converted into jewellery. Martina was then able to commission finely woven components from the women that she frames in silver. At the same time, the women have developed their own product line of jewellery without silver that they market through a website. Thus a cultural practice make obsolete through globalisation is revived through its transposition into an alternative format for export.

A parallel collaboration is occurring here in Sydney with Koskela designs, who commission Indigenous basket-weavers from Elcho Island to create covers for lampshades that they market for high-end clients. While basket-making is not so endangered as in Rwanda, its production is quite limited to specialist collectors. Koskela enables a bridge between the remote island community and the inner sanctum of corporate Australia.

We know that whenever solutions seem too ideal, it awakens our inner-cynic. While the stories that are associated with such products are generally positive, they don’t bear too close attention. Questions begin to arise. How do the women feel about this process? Is it humiliating to be working the primitive way while their neighbours are off getting an education to be part of the workforce? What was the creative involvement of the women? Was the design created solely by the designer, or was there input from the producers as well?

There is a project currently underway to consider how a stable platform might be developed for both designers and producers. The aim of the Two Hands Project is to open up the question of how the world of design relates to the world of production, art to craft, writing to printing, etc. The main vehicle for this is a Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations, which concerns itself with how a creator and a producer come to an arrangement in working together, and how this is communicated to the consumer. But its realisation extends naturally to a network of designers and communities interested in working together, as well as a forum for discussing critical issues. The Code is intrinsically open-ended, subject to constant review. For instance, there is much discussion at the moment about whether the use machine-tools is a good or bad thing for craft. Views may well change with time, particularly as we understand better the experience of the producer.

The Code itself is based on a UNESCO report, Designers Meet Artisans publication, which sought to present an equitable relationship between the traditional producers and the representatives of urban markets. The first iteration of the Code of Practice is limited to the Asia Pacific region. It will hopefully facilitate the increasing number of partnerships between creative practitioners from Australian urban centres and communities in Indigenous Australia and the Asia Pacific. These creative practitioners include artists, designers and retailers who are taking advantage of the relatively cheap skilled craft labour in countries like Indonesia, India and Vietnam, to produce finely made goods, like the sculptures by Rodney Glick that you might have seen at Cockatoo Island in the Sydney Biennale. There is great potential for both sides in these partnerships. For traditional communities, they have the opportunity to engage their distinct craft skills with the urban experience. Here is potential for the younger generation, otherwise draw inexorably to the cities for their future, to find a means of taking something of their distinct identity with them. And for urban markets, these partnerships offer some relief from the sterile factory processes and connection with traditional values that are important for connections between people and their place.

One of the considerations in such a code is the moral rights of producer. Since the Berne Convention, we have come to accept the moral rights of the creator in areas like attribution. However, the contribution of the producer is left to the whim of the marketing department—with the notable exception of the film industry. This hierarchy is based on the presumption that the contribution of the creator is unique, while its realisation is incidental. This is no doubt the case in many instances, and underpins the process of out-sourcing that has seen manufacturing move to China. But with skills shortages in the West, it is becoming increasingly apparent that craft plays a critical role in creative industries. At a recent UNESCO meeting, the creative director of Lanvin said that he may have to close his haute couture operation because his cutter was retiring and he couldn’t find anyone to replace her. In such cases where skills exercise a critical agency in the design process, it seems better for all that they are accredited and others are encouraged to pursue the honourable backstage crafts.

The Code is designed as a platform for carrying the information of the creative process from the site of production to its consumption. It will contain information about materials, cultural meanings and innovations.


All good, but perhaps too good. On their own, these elements do little to change the basic lie of the land, where producers labour away making delightful and intriguing objects for the enjoyment of the consumers. Perhaps such a platform can do a little more than provide the ethical consumer with information about their purchase.

Ethics beyond consumption

We see all these platforms developing that provide us with information about the worthiness of the production, but what about consumption? Why does ethical design end at the shop counter?

Along with the customer always being right, it is a taken for granted aspect of our economy that control over goods effectively ceases once the shrink-wrap is broken. We have an ethically made, sustainable product, but what guarantee is there that the consumer will keep to that spirit. Yet clearly one of the great problems in our world is rampant consumption, aided by high product disposability.

One possible answer lies in the legal system, where there exists a particular instrument that seeks to limit the use to which a purchase may be used. The covenant is a constraint exercised on the purchaser. Someone may, for instance, place a covenant on the sale of land so that it be maintained as a wilderness. The West Australian Department of Environment and Conservation provides assistance in those placing perpetual conservation covenants on their land.

A covenant-like system can be found in the area of intellectual property. Through Creative Commons, otherwise copyrighted material is freely available to anyone on the proviso that they use this material only for non-commercial purposes.

