This post was written by Grace Cochrane AM, independent curator and writer, Sydney; former senior curator of Australian decorative arts and design, MAAS, Powerhouse Museum.
It is very sad to hear of the death on 24 February 2015, of John Smith, a key figure in furniture designing and making in Australia for over 40 years. Smith and his partner, ceramic artist and designer Penny Smith, migrated to Tasmania as ‘10-pound Poms’, in 1970, and it was here that I met them after ‘crossing the ditch’ from New Zealand in 1972. After bravely battling recurrent bouts of cancer for some years, John Smith died with his family around him, at their weekender on Bruny Island.
Smith’s contribution to his field is respected and admired by many friends, colleagues and past students. He had moved to Hobart from the UK to take up a position as a design lecturer at the Tasmanian School of Art, later part of the University of Tasmania, combining teaching with his practice as a designer-maker, specialising in furniture design but also working on architectural and sculptural projects.
Born in Chesterfield in England in 1948, Smith completed a Pre-Diploma of Art at the Chesterfield School of Art in 1967 and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Furniture), at the High Wycombe College of Art and Technology in Buckinghamshire, in 1969. From his initial appointment in Hobart as a lecturer in graphic design, he soon changed to teaching 3-Dimensional Design. He was appointed Head of the Design in Wood/Furniture Design program in 1981 and ran the department until retiring in 2007. In 1991 the Centre for Furniture Design was also established at the School and, under his direction, focussed on design research for industry with post-graduate students. The School says of his passing: “John’s influence as a designer of great skill and vision, as well as a teacher and mentor, has been exemplary and will be sadly missed by his colleagues.”
The initial 3-D Design program aimed to produce graduates able to apply design skills and ideas to the needs of industry, and was the first wood-oriented design program to be established in a university School of Art in Australia. It was broadened into the Design in Wood course in 1981, largely because it was seen that Tasmanian industry was not employing designers, and the notion of training a designer-maker who could, instead, sometimes contract out aspects of their work to industry was seen as the most realistic direction to take. To tailor the course more specifically to Tasmanian needs, it was decided to concentrate on local timber as a resource and also develop the making skills related to design. The Design in Wood course became part of the four-year degree program, and a number of those in the strong local resource of woodworkers were closely involved in planning and teaching.
As Smith said:
“an art school environment is an ideal position from which to study the designing-making process. If you want advice on whether to use finger-joints in the construction of a cabinet, don’t just ask a cabinet-maker who might say ‘use secret mitred dovetails’; also ask a sculptor who might say ‘why make it in wood?’ or ask the ultimate philosopher, the lay person in the street, who might just simply say ‘why bother’… If you are serious, you must have something to say and design is a language which helps you articulate your ideas.” (Smith in Cochrane, 1992, p 393)
From 1990 the School offered a master’s degree, funded as part of the recent federal compensation to the Tasmanian government for the legislation that banned forest logging in the Lemonthyme Valley. During this time, a number of international furniture-makers were invited to teach there, and the School mounted the exhibitions Design in Wood, showing the work of graduates, students and staff in 1981; the Huon Factor, looking at the use of Tasmania’s special timber species in 1989; and in 1991 the exhibition Splitting Heads, in association with the first Hobart Design Triennial and the Critical Vision symposium.
Smith was a member of the Tasmanian Woodcraftsmen’s Association (founded 1976), and was involved in the Hobart Summer Schools of the early 1980s. He served on the boards of a number of organisations including the Visual Arts/Crafts Board and the Design Committee of the Australia Council; was a founding member of the Australian Academy of Design and one of the original members of the Furniture Designers Association (FDA). He received grants from the University of Tasmania, Arts Tasmania, the Australian Research Council and the Australia Council, including residencies in Barcelona and Los Angeles.
Throughout this time, Smith continued with his own designing and making practice. While exploring a Tasmanian identity in his work he was also interested in contrasts and connections with other places, while considering the sculptural relationships between furniture and architecture. Within his design practice he worked speculatively for exhibitions, produced products for a specialised retail market and carried out public and private commissions.
He was attracted to contemporary design forms as well as to the use of non-timber materials. In the mid-1970s he designed a large geodesic dome as a house, with triangular components made in fibreglass and perspex; he and Penny built it on Mt Nelson and lived there, working in their adjacent studios. Later, they built their second similar, smaller home on Bruny Island in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Penny explained:
“The Geo-dome Observatory came about from building experiments over the years, and has become the repository of the sum of our multiple parts. It’s a work in progress. Here reside the spoils of our respective endeavours – mementos of and from various friends and family members – of our travels and our art.”
