Design Nation Interview Transcripts

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Interview transcripts

Artist Ken Done
Journalist Peter Holder on Gold phones
David Wood, designer of the Café-Bar
Denise Larcombe, designer of Crown Corning glassware
Dolphin Torch
Integra Chair
Creator of Life. Be in it, Phillip Adams AO


Artist Ken Done

I was 40 when I had my first exhibition, so the first things that people saw of mine in that particular style, I hope, had a certain optimism about it, a certain brightness about it. It was 1980. I’d left the advertising business. I wanted to spend the rest of my time as a painter. I made 12 T-shirts to give to the press in a very simplistic drawing of Sydney Harbour. And it did have something to do… Well, hopefully something to do with the quality of the work, but the timing. It was a very optimistic time for Australia – time of World Series Cricket, you know, time of strong nationalism. I’d been to Acapulco. I’d been to Portofino. I knew that Australia was a very stylish place and that, you know, you could walk in wearing a drawing of Sydney on your T-shirt, and people liked them very much. So many people I talk to, they have such warm memories of the association of your artwork, and there’s a great democracy to… ..simplicity of saying, “I used to have a Ken Done doona cover.”

How does that make you feel?

Look, it makes me feel fine. I must say, it’s been a long journey, and, you know, when people come up and say that they wore something of yours or they slept under something of yours, that’s old man’s fantasy stuff, you know? A big doona cover changes the feeling of a room very quickly. And there’s no reason why you can’t sleep under a painting. If Van Gogh was alive, he’d be doing a line of sunflower hats. I have no doubt about that. Art in the time in which we live. Now, the placemats… And, look, I’m pleased that you have them in your exhibition, but… They’re not the Sistine Chapel. You know. They said you’d never make it With your colourful ideas Mr Done, it’s too outrageous We won’t hang that canvas here They said you’d never make it when you threw your job…

 


Journalist Peter Holder on Gold phones

Peter, when you look at the Telecom Gold Phone, what memories does it bring back?

Brings back a flood of memories. To me, that was the original smartphone. When I was a young reporter for the now defunct Sydney afternoon newspaper the ‘Sun’, one of our jobs was to dial the story into the office. In those days, there was a woman in the office, or several women, who would sit there and take copy, as they used to call it. It was often you had very little time to get the story out, so you would have to often find a payphone to do that. You had to dictate quickly and over a phone that was working. And also in those days, a lot of phones would be vandalised. I remember when they first came out, they were kind of protected, ’cause they weren’t out on the street. Sometimes they were in pubs. Sometimes they were outside a newsagent. Sometimes they were just in the hall or in a busy arcade. The other thing I do remember is that you had to take coins when they arrived, because you couldn’t… Other phones that had preceded them had the lever on the side and you could sort of quickly push it up and down and jimmy yourself a free call. The legend of journalism at that time is about journos propping up the bar in pubs and dialling the stories in.

Was that true?

Yep. Absolutely. I remember once, there was a great battle between the Sydney ‘Sun’ and the ‘Daily Mirror’, which was Murdoch-owned, and the ‘Sun’ was owned by Fairfax, and we both went to an armed robbery. A guy called Jack Darmody – a legendary reporter for the ‘Daily Mirror’ – he barrelled over to our car, and with his Camel-stained breath and alcohol from the night before, he said, “Boys, the cops aren’t gonna talk “until at least another hour. “I think there’s an early opener down the road. “Shall we all go down there and wait for the cops to talk?” And that’s what we did. We both filed our stories. We all looked good. We…all barrelled into work at about 11am that day completely and utterly drunk, but the story was done and the edition was out, so… Jack and I probably competed for the use of a phone in that pub. Um, hi, Doris. It’s Peter Holder. I’ve got a story to file. Call it ‘Gangland’. Ready? “Sydney’s gangland war took another turn last night “when a known figure was shot in the streets of Arncliffe.”