There’s an interesting experience applying this principle to jewellery. The Melbourne-based jeweller Vicki Mason has designed a series of brooches that carry a message about communal gardens as a practical step towards Australia becoming a republic. If you see someone wearing one of these, and express admiration for it, then you are likely to be given it. But it will be given to you only if you agree to the same condition, once someone else praises it.

Mason’s project introduces the economy of the gift, whereby an object given to you for free usually entails obligation of reciprocation. Some community projects now entail producing cheap objects to be distributed for free thus creating a sense of obligation in the recipient to give something back, as in the case of the Tsunamika doll produce by Upasana in India.


But given the sacred precept that the customer is always right, where might be the appeal of the covenant. To explore its potential, there is a project currently underway called Southern Charms which concerns the relatively neglected element of design—luck. To an extent, depending on chance seems the antithesis of the whole design project, yet it is very much an ongoing condition of life.

Traditionally, most jewellery served to either protect the user against misfortunate or ensure good luck for the future. A number of objects survived into the modern era, such as crucifixes. We associate these with superstition. We no longer believe that our fate is controlled by gods, angels or demons. Yet, we still persist in believing in luck. We say ‘good luck with…’

What is this luck? It essentially pertains to a venture where we cannot be sure of the outcome. There are many that we face individually, such as going for a job interview or undergoing cancer treatment. But there are also those that we face collectively, particularly climate change.

The Southern Charms project is about adapting traditional charms to contemporary problems. We are currently in the workshop phase. There have been workshops in Chile concerning responses to earthquake. The Melbourne workshop will deal with the threat of bushfires. The Sydney workshop, occurring this afternoon, has its own particular condition.

In designing for luck, the origins of the object are particularly important—who gave it to you and how it was produced. But its effectiveness also depends on its use. More esoteric objects require a recitation. Chinese charms often need to be place in particular parts of the house. And in most cases they need to be worn to be effective. It’s a fascinating challenge as it seems to go against basic principles of modern design, which aim for durability and adaptability, or smartness. ‘Power objects’ require the intervention of users to be effective. While this might seem a burden, think of the appeal of other household items such as pets and plants, whose very need for our attention is part of their appeal.

Skills for the future design challenge

I’d like to conclude on a note of appeal. In order to realise the potential of a platform like this, particular skills are required. Theoretically, we need an ecological design thinking that can encompass the entire product cycle, including the act of consumption. This will include resources such as Actor Network Theory. Methodologically, we need designers skilled in a creative diplomacy, who can build the trust that is essential to creative partnerships. Much of this can be drawn from the discipline of anthropology, which has learnt the art of patience in reading carefully from a community before jumping to conclusions. And finally, we need students with a curiosity not only about the future but also the past. There is much to be gained in recovering objects that once played such an important part in our lives, like lucky charms, to consider their role and whether can be remade for our urban lifestyles.


For this purpose, we need designers who aren’t necessarily going to invent magical new objects that drop from the sky. These new designers will be like bridges between two worlds, the North and the South, rich and poor, consumer and producer—two worlds that constitute our increasingly shrinking planet.

From Macramé to Digital Looms: Threads of Australian Identity

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.

Buckminster Fuller

Ned Kelly’s armour is one of our most iconic objects. It tells the story of innovation and defiance as one man stood up against the full force of the law. Less well known is the ornate green silk cummerbund that he wore under the armour. The cummerbund had been a reward for saving the life of a drowning boy. The kind of story it tells is a very different one of compassion and sensuousness. Metal and textiles represent quite opposite experiences of the world. Yet a rich culture finds expression through the full diversity of materials. While we are most familiar with the depiction of Australian life in film and painting, crafts offer a more immediate tactile experience that reflects the rhythm of work and care for things. In the art of textiles, we have a distinctive language of shelter, comfort, gender, growth and decay.

A collection such as that of Ararat Regional Gallery plays a critical role in maintaining this idiom.[1] With an economy that has ridden ‘on the sheep’s back’ for so long, fibre deserved a cultural voice of its own. Through this collection, we can experience key works in the development of our capacity as a culture to clothe our identity. We witness a metamorphosis in which inherited textile traditions are destroyed in creative experimentation, only to be re-constructed in a language more appropriate to the medium and its context. We see the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly.

Prior to the 1960s, textile arts in Australia were quite underdeveloped. A number of active community associations had been established, such as the Country Women’s Association and local guilds. In the trying circumstances of European farming in an antipodean environment, needlework has provided a critical creative activity to cope with the hardship and uncertainty of life on the land. No matter how severe the drought, you could always embroider floral patterns. But until the 1960s, this work was yet to find a place in art galleries.[2] Things were about to explode.