Over these decades Smith won a number of design prizes. In 1983, for example, he won a furniture design competition for restaurant and kiosk furniture, organised by the Crafts Council of Tasmania and judged by Tapio Periaenen (managing director of the Finnish Crafts and Design Council). His work is in the International Design Centre, Berlin, and in public collections in Poland and Japan. In Australia he is represented in the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney; Parliament House, Canberra; the National Gallery of Victoria; the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart; the Design Centre of Tasmania’s Wood Collection, Launceston; the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart; the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston; and the Hobart City Council.
As one of many commissions for the New Parliament House in Canberra in 1988, Smith designed a suite of furniture for the offices of the Leader of the Opposition. In Tasmania, for one Art for Public Buildings project in 2002, John and Penny Smith worked collaboratively on Morphology, a series of pre-cast concrete wall panels for a walkway between two school campuses at the Howrah Primary School. This entailed adopting and adapting ceramic mould-making practices to a large scale, and working at a concrete factory to cast units that were later delivered and installed on site. And in 2005 they co-curated the exhibition Convergence, for the Carnegie Gallery Hobart, which also toured to the Oceanside Museum of Art-San Diego, the San- Francisco Museum of Craft and Design, and the SOFA fair in Chicago. This exhibition included the work of 8 Tasmanians as well as that of 9 North Americans.
In 2011, while in remission from his illness, Smith made new work for an exhibition Repose shown in the Carnegie Gallery, Hobart, and the Tasmanian Design Centre in Launceston. The exhibition focused on seating designs, made in moulded and sanded fibreglass and glass-reinforced polyester, with stainless steel, in forms influenced by the sea, a constant point of reference in Tasmania. He explained: “The sea serves as a metaphor for the human condition – it is ever changing, yet always remains the same” adding:
“The chair is the most challenging to design. It has the greatest structural requirements and functional demands in order to support the human body in safety and comfort. It is the most tactile in use and the most organic form of all furniture pieces, responding to the proportions of the human body.” (Smith, 2011)
John Smith is represented in the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) with three works. The earliest is Colourblock, a coffee table made in 1984 in wood with a glass top. Reflecting his strong interest in modernist design, the base was constructed from various geometric-shaped hollow wood pieces, painted in bright gloss colours. This table was included in the exhibition Mod to Memphis: design in colour 1960s-80s, in 2002.
In 2003 John Smith generously donated two works to the Museum, a table ‘Matador’ (1994 – 1995) and a cabinet ‘Marrawah Ripple – Malibu Swell’ (2001). This cabinet had been exhibited in the Response to the Island exhibition at the Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, during the first 10 Days on the Island Festival in 2001.
The cabinet and table were both made following Australia Council studio residencies overseas: in Barcelona in 1992 and Los Angeles in 2000. In Barcelona Smith was interested in the visual culture of Spain including the imagery of the bullfight; the work of artists such as Salvador Dali and Jean Miro; the Catalan designers who had worked underground during the Franco regime; and the early 20th century work of architect Antoni Gaudi. In contrast, when in Los Angeles he followed up his interest in the work of the architect Frank Gehry, noting that Gehry’s “big fish” open grid canopy designed for the building that housed the athletes at the Barcelona Olympic Games, was the first building to use the computer program used to design the Mirage jet.
Of the cabinet, Marrawah Ripple – Malibu Swell, Smith said in 2001,
“The forms of the cabinet draw their inspiration from the waves that lap our shore, bringing with them influences from overseas, but on their return, carrying our special sensibilities beyond the horizon of our island perspective. The predominantly ‘natural’ organic outer form reflects the outward perception of Tasmanian topography. But the inner ‘high-tech’ structure reveals the vibrant creative and contemporary reality that is Tasmanian culture. The ‘floating’ panels imply that it is not a seamless island, impervious to outside influences, but is breached all round, breathing stimulus in and ideas out.” (Smith in Cochrane, 2001)
Perhaps this statement also describes Smith himself: a designer-maker whose special sensibilities drew inspiration from aspects of the Tasmanian environment, while bringing them together with well-researched influences from elsewhere. In doing – and being – this, he leaves a lasting legacy to us all. Our sympathies go to his partner Penny, their children Aaron and Zoe and their families, and all the many people who have been associated with John Smith over more than four decades.
This text draws in part on material previously written by the author in 1992 and 2001 (see below), and in 2003 for object information for John Smith’s furniture: ‘Matador’ table and ‘Marrawah Ripple – Malibu Swell’ cabinet in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
- John Smith, Second National Wood Conference report, 1985, in Grace Cochrane, The Crafts Movement in Australia: a history, UNSW Press, 1992, p 393.
- John Smith, 2011, in Repose, catalogue, Carnegie Gallery, Hobart 2011.
- John Smith in Grace Cochrane, Response to the Island, catalogue, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, 2001.