 


David Wood, designer of the Café-Bar

Design Nation. Tell me about how the Café-Bar, that design, came about. OK. Um… Café-Bar were already making machines in sheet metal at a small factory at North Sydney, and they were costing a lot to make. Started with a sheet of metal and laid it out and cut it and bent it and folded it. My God, they weren’t pretty. Anyway, talked to them, and they said, “Alright, have a look at our designs “and see what you can do by way of cost savings.” So we did a preliminary look at the easiest parts to do in plastic, and they came back and said, “Can you make the whole thing plastic, please?” And so we did, and that was the result.

Tell us about the orange colour.

Well, at one point, they wanted to freshen it up. You know, the salesmen come back and said, “Give us something fresh we can sell.” Always the way. So we looked into a change of colour at least, and, unfortunately, there were only a certain number of food-approved colours, and that orange was one of the… ..I think just about one of the only other ones, so we were stuck with that orange, but you could still have the old colour if you wanted it – boring beige. The best thing about them, of course, is no-one ended up putting a wet spoon in a jar of coffee. I suppose it was. There was always a sign – ‘Take water last’ – because if you took your hot water and then put it under one of the dispensers, the steam went up there and tended to clog the dispenser. They didn’t like that. All these years later, does it surprise you that it’s a museum item? Yes. I suppose it does. Yeah. Never thought about it in those terms, but… Yes. It’s nice to be appreciated, but… A lot of people were derogatory about what you got out of it, naturally enough. No, you’d have a proper coffee machine now. Design Nation.

 


Denise Larcombe, designer of Crown Corning glassware

You enrol into a fashion design course. And what makes you decide that you’re gonna change to become an industrial designer?

It was just so relevant to designing everyday things, things that people use all the time. It just made more sense. People were optimistic after the war. People wanted a more positive life. And I was of the first generation that hadn’t been to war, I guess, so there was much more optimism and much more positive thinking and wanting something new and free. And my father never had a clue what I did. He didn’t approve of it, whatever it was, but… ..and wasn’t going to have any part of paying for it. So, you know, you were in the ’60s – you’ve got much freer fashion and an interest in everyday things. And when I was 18, I met Russell Whitechurch, who imported all the Iittala things and the Marimekko things from Finland, and we’d never seen anything like that here. So as that modern design, and particularly Scandinavian design, which I just love, is you started to see that and you’d just want to be part of that.

What was it like to be a woman in the industry in those times?

Well, I didn’t think anything of it. It seemed a reasonable sort of job for me. And then when you start looking for a job, you find out it’s a bit unusual. I wrote to Roger McLay and he wrote back and said he couldn’t possibly employ a lady designer, and I never threw the letter out. I could never bring myself to discard it. And I’d find it occasionally and it would annoy me endlessly. I was interviewed once. Think it was an electrical company. And they admitted that they wanted to see what sort of lady would apply for a job like that. But there wasn’t… You just get on with it.

 


Dolphin Torch

The striped caravan annexe smelt of chops that had sweated on the hotplate of an orange 3-legged gas barbecue. He tried in vain to get comfortable on the banana lounge while his sister gently snored under a faded beach towel. The black-and-white portable TV flickered in the van and the caravan park was filled with the sounds of tinnies being cracked and beer-fuelled laughter. He unzipped his purple sleeping-bag with its absurd faux leopard-skin lining, edged off the banana lounge and went outside.

Immediately, he stepped on the foam tray that was once home to the chops. A limp stem of parsley stuck to his toe. He brushed it off on the couch grass and picked up the Dolphin torch off the card table. He felt its surprising yet familiar weight as he pushed down and clicked it on with his thumb. Sliding into his thongs, he flipped and flopped down the road. A Jack Russell yelped, an old-timer swore as he tripped over a guide rope as he shone the beam on the asphalt in front of him. Every once in a while, he pointed the torch upwards towards the sky, tracing the branches of the gums, looking for possums. He passed a teenage girl chewing gum, talking on the payphone, and turned up the concrete path and stood under a large fluorescent tube in a cage hanging from the wall of the toilet block. He switched the torch off with his thumb and went inside.

