This is a talk presented by Lou Weis as part of the Parallels Conference, at the National Gallery of Victoria, 2015.
Lou's work can be found at BroachedComissions.com
Lou is a creative director & strategist with twenty years experience across the creative industries, working for festivals and companies to realise ideas that always stem from a passion for historical context.
Broached Commissions, a gallery based research driven furniture and object design brand, is the purest expression of this context driven work. The company was founded in late 2011 to international acclaim. Immediately after launching Broached was engaged to create a narrative furniture collection for the now renowned Hotel Hotel Canberra. Broached created the first ever design show for UCCA, Beijing and is the only studio that presents work at the prestigious Design Miami, Basel shows.
Since 2006 Lou has been engaged by companies and government agencies to realise strategic goals.
This talk has two purposes; firstly to articulate the research methodology of my design studio Broached Commissions. The second is to consider this methodology within the changing nature of our interior domestic spaces.
Let me first address this idea of a market for what we create.
In Australia there is no coherently identifiable market for collectable design. That is because there are no galleries in Australia representing the kinds of work seen at Design Miami or Design Days Dubai. Indeed we are the only Australian studio showing at those international events.
The market for what Broached does is located more within the media than it is with buyers. We tell historical stories through objects. The challenge of fusing contemporary design and craft with particular moments in history is a story the media has found compelling. Whilst we sell pieces from time to time it is not anywhere nearly as coherent a process as our relationship with the media in communicating the value of our work.
Narrative led design is intended to provoke a conversation. The narrative is implicit in the form of the object and explicit in the media communications. For us the conversations are as important as the piece itself. The latter part of this talk will explain why.
Broached is a young company created by mid-career practitioners: Vincent Aiello, Adam Goodrum, Charles Wilson, Trent Jansen and myself. Prior to launching I created a comprehensive business model; identified our key buyer demographics. Then I had lunch with a senior sales person from Space Furniture (a retailer of many European luxury furniture brands) and he said; your brand will succeed based on the interest shown by no more than 2 or 3 people in Australia.
Broached has stayed alive due to the engagement of literally 10 people in Australia, most found directly through existing networks, a few others more tangentially. Internationally we have found a few friends, such as Cyril Zammit from Design Days Dubai, the Chinese designer Naihan Li and the UCCA in Beijing.
But this is how fringe ventures always start: through the persistent engagement of a few early adopters. We realize that our market for product will continue to grow slowly, which suits our process. Indeed our process is an enquiry into the history of the market for design.
Our research driven design aspires to sit at the intersection of historicism, design and globalization. These are weighty topics, each one a field of study unto itself. So I will break down how we engage with each.
We see historicism as an analytical and storytelling tool that enables the commencement of a project. Our desire is to understand design not within its own traditions but within the grand narratives of history. So our projects start by commissioning a research essay, written by an expert in the period we decide to make our focus.
The role of the curator is not to determine what we design, but to assist in understanding how design was part of the broader industrial paradigm of the period we are investigating. Then it is up to the creative team to discuss, with the curator and amongst ourselves, how the past does or does not persist into the present.
For all involved in Broached we see the historical research as being the professional extension of that lifelong personal journey to ‘know yourself.’
Our first collection focused on the Colonial Period, our second collection Broached East looked at the Australian Gold Rush — which coincided with the second Opium War and the Meiji Restoration. Privately commissioned collections for Hotel Hotel, Canberra and Molonglo Group Headquarters also had a design response guided by historical enquiry.
If we look at historicism as a genre of literature then its function often is to highlight the meaning of the past in the present. The proof of that is the continuing publication of books on the French Revolution or the American Civil War. Heritage must constantly be updated to continue to have a voice. Broached locates design within the larger, popular narrative of Australian history.
When we talk of design it means for us ‘a service offered to industry.’ And because design is a service it is usually part of the rhetoric of optimistic progress that dominates industry. Design tends to be enabling rather than skeptical of entrepreneurial plans. The deeply conflicted experience of Shepard Fairey in creating the Hope poster for the Obama 2008 presidential campaign is an excellent example of design intending to be progressive but ultimately enabling status quo politics. Marc Newson’s design of a shotgun for Italian rifle manufacturer Beretta should help dispel belief that design has a particular claim to a progressive ideology. Design, more often than not, gives form to power. Designers are the Pollyanna’s of the rhetoric that comes to define each generation and the design media almost never calls them on it.
The third area of enquiry Broached focuses on is globalization, specifically the Australian experience of it.
Colonial Australia was born as the industrial revolution was beginning to flourish. Our culture is the product of unceasing involvement in global trade. Consequently, we exhibit a Pavlov’s dog like willingness to embrace everything new — whether it be consumer technologies or the latest recreational drugs, business people everywhere find willing participants here.
Globalisation is an ongoing geo-political project. Although we are seeing record numbers of refugees right now and there are 1.4 million people in planes at any one time, the largest period of human migration was between 1850–1930, when 130million people moved country — mainly from China and India, but also from Ireland and other places.
Each migration is coupled with a movement of that culture’s ideas. Broached is particularly fascinated by what happens to design when it migrates.
I will give my grandparent’s migration experience and the first home they owned as an example.
My paternal grandparents are Polish Jewish holocaust survivors. They met shortly after the war ended, both working in an orphanage for Jewish children. Its purpose was to repatriate Jewish kids from Polish homes, care for them and send them off to what was then Palestine.
