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Designers move beyond the dots

  • By nada

Alison Page was interviewed by Ray Edgar from The Age newspaper, discussing the Indigenous perspective on Design

Alison Page offers a simple premise: ”What would the Australian lounge-room look like if it was designed from an Aboriginal perspective?”

Page is perhaps the most high profile of the new generation of designers promoting Aboriginal culture.

”It’s all about stories,” she says. It might be the Milky Way in Lucy Simpson’s fabrics or the abundant seed pods in Brentyn Lugnan’s lace curtains. These abstract patterns inspired by dreaming stories reflect the ongoing nature of kinship bound by storytelling. The fact that the stories from Simpson’s Yuwaalaraay heritage or Lugnan’s Gumbaynggirr ancestors now appear in domestic environments where people gather only reinforces that notion.

Alison Page.Alison Page.

”I love to say ‘Aboriginal design isn’t a new thing’,” says Simpson, the creative force behind the label Gaawaa Miyay. ”It’s been something that’s been perfected over thousands of years. But people are recognising it now and becoming aware of it.”

National touring exhibitions such as Cusp and the first Australian Indigenous Fashion Week in April, help magnify the profile of Aboriginal design, Fabia Pryor says. A sustainable business consultant, she specialises in ethical and indigenous fashion and textiles. According to Pryor, the Aboriginal design business is ”biting at the heels” of the multimillion-dollar Aboriginal art industry.

”The industry is at the cusp and about to become much more commercial,” she says.

Cups by Alison Page.

A former panellist on the ABC’s New Inventors, Page is an award-winning designer and executive officer of the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance, a not for profit organisation governed by 10 local Aboriginal land councils on the mid-NSW coast.

Two years ago Page established the National Aboriginal Design Agency as the commercial arm of the alliance. As its creative director she helps broker commercial partnerships. Clients include Westpac, for whom NADA is doing a fit-out at Barangaroo. Meanwhile several NADA artists feature in Cusp.

”It’s about looking at the Australian style and honouring the fact that Aboriginal art and storytelling should be central to the Australian style,” says Page, a descendant of the Walbanga and Wadi Wadi people of the Yuin nation.

Even the most highly functional objects such as the boomerang have a story carved into them, she says. ”It builds preciousness into objects. So the cups we use every day, the carpets we walk on, everything around you in your home, if it has a greater level of meaning to you it speaks to you, then it’s going to be more precious. It’s not a throwaway item.”

Page sees Aboriginal design as ”a great opportunity for Australian manufacturers to get in with something innovative and be the first to market with something that has a global appeal. There’s a push away from the generic”.

For all this enthusiasm, Victorian indigenous design is lagging, says Tracey-Lea Smith, manager of Baluk Arts on the Mornington Peninsula. ”Melbourne is seen as a mecca of design yet how come we are so behind when it comes to working with Aboriginal artists and design?” she asks.

In the long-term, Smith believes the mainstreaming of Aboriginal design may help change perceptions of the value and variety of indigenous people’s work. ”[Baluk Arts] has 2.5 million tourists a year and the majority walk out because they haven’t seen a dot painting,” says Smith.

Page agrees. ”I love challenging that more than anything,” she says. ”The thing people find most surprising about my aesthetic is that it’s very clean and very minimal and quite abstract – it’s not just about animal totems or dots because there is such diversity within Aboriginal art. We need to bring that aesthetic to the design world.

”I would like to create objects that have an incredible meaning that people would want to keep for 40,000 years.”