The Experimental 70s

Textile arts were undergoing a revolution by the mid 20th century. Previously bound to tradition and tied to the loom, weaving was experiencing its moment of liberation as artists began experimenting with ‘off the loom’ techniques. In the visual arts, sculptors like Eva Hesse were eschewing the fine materials of tapestry for anything that was cheap and pliable. Artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz were effecting a change in weaving parallel to that of abstract expressionism in painting. This was a move away from illustration to a more tactile form of expression with three-dimensional fibrous works.

1976 was a watershed year for textile arts in Australia. In this year, the Victorian Tapestry Workshop opened, providing a critical platform for the sustainability of weaving skills. The workshop represented a renaissance model of weaver as interpreter of painting. By contrast, in that same year, the Polish artist Mariana Abakanowicz visited Australia to demonstrate the value of textiles as an autonomous medium.

The 1970s was a period of intense experimentation as Australia re-discovered itself through the arts, particularly film, music and theatre. A new generation of textile artists emerged to meet the challenges laid by overseas artists like Abakanowicz.

In the mid 70s, the Ararat collection really began to ‘take off’ with the acquisition of works that liberated themselves from the gallery wall. In 1974, the gallery purchased Amanda (1974) by German-born Jutta Federrsen. This quintessential work of ‘soft sculpture’ expresses the materiality of jute, sisal and feathers in a suggestive form.[3] Another ‘off the wall’ piece was purchased in 1976; Wool Corporation, made by English-born embroiderer Heather Dorrough, is an iconic work that connects this exuberant energy with Ararat’s role in the national economy. The piece strongly reflects the merino pride of the region, using woollen blankets to construct six fully-fleeced rams.

The exuberance of the time is epitomised in the ‘born to be wild’ work by English-born Vivienne Pengilley. Ducati Trip (1977) is defiantly constructed of chrome, mylar, rabbit fur and padlock. Suspended from the ceiling, Pengilley’s work could not be further from the traditional image of the weaver, patiently tied to the loom. We see a slightly more demure expression of this exuberance in the later work by Julie Montgarrett, Fleeter (1985), dedicated to her elder sister using the textile medium to express the fluidity of dance.

Meanwhile a quieter rebellion was brewing in basketry with experiments in use of local materials. Jean Lange was one of the pioneers, having developed techniques by herself in the Barossa Valley. She is represented by a basket of watsonia leaves, which incorporates elements of Australian nature within a traditional form.

This scene was given a significant boost in 1981 with the arrival of Douglas Fuchs from the USA. Fuchs was deeply influenced by indigenous traditions, listing as inspiration Philippine fish traps, Gullah baskets and the woven sheath of a Jivaro head-hunter’s knife. In Australia, he championed a fibre primitivism, declaring that ‘I saw Dilly bags in the collection of the National Museum in Victoria that were as sophisticated and complex as any Picasso.’ On arrival, Fuchs travelled immediately to central Australia in order to steep himself in Aboriginal culture. His Kurrajong Totem offers an interpretation of traditional forms such as eel traps and employs an encyclopaedic range of indigenous materials.

Closely associated with Fuchs was the local weaver John Corbett, who was also Abakanowicz’s assistant during her Australian visit. His Hammock (1976) uses a South American form to express the tactile quality of fleece. This dangling form is strikingly at odds with the taut structure of traditional weaving. Fuchs also inspired one of Australia’s most important basket makers, Virginia Kaiser, who is well represented in this collection through both acquisitions and the Victorian State Craft collection. Dragon’s Blood (1987) is a wonderful example of how basket makers can take a wild feature of Australian flora and transform it into a complex decorative pattern.

Bush matter is an enduring source of inspiration for artists in Western Australia, thanks to individuals like the late Elsje King. King helped establish the legendary annual bush camps at Edith Cowan University’s Textile Department where students and staff ventured out into the ‘wilderness’ and learned to make works of art only from the materials that they could find around them. More recently in the career of Nalda Searles, King’s influence has expanded through Western Australia into various poetic uses of the bush and collaborations with indigenous artists.

While experimenting with materials that could be found in nature, there was also exploration of materials from the body, such as hair. Just before becoming inaugural director of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Sue Walker produced a surreal combination of domestic implements out of crocheted horsehair. Afternoon Tea in Horse Hair (1975) takes the spirit of experimentation with materials into the domestic realm. The following year, the gallery purchased another horse hair work in explosive colours. The renowned Colombian textile artist Olga de Amaral constructed her epic Coraza in Dos Colores (Shield in two colours, 1973) out of pink handspun wool and horsehair.

In later years, the spirit of experimentation moved beyond materials themselves to explorations of fantasy in textile art. Inga Hunter’s Robes of the Imperium series (1986-89) were constructed around an entire universe of textiles, in which planets’ names were Japanese textiles spelt backwards, such as Irasaq (Kasuri). Nola Jones Rhinegold (1987) inspired by Wagner’s operas, reflects an unbridled theatricality.