This transportation required a journey from Eastern to Central Europe. After it concluded my grandparents moved to Munich where my father was born Michael Weisfenler in 1947. By 1950 the little family was on a boat to Australia. By 1951 Michael Weisfelner had become Bob Weis and the little Weis family were living in refugee housing in St Kilda, Melbourne.
My paternal line was allowed into Australia under the ‘populate or perish’ foreign policy that widened the White Australia Policy to include people from Southern Europe and Jews — a horde of post war poor who filled our under-populated lands as a buffer to the perceived threat from what was termed at the time The Yellow Peril.
By the mid-1960s the Weis family had established themselves in Australia. They bought a block of land in Caulfield, which not long before their arrival was filled with orange groves. They engaged architect Harry Earnest and a fellow European Jewish émigré, Zuref, to design a suite of furniture for the house. Both architect and furniture designer worked in the modernist style.
My grandparents committed one wall of their new house to being made from Jerusalem stone, a trend at the time amongst their community that affirmed a commitment to the state of Israel. That wall, visible from the front door, continued onto a tiny outdoor Japanese courtyard, replete with a pond where small carp swam.
The surfaces of my grandparent’s home articulated a range of political and cultural alignments that tied them to European modernism, to the Zionist project and to the English garden city.
If I were to commission a house and it were to have a wall that articulated, simply through its material surfaces my political beliefs, a contemporary equivalent to my grandparent’s Jerusalem stone wall, what would that surface be? If I were to commission a suite of furnishings by a local maker what style would describe my attachment to a particular period and place? What is the decorative, the pattern, language of global capitalism?
My physical being is literally made possible because of genocide, major shifts in Australian migration policies, the 1960s libertarian feminist movement etc etc. Migration to Australia is based around the opportunity to join the marketplace. Coming here means necessarily splintering from the tribalism of your origins and joining the churn of the market democracy.
What’s the market for a design that articulates how one generation’s convulsions give rise to the life of the next? That is the market that Broached looks to occupy, and let me tell you it is small.
But why put all of this political emphasis on design objects? The sustainability movement, and even just the logic of numbers, shows us that we do not need to design new couches, chairs or taps. We have more than enough.
What I feel people do still need is stories that help them find the line between their historical and contemporary circumstance. This articulation becomes a story to share with family and guests. It may indeed be the catalyst for a conversation that changes how they trace that line.
I do not think we live in a shockingly historically illiterate time. The market for historically contextual, locally made, applied arts pieces has not gotten smaller or larger since it was first promoted as a panacea to rampant industrialism by the Arts and Crafts Movement in the mid-19th C.
The self-proclaimed failure of the Arts and Crafts Movement, their inability to widen their sphere of influence beyond a relatively small class of wealthy clients, is the Broached failure today. Our pieces are research driven — which is expensive — the making of them is laborious and craft based — which is also expensive. Consequently, our work can only be afforded by the wealthy. However, the dialogue with the media about Broached pieces pushes the narrative wide and far. It is this virtual dissemination of the products we make that have the potential to influence how people think about their own business practice or the construction of their own homes. The message Broached celebrates is close to that of craft; the importance of slowness and of haptic learning.
Abandoning oneself to products of convenience happens incrementally, at the request of the marketplace and to the detriment of the integrity of our private lives.
Let’s take music as an example. It used to be that the stereo had pride of place in the home. It was a piece of furniture unto itself and the act of storing, cleaning and playing music was a delicate one done with care and precision. People could hear if dust was causing a small disturbance in how the needle glided along the grooves of a record. We have seen, since Sony released the Walkman in the late 1970s, a demand by the music industry that we buy a succession of lower quality products that increases the mobility of music.
Now music is played out of a phone hooked up to a cheap plastic box by Bluetooth. Music has never been more available and so devoid of fidelity. Most of the children I know have never had the opportunity to sit and listen to beautifully recorded music.
The market drives speed and discards quality across every sphere of life, including the built environment. We are connected, but to archives rather than coherent narratives. Any brand, which wishes to create pieces that forces people to slow down, will have a limited and probably affluent or ‘mad enthusiast’ niche market.
One of our private clients approached Broached to transform her childhood upright piano into a credenza. The piano represented the moment at which, through her brilliant piano teacher, a girl became a curious and cultured young woman who went on to be a leader in her field. Adam Goodrum reused an enormous amount of the late 19th C piano in the resulting work. This is the kind of transformational quality that the great objects of our daily life can have. Their significance can run so deep that people would rather reincarnate the object than let them go. These are the intimate projects that Broached looks to engage with.
Intimacy is lumpy, lurching and often times awkward. The market on the other hand promotes efficiency and transparency. But really the market feeds off crises. It is the struggle for security and intimacy in the churn of globalization that Broached looks to capture in the objects we create.
We know that it is impossible for broached to stay within this tiny niche and survive. We will hit the middle price point with a retail range at some point. However, I am yet to find a compelling way to achieve this without discarding what I love about Broached in its current form. What is slow retail?
In mid-2016 Broached will release it’s third edition collection, Broached MONSTERS by Trent Jansen. Our first solo designer collection.
Many thanks… to Ewan and Simone, to my fellow speakers and the NGV for this opportunity to speak today.