As a source of inspiration for designers and architects, Australian Indigenous culture should not be underestimated. At a recent talk on shield carving by Andrew Snelgar and Simon Penrose at the Art Gallery of NSW, I saw first hand the beauty of traditional shields, tools and weapons made by hand. I also learnt about practices such as the harvesting of timber from trees – up to two thirds of a tree can be removed without killing it.
Two contemporary Indigenous designers drawing on Indigenous Australian traditions in their practices are Lucy Simpson, a textile and graphic designer who sells scarves, textiles, jewellery and objects under the name Gaawaa Miyay, and Nicole Monks, a designer working across art, interiors, fashion, set and surface design (Lucy and Nicole are both participants in the Arts NSW 2016 Indigenous Design Mentorship scheme facilitated by the Australian Design Centre).
Lucy Simpson is a Sydney-based Yuwaalaraay woman belonging to the freshwater, red sand, black soil and flat plain country of the Walgett Angledool and Lightning Ridge region of northwestern NSW. Lucy identifies the principles of Aboriginal design as notions of connectedness in materiality and connections to place, complex and integrated knowledge systems, tradition and cultural practice, understanding around care of country, and sustainability. “Most often created from the earth and returning to the earth, Aboriginal design is a vehicle for communication or knowledge transfer, and story, in the form of oral traditions and life teachings,” Lucy explains.
This approach to design can be seen in Lucy’s use of storytelling in her work, communicating aspects of Aboriginal culture as well as connections to family story and place through colour, material and motif. Her works are made from natural materials using environmentally-conscious processes, including textiles such as her tea towels for Gaawaa Miyay. Yilaalu is an artwork made of paperclay and ironbark string that was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia last year. “As a Yuwaalaraay designer, I have a responsibility to represent my family and community with respect in my role as caretaker of the story and knowledge that has been passed on to me,” says Lucy.
“For me, Aboriginal design represents thoughtful, integrated and often multifunctional design. It is innovative, timeless and steeped in experience, story and connections to country and place. These are beautiful and universal concepts which I feel most designers could aspire to and relate to.”
Nicole Monks draws on her Aboriginal (Wajarri Yamatji), Dutch and English heritage in her work, through which she shows a respect for the land and the stories that are linked to it. Her work is made with eco-friendly and sustainable materials, and are made to order, custom made or produced in limited edition to eliminate waste. Each work is named using Wajarri Yamatji words in order to keep the language alive.
Her most recent work is the Walarnu (Boomerang) Chair whose metal structure was inspired by the irregular shape of the hunting boomerang: “The Walarnu story began after finding out my family was part of the stolen generation,” explains Nicole. “I returned to my country and saw a boomerang used by my elders – it had a profound impact on me.” Her textiles have recently been released under the name Pandanah, a cross cultural collaborative with Cara Mancini-Geros, and she is the creative director of Blackandwhite Creative, a company fostering creative collaborations, such as a large timber installation called Marri Ngurang (large place) in the lobby of an affordable housing block in Eveleigh, Sydney. Nicole is currently designing two furniture ranges based on Indigenous knowledge around concepts of sustainability, cultural sensitivity, form and function which will be launched at the Australian Design Centre later this year.