White Australia has a very short history, just a little over 200 years, so its no wonder that Australians are a bit obsessive about what little heritage we have. One of the most important monuments to British settlement on the east coast of Australia is Old Government House in an area west of Sydney called Parramatta. Exceptionally important as a food production area in the early days of Sydney, Parramatta faded away to become a footnote in the development of modern Sydney which is now nestled around a beautiful harbour and Jorn Utzon's Opera House.
Photography by Michael Wee.
In recent years Parramatta has been proposed as an alternative central business district for Sydney (with hefty government backing) and Old Government House, the original home of the Governor of the land (Governor Macquarie) has been somewhat rediscovered. The house is a simple but beautiful Georgian dwelling surrounded by a large park and mature gum trees. What better place for an exhibition on 20th and 21st century Australian design?
David Clark, former editor of Vogue Living magazine was introduced to Old Government House early in 2016 through former Vogue colleague, Kirstie Clements who had been part of a discussion panel on historical wedding dresses. A meeting with the National Trust's regional director Roxanne Fea, led to the concept of a contemporary design exhibition within the colonial context of Old Government House. AT HOME is the wonderful end result of