Soft sculpture also began to encompass figurative work. Ewa Pachucka’s Woman with Python (1978) was invented from crochet and polypropylene. Fibre works such as Pachucka’s use the figure of the human body to animate materials that otherwise are mere matter. Having arrived from Poland in 1971, Pachucka was one of many migrants who were instrumental in developing textile art in Australia, with a particular vision for folk textiles in Tasmania. The scope of textiles went far beyond domestic crafts: ‘I want to see craft coming from the very roots of the people.’ A more introspective turn towards self and identity is reflected in Pam Gaunt’s The Shape of Things to Come (1987) and Tass Mavrogordato’s It’s Different for Girls (1993).

As well as foreign influences arriving on Australian shores, there was also a strong interest in traditional cultures beyond. Wendy Stavrianos Wedding Dress (1975) is a costume made for her own wedding from curtain fabrics and inspired by the robes of Greek shepherds. The collection features a strong Latin American theme, reflecting the discovery of pre-Columbian textiles. Ann Greenwood’s Three Mamucanas (1982) draws from her experiences in Peru and relates to the matriarchal transmission of weaving skills in traditional Aymara culture. It is fitting that these South American references are crowned in this collection by Juan Davila’s School of Santiago (1993) which ornaments an icon of Western culture (Van Gough painting) with a crochet border.

The formative 80s

Out of this period of rhizomic experimentation, a new tradition of Australian textiles began to crystallise. This is reflected first in a more developed thematic focus, and then in a more professional approach to textile art.

Textile art began to tell a distinctively Australian story. We glimpse the beginning of this in more traditional weavers such as Jess Brookes from the Handweavers and Spinners Guild. The canvas broadens with the ‘patchwork impressionism’ of Lois Densham’s Wheatfields (1981), which celebrates a working rural landscape. In Gippsland, Annemieke Mein developed a distinctive language of three-dimensional embroidery for representing Victorian nature, as in her Pink Emperor Gum Moth (1982). Having just arrived from Scotland, Valerie Kirk began a series of explorations through the Australian outback and became particularly interested in the story of opals. In Story of the Opal (1985), Kirk uses patchwork techniques to incorporate a variety of perspectives including palaeontology, mining and Aboriginal mythologies. She also uses textiles as a medium to bridge cultures in her work for the Victorian sesquicentenary in Possum Skin Cloaks became Patchwork Quilts (1985). Not all works were celebratory. Rosalie Cogan’s Luck of the Draw (1987) used the issue of national service to evoke the practice of needlework as a salve for those awaiting return of their loved ones from the theatre of war. And Tony Dyer’s Tourist Trap (1989) employs the traditional Indonesian technique of batik dyeing to reflect ironically on the droves of Australians who flock to holiday destinations like Bali.

These works established the ground for many contemporary textile artists who have developed a powerful language for the expression of place, such as Ilka White’s evocation of landscape and Paull McKee’s work on the vernacular make-do of textile crafts such as the Wagga blanket.

During the 80s, tertiary courses expanded and so began an interest in the theoretical meaning of crafts. Australian textile art was particularly suited to the academic interest in gender, in particular the lowly status of domestic life. Books such as Rozsika Parker’s Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (1989) identified textiles not only as an instrument for the confinement of women, but also the source of their creative agency and expression. Kay Lawrence’s House/Self (1989) was inspired by Helen Garner’s novel Children’s Bach, reflecting on the complex psychology of housework as the recovery of order from the tangles of family life. The tapestry interweaves opposing views—the masculine external architecture of the house and the feminine internal life. Continuing this interest, the complex layers of family life are represented in Sarah CrowEAST’s Red Counter Pain (1994), reflecting the life cycle of nature and human reproduction.

Textiles as a medium for representing the world between private and public is also reflected in the work of one of Victoria’s most distinguished tapestry weavers, Kate Derum. In the Heat of the Moment (1999) evokes a midnight world of shadows and dreams. Derum’s piece was woven on a scaffold loom using the technique of nomadic rugs. By this means she was able to incorporate the 70s spirit of improvisation into the more structured narrative of tapestry.

Textiles became an important medium for the expression of transformation. Richard Goodwin’s Air/Past Sample/Future Tense (1990) renders nature in the lifeless rags of a discarded doll. The subversive stitch is given a more radical turn in the work by Annabelle Collett The re-make / The Great leap forward (1982) which reflected the Chinese cultural revolution which remade revolutionary outfits from bourgeois clothes.