 


Integra Chair

Almost all Australians would have sat on an Integra chair at some stage. Since the 1970s, they’ve graced our school halls, public pools, cafes and assorted waiting rooms, and they’re still in production today. They were designed by Charles Furey in 1973, who throughout his prolific career also managed to design the iconic blue foam six-pack cooler. The Integra was to become the first one-piece stackable moulded polypropylene chair in the world and was winner of the Australian Design Award in 1977.

Internationally, it has found enormous success and is very popular in American prisons where its light weight makes it less dangerous as a weapon to be used on fellow inmates. As a result, the chair can be seen in all your favourite American prison dramas, including Netflix’s ‘Luke Cage’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black’. If you’re after one for yourself, there’s plenty of them on Gumtree, but many of them have had a hole drilled in the seat to stop the water pooling – a very Australian home modification. [Music] Sebel… You’re the best… Sebel’s won me.

 


Creator of Life. Be in it, Phillip Adams AO

Hi there. I’m Norm. And being your normal Australian, I’m a sportsman. Any sort of sport, I’ll be in it. Rang the mates this arvo. “Warm the set and cool the tinnies,” I said. No takers. Thommo said he was taking his dog for a walk. Reg said he was gonna mow the lawn. George said he was going for a walk down the park. Davo said he was taking the family out flyin’ kites! I dunno. Us all-round sportsmen are a dying race.

The ‘Life. Be In It’ campaign, I was… Can I just run through the sequence of events as to how it happened? Yes. There was a very ardent young minister who had been a football player of some renown, and he decides he’s going to energise everyone in Victoria. And, of course, Australians blew a very loud raspberry at that. And I don’t know why I got together with him, but he came into my office, and I said, “Look, instead of asking everyone to do a lot, “why don’t we just ask everyone to do a little?” And suggested that rather than pumping iron, perhaps tossing a frisbee might… you know, might be a good start. We had no money. He had no money to put on the table. I decided that the best way to do it would be to make it funny, that the best way of making the medicine go down was with the sugar of humour. And it also seemed to me that animation had much to recommend it because it was sociologically or demographically non-specific – a little squiggle represented a car, it didn’t have to be a BMW or a Holden, similarly, a squiggly drawing could symbolise a human being of any class, caste or background. So, I had a very close friend, the now late Al Stitt.

I forget where the phrase “Life. Be In It” came up. It was neither Alex nor I. I think it was one of my staff. But what we thought was we would make a commercial which recommended the simplest form of exercise known to God or man. So the very first commercial we made, long before Norm, had a little squiggly man on the screen, and the voice said, “This man is walking. “You put one foot in front of the other,” and we explained the rudiments of walking. And we then made the heretical suggestion that you walk over to the TV set, turn it off and go for a walk around the block.

The jingle. “Be in it today Live more of your life.” Well, here’s the third part of the collaboration, and that’s the other genius – Peter Best. Well, Peter, Alex and I worked together on simply scores of things. And Peter and Al just had this ability to communicate almost telepathically together. So Peter would provide the music.

What happened was that there were young women working in the bowels of commercial television stations who would fill empty spaces in the schedule by putting in well-intended social ads. Well, those young ladies always put ‘Life. Be In It’ in because they were funny. Yeah. And within a couple of weeks, we were a national phenomenon. ‘Life. Be In It’ started to become popular. And then the idea of the couch potato, of Norm, swept into view, and there he was sitting on the couch, staring at the telly, and mumbling, “Beauty, Newk,” and suddenly we had a monster on our hands who symbolised the problem but became the hero. Dum dum dum-dum-dum. Whoo! Be in it today. Live more of your life.

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