I-CONIC Australian Design launches in SASA Gallery

I-CONIC Australian Design officially launched in the SASA Gallery at the University of South Australia on Tuesday 10th September, showcasing the history, development and reach of the Australian product and industrial design sector.

Featuring iconic products from household names like Caroma, Alessi, Wiltshire, Eveready, TH Brown, Breville, Schiavello, Décor, Kambrook and Phillips, the exhibition illuminates the far-reaching impact of Australian designers and designs on the global market.

Image: Jack Fenby

First exhibited in early 2019 at Monash University, I-CONIC was curated by senior lecturer in industrial design Ian Wong and developed with the support of the Design Institute of Australia. Wong’s academic career has been dedicated to researching and collecting examples of Australian industrial design with a particular focus on the state of Victoria. Underpinning the Industrial Design in Victoria blog and maintenance of the Ian Wong Collection, Wong’s research has contributed to a rich repository of information on Australia’s product design industry unmatched anywhere else in the nation.

“The practice of the individual designer is the focus of my research and collection,” says Wong.

“As Australians we are informed and acknowledge the achievements of our professional athletes. My research seeks to enhance the appreciation of our professional designers who have designed the objects we use every day.”

The second iteration of I-CONIC, co-presented by the University of South Australia and Monash University, consciously locates the development of Australian industrial design in an international context. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are immediately struck by the colour scheme. Orange and brown are dominant hues, evocative of a distinct era fifty years past where the products on display here, on plinths running diagonally across the exhibition space, were hallmark features of every home.

The trip down memory lane begins with the Rosebank Stackhat, built to meet strict bicycle safety requirements, the Kambrook Family Urn, a popular feature of the family home, and the Britax Safety Capsule, an iteration of which transported the heir to the British throne, Prince George, home from hospital in 2013.

Image: Jack Fenby

Moving along the continuous display, viewers might recognise the Willow Alpine jug, the Décor Wine Cooler and the Caroma Bathmates set amongst many more items that are more reminiscent of the suburban homes of parents and grandparents than traditionally associated with the gallery setting. Accompanying labels provide much-needed context to ground the exhibition in the here-and-now, telling a story of how the products came to be and illustrating their place in Australia’s cultural history.

Some have left their mark in more pervasive ways than others. The Kambrook Powerboard, for instance, a ubiquitous feature of modern living, originated from a need for caravan owners to operate a kettle and a toaster at the same time. The design was never patented and was soon to replicated globally.

Others illustrate the importance and application of good design in areas like public health, accessibility and governance. The Daniels International SharpSmart medical waste disposal system responded to public concern following the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s. The success of this systematic approach saw SharpSmart products adopted internationally. The ATPD – Audio Tactile Pedestrian Detector – is a highly regarded early example of accessible design, giving greater confidence and freedom to pedestrians with vision, hearing and physical impairments.

Image: Jack Fenby

Others still, like Schiavello’s 101 Chair by Helen Kontouris, speak for themselves as prime examples of contemporary furniture design, incorporating sculptural modes and negative space to produce a beautiful, timeless silhouette.

A featured display from TH Brown lends a distinctly South Australian flavour to the collection. The Danish Bar Stool, unmistakeable in its construction and silhouette, remains a leading example of coveted mid-century design and, presented alongside Schiavello’s commercial furniture applications, adds nuance to I-CONIC’s representation of local furniture design.

Notable exclusions, represented by cards explaining their historical significance, include Professor Graeme Clarke and Blue Sky Design’s multi-channel cochlear implant system and Amcor’s Cardboard Voting Booths.

I-CONIC Australian Design documents the history of the industry, but it also posits a question about the future. The inclusion of the now commonplace KeepCup reminds visitors of the role of design in defining consumer behaviour. Sustainable design now constitutes an industry of its own, and concerns for the environment challenge designers and individuals globally to reduce mass waste. KeepCup is considered an inspiring example of product design’s capacity to effect systemic change in its success in revolutionising consumer behaviour worldwide.

Image: Jack Fenby

Senior lecturer in product and industrial design at the University of South Australia, Dr Peter Schumacher, highlighted the importance of exhibitions like I-CONIC in helping students understand their own capacity for change.

“We take it for granted that most of our products and furniture are now made and designed elsewhere, but it was not that long ago we would take it for granted that our material goods were made locally," he says. "[The exhibition] captures an important period in our history when we showed we could be self-sufficient, we could design and make stuff, and actually, we were quite good at it."

I-CONIC is at once memorial, celebration and inquiry. It’s nostalgic – it harks back to the ‘golden era’ of design where products were both locally designed and manufactured, part of a once-burgeoning economy that was, of course, to fall into obsolescence in favour of offshore production facilities. It forms a social mapping of the development of accessibility and sustainability in design – the prevalence of plastic is stark and ignites some critical reflection on how far we’ve come. The notable inclusion of contemporary solutions to waste reduction signposts an acknowledgement of a new era of design with shifting priorities and a sense of urgency in its need for change. Perhaps most compellingly, I-CONIC shines a light on the impact of design and designers on our experience of every-day life, making visible the hand of the designer in mediating our experience of and interaction with the world.


Follow the progress of I-CONIC Australian Design and Ian Wong at @ispyid #ispyid

Find out what's next at the SASA Gallery