Also evolving from this period of experimentation is a more abstract form of expression. This signals a return to the two-dimensional plane of tapestry, though its source of expression is the structural nature of weaving itself, rather than traditional motifs. While the 70s focused on materials, innovation in the 80s largely concerned techniques.

We see an early example of this in Basic Forms in Black and White (1975) by Roma Center, which strives for an architectural form out of the disciplines of weaving. Michael Brennand-Wood’s Journey to Shiloh (1984) is an optical experiment creating a space between two and three dimensions.

Recently celebrated as a ‘Living Treasure’ of Australian craft, Liz Williamson is one of the strongest practitioners of the new structuralism. Crinkled Length (1985) is an important early work exploring the complex combinations of colour through warp and weft. Williamson is distinctive for the manner in which she is able to give body her to weave, which she later reflected in works constructed from Shibori methods and deconstructed through washing and darning.

Canadian weaver Marcel Marois Mutation (1994) explores the temporal dimension of weaving by contrast with newspaper photography, the half-tone dots dissolving into woven structure. This is something picked up later by Victorian weaver Tim Gresham whose tapestries engage with the silver halide texture of black and white photographic prints of modernist architecture.

Jennifer Robertson has been at the forefront of weaving technology. Her triple weave method enables the construction of three separate but linked layers of cloth to be woven simultaneously. Robertson’s Cones (2004) emerged from the scanning technologies available in Montreal. Her work is constructed from digital photographs of Chinese ink and resist drawings of cones, which are imported into a French Jacquard program which translates pixels into threads and colours into structures.

A return to the language of weaving continues as a strong theme in Australian textiles today, reflected particularly in the modernist inquiries of Sara Lindsay.


The late 20th century witnessed a monumental story of cultural transformation for Australia. The Ararat Regional Gallery’s textile collection contains a unique chapter in this development which sits alongside other languages that matured in this period. In ceramics, Western traditions were replaced by Japanese techniques for reflecting the Australian landscape. In jewellery, a conceptual project developed to incorporate ordinary materials and extend the range of ornament beyond conventional sites. And we see in textiles a language of making that expresses the tactile dimension, often representing our common stories through a patient labour at the loom or the lap.

The experimental textile works 70s might seem as outdated as flares in fashion. But viewed from this distance, we can appreciate the inherited traditions they emerged from, and the new language of textiles they helped bring into being.

The history of textile art in Australia is a tangible component in the formation of cultural identity in the late 20th century. This history lays the foundation for the innovative and intricate textile art we enjoy today. The butterfly takes flight.

[1] Sifting through the documents of this collection tells a story in itself. Many of the works are accompanied by handwritten letters from the artists, thrilled to be in the Ararat Collection and anxious to provide useful information to ensure the longevity of their works. As a special bonus, many of these artists request copies of slides of their work. These handwritten notes signify a work quite different to our own, when the only time people looked at screens was to gather together around the box in the corner. It’s an important world to maintain contact with.

[2] There were some important developments in textile printing, with some batik experiments in Adelaide during the 1920s. Designers like Frances Burke and Michael O’Connell attempted to develop particularly Australian textile patterns. Finnish Rya rugs were popular in the 1950s, but we were yet to develop our own language of fibre.

[3] Off the loom weaving had been pioneered in Australia by Mona Hessing, whose work Nest was acquired in 1995.

This essay was written for the 40th anniversary of Ararat Regional Art Gallery

A New Worldliness in Contemporary Jewellery

‘Do not suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion: commit yourself again to the current of the world.’

Samuel Johnson

The Smithsonian museum is currently displaying the ‘Wittelsbach Blue’ diamond, supposedly the world’s most precious gem. Originally from India, it had been passed down in the crowns of Spanish and German monarchs for three centuries until it was purchased for $AUS32.4m by billionaire diamond dealer Laurence Graff.

To the horror of specialists, Graff set about re-cutting this treasure to improve its appearance. A dismayed expert from Sotheby’s commented, ‘With the Wittelsbach Blue, you knew how it came into existence… You know who has worn it, what kinds of historical events it has gone through and what social upheavals it was present for.’[1] In re-cutting the diamond, Graff has erased centuries of regal history.

It is strange to think that a diamond can have a heritage value—that such a hard stone can reveal the passage of time through scratches and chips. This conflicts with the purely commercial paradigm for diamonds, where traces of previous use detract from value.

The Wittelsbach Blue is certainly multi-faceted. Much like other precious jewels in the Western tradition, it enhances the status of the individual wearer. But even at the level of the Wittelsbach Blue, there is a strong counterbalance of public interest. There are expectations that the owner is not only purchasing an object for his own enjoyment, there is also the implied responsibility as custodian of collective memory, embodied in the singular precious object. There is a public dimension to even the most commodified individual jewel.

Australian contemporary jewellery has a parallel ambivalence. In most cases, it provides a language for expression of individuality. The designs are original. A wearer of contemporary jewellery publically presents a self that is at odds with conformist fashion brands. Unlike a branded product, the wearer can actually say who made it.

Signs of Change develops this public nature of contemporary jewellery further—beyond the personal and into the political. In this exhibition, the possibilities of jewellery beyond personal adornment are explored in two ways: the practical function of jeweller as a means of restoring or enhancing lifestyle, and the role of jewellery in binding social relations. It is to the latter social function particularly that I will now address.

On the tiger’s back

Since beginning of the twentieth century, modernity has witnessed waves of innovation. The predominant effect of phenomena such as mass media, industrial design, and Google has been to broaden access to cultural goods. Similarly, political revolutions have been accompanied by the elevation of common attire, from the sans-culottes of the French revolution and Mao jackets of the Chinese Communist Party to the blue jeans of the American youth movement. It seems the inexorable mission of modernity is to replace the rare treasures of aristocratic elites with the common identifiers of popular culture. As Andy Warhol noted about the popularity of Coke, ‘What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.’[2]

We can see the contemporary jewellery movement playing its own role in this progression. There are key moments, such as Ralph Turner’s 1976 exhibition Jewellery Redefined, which celebrated the introduction of non-precious materials, including paper and plastic. Jewellery was no longer limited to traditional components of splendour like gold and diamonds. The key is instead an artistic imagination that could transform ordinary materials into works of art.

The new studio model positioned the jeweller as an artist. This meant the freedom to create work for its own sake, regardless of tradition, function, or marketplace.

In Australia, this studio model arrived fortuitously at a time when Australian universities were undergoing a radical transformation. No longer bastions of privilege, they were expected to open their doors to near universal access. Previously taught as a trade, jewellery courses emerged in now in universities where craft was seen as a theoretical field on par with visual arts, if not literature. Many students were the first in their family to have a tertiary education. It is natural that, as an upwardly-mobile class took over bastions of privilege, it celebrates the overturning of traditions. The resulting work questioned our assumptions of jewellery, including what is precious in our world.

But, as the Chinese say, when you are on a tiger’s back, it is impossible to get off. The modernist critique that was once used to clear away tradition eventually starts undermining the structures that replaced it. The model of jeweller as artist, once a form of defiance against the traditional status as artisan, eventually becomes another myth to be debunked. The liberating quest of modernity seeks new frontiers. Where will they be found?

Ethical turn

We now see an alternative model of jewellery emerging—from the bench to the street. Artistic vision has been a productive context for the emergence of contemporary jewellery, and will continue to be. But we see now a broadening context that enables jewellery to return to its place in everyday life—as useful device, social link or call for action. How might a piece of jewellery make its way beyond the bench, into the kitchen, the backyard, the street, the public square?

Function has been at odds with modern art. As Berthold Brecht puts it, ‘There are times when you have to choose between being a human and having good taste.’ To limit work to its usefulness has been seen as a Puritan reduction of art for its own sake. This undermines the transcendental nature of art as a freedom to reflect upon the world, rather than being bound to it.

This situation is changing. With the ethical turn in recent times, we have seen a re-evaluation of function in art. The shift began with the emergence of relational aesthetics at the end of the twentieth century. In reaction against commodification in the art world, the relational paradigm read art in terms of its audience relations. The artist was no longer lone genius revealing higher truths beyond the everyday world. Instead, his or her role was to be a conduit for bringing people together in surprising ways. It was a dramatic move. Overnight, galleries became restaurants.

While it may seem revolutionary in the visual arts, the relational approach has been a consistent thread in the contemporary jewellery movement. In Australia during 1990s, there had been much discussion about the relationship between the crafts and visual arts. A key argument around this question emerged in the Production Reproduction exhibition, curated by Suzie Attiwill as part of the 1995 Melbourne JMGA conference. The multiple production of jewellery, which may seem contrary to the romantic view of the artist, was here upheld as a defining feature. Rather than being conceived for one private owner, jewellery can be produced for a group. Such a jewellery object offers a point of common identity as a modern totem.

In Australian jewellery, the relational paradigm offered a platform to continue experimentation. In this case, the focus was not on the physical material to be transformed, but in the social dimension. The 2007 exhibition Solutions for Better Living curated by Kate Rhodes explored this from different angles. Roseanne Bartley translated the necklace into a metaphor for social gatherings. General Assembly by Blanche Tilden and Phoebe Porter pressed the democratic button strongly, enabling public to make their own selection of components for a brooch. Susan Cohn returned to the democratic brooch in order to distribute a work of visual art among many.

While the relational path helps recover a lost dimension of craft, in visual art it can go around in circles. Relational aesthetics has had limited success in broadening the social engagement in art beyond existing audiences—predominantly young, mobile, educated and urban. These are not new audiences: pre-existing art followers are just finding a more participatory way of engaging with art. In the relational context, it can be argued that craft and design have greater potential to intervene in the world.

This potential is evident now particularly with the ethical turn in contemporary design. In 2007 the design ‘guru’ Philippe Stark made the public confession that ‘today I’m so ashamed to make this job.’[3] Stark called for a much less glamorous approach to design, with an emphasis on practical improvement, ‘even if it’s for toilet brush’. Stark’s act of contrition is accompanied by a wave of philanthropic design, such as the Cooper Hewitt exhibition Design for the Other 90%, which highlighted proposals for improving living standards in poor communities.

The ethical design movement is to be welcomed not only as a more egalitarian focus, but also as fresh source of innovation in the field. But there is a danger.

Unfortunately, ethics is fashionable. Recently Oxfam ran an advertisement of a pig in leotards in order to console anxious patrons that ‘Giving will never go out of fashion’. The need to make this statement at all is an indication that even ethics can become a bandwagon, and what comes up the fashion swing will inevitably come down as last year’s fad. For this reason, it is imperative that ethical craft and design remain innovative and not rest on its laurels, no matter how worthy. The works developed by jewellers in this exhibition demonstrate much scope for innovation.

Handy around the home

Objects in Signs of Change divide roughly into practical and social functions. While my focus will be mostly on the social, it is important to recognise the new possibilities for jewellery as a practical device.

In her 1989 exhibition And does it work? Susan Cohn included objects reflecting the jewellery dimension of new devices, such as headphones and radio mikes. In a more covert way, Leah Heiss marries ornament and technology with rings that dispense insulin. They both perform their function efficiently and adorn the wearer’s finger. In a more decorative manner, Sarah O’Hara uses laser technologies to produce a monocle that is as interesting to look at as to look through.

Others link jewellery to environmental concerns. Rui Kikuchi demonstrates the luxurious beauty possible in the use of recycled PET bottles. Jessica Jubb is inspired by the recovery of nature in mine rejuvenation in the south-west. Bethany Linton highlights endangered flora. Donna Franklin and Simone Hicks make a very direct link with nature by incorporating living fungi into jewellery. And Nikki Stott re-purposes bio-technology to update the classic social function of jeweller in forging a ring that binds a couple together for life.

The emergence of groups like Ethical Metalsmiths has focused attention on the environmental impact of jewellery production as an essential part of its value. Works in this exhibition show how jewellers can respond both to internal issues of its manufacture—use of recycled metals—and external concerns in the world outside—promoting sustainability.

Jewellery can connect with the intimate lived spaces of everyday life. Sean O’Connell has developed ornament specifically for functional devices in our everyday life. The increased obsolescence of domestic appliances reflects a temporary world of latest technologies and fashions. Previously, as evoked by the controversy of the Wittelsbach Blue, long-lived objects could absorb deep memories and relay previous care and labour in well-worn surfaces and patched coverings. O’Connell is interested in the commonly broken elements, such as the switch on an electric kettle. Rather than see this as a shameful flaw, he takes this as an opportunity for ornament. In a similar way, some ceramicists sometimes repair a broken vessel with gold leaf, highlighting the repair.

Jayne Wallace also focuses on the role of ornament in domestic life. She is interested in the way jewellery can evoke memories and how this can assist those losing their link to the past through dementia. Her practice involves in depth consultation with family and sufferer to identify the prompts necessity to keep memory alive.

Helen Britton and Justine McKnight explore how jewellery can be adapted to the informal styles of life around the home and backyard. In terms of clothing, the t-shirt is a body covering that moves freely between home and street. It appears during periods of physical exertion such as a gym session or mowing the law. But it can also take on a public dimension with a novel design or witty saying. Despite its ubiquity, it seems rare to find jewellery on a t-shirt. Partly this is because of its informal status, but also as an extremely light garment, it is difficult to attach conventional jewellery such as brooches. So Helen and Justine have designed lightweight components to complement designs specific to t-shirts. T-shirt jewellery has the potential to dignify an otherwise humble form of clothing.

One of the Signs of Change is thus the broadening of ornament beyond the formal public body to the world close at hand.

Distributed jewellery

Meanwhile, the world today provides increasing opportunities for jewellery to embrace social networking. One of Oxfam’s most popular items is the Little Travellers, produced by Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust in South Africa.[4] Purchasers are encouraged to send images of their little beaded bride dolls from various corners of the world. In the case of jewellery, an Argentinean painter Francine has produced a series of hand-made brooches featuring miniature versions of her painted landscapes.[5] For Be My Walking Gallery, she encourages owners of her brooches to post online images of themselves wearing her works—effectively using jewellery as a distributed gallery. Like tracking devices, such distributed jewellery connects people together, despite their distances.

Such developments reflect the gregarious nature of contemporary consumption, finding new ways of bringing people in contact with each other. But also, from the other end, it suggests that the ever-expanding virtual communities need something real to ground themselves in our everyday lives.

Vicki Mason has been producing classic floral brooches that cleverly incorporate materials such as plastic and haberdashery. This work has been borne out of a celebration of gardening. For this exhibition she has taken her interest onto the political stage and made work that engages with the issue of Australia becoming a republic. Her brooches feature a broken crown to highlight this issue.

As it is, this would be standard practice for a jeweller seeking to make a statement with a work that goes on public display in a gallery setting. But Mason takes this further by releasing these works into the world on completion of the exhibition. Those fortunate enough to win a brooch for themselves at the exhibition opening will be required to agree to a covenant that commits them, in turn, to passing this brooch on to someone else. For anyone to receive the brooch, they must fulfil certain conditions: they must express an interest in it, be aware of its relation to the republican cause, and be willing to give it over to someone else in turn. The covenant is similar to systems such as Copyleft, which agree to use of intellectual property as long as it is not for restricted private gain. And like the use of tags in the Culturing the Body (2002) project by Roseanne Bartley, the jewellery functions to collect responses to an idea.

There are certain kinds of mass ornament that have emerged alongside social networking. They carry its spirit, but are not formally connected to online activity. The Make Poverty History bracelet was widely adopted as a sign of solidarity around issues of global equity, particularly the crippling debt owed by African countries. Promoted by celebrities such as Bono it was designed to press the issue around initiatives such as the Millennium Goals.

Like the red AIDS ribbon, this pioneering design has spawned many imitations, eventually demeaning its original value. What was initially a matter of individual commitment becomes eventually a matter of mass conformity. But what is a loss to mass fashion is an opportunity for contemporary jewellery. Renee Ugazio has developed an ingenious means of reviving this form by enabling individual customisation. Plastic bracelets can be recycled into bracelets, necklaces, brooches and even knuckle-dusters.

At the street level, one of the most successful items of jewellery is the DIY friendship bracelet. Produced by braiding several threads of wool, this bracelet has become a universal means by which individuals mark a personal commitment to another.

Areta Wilkinson has developed a substantial career as a jewellery artist with some of New Zealand’s most impressive recent exhibitions. Yet alongside these individual works, she has also developed a way of making a brooch that can be quickly learnt in a workshop. The Matiriki star commemorates the Maori New Year based on the appearance of the Pleiades constellation. As social jeweller, Wilkinson has forged a method to disseminate this festival broadly through host hands and bodies.

An alternative ethical dimension of jewellery involves working with traditional artisans. The German Martina Dempf has combined jewellery with anthropology through her project with basket-makers in Rwanda. Through workshops, Rwandan women have developed a means of refining their techniques to be incorporated into jewellery, such as brooches and necklaces. This has added to her own repertoire: she incorporates commissioned grass components into her work. But there is a developmental side as well with the women selling their own new jewellery range online. Dempf thus is able to make jewellery which reflects the issues that were raised by the Make Poverty History bracelets. But she goes beyond a purely symbolic engagement. She manages to both provide new opportunities for underprivileged women and create pieces of inherent beauty in themselves.


The jewellers in Signs of Change demonstrate that the functional need not be a creative dead end. Form doesn’t necessarily just blindly follow function, it dances around it. But there is still space in jewellery practice for radical expressions of individuality. This exhibition includes features some of new strategies for artistic creation. Erin Keys’ work captures wild gestural energies. Her arm bands resemble graffiti tagging, which is seen as a meaningless scourge of modern streets. Yet fixing it in jewellery frames it as a source of baroque fascination. In Read/Write Jewellery, Otto von Busch employs a Punk emblem, the safety pin, to create a means for wearers to inscribe their own forms. And Helena Bogucki cameos employ the technique of flooding to disenchant a form that is associated with elitism.

Change is gonna come…

Signs of Change is an opportunity to consider the public life of jewellery. While this may seem at odds with the inherently intimate nature of adornment, it reflects the mission of contemporary jewellery to critically engage with its place in the world. It is not just about ticking a box of political correctness. The do-gooder is easy to satirise. There is an experimental dimension of ethical design that challenges our preconceptions. The ethical mode of practice places significant responsibility in the hands of the jeweller. Once attached to a human host, jewellery has great potential power—not only as testament to the taste of the individual wearer, but also as a sign of change in the wider world.


[2] Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol London: Picador, 1975





This is a catalogue essay for the Signs of Change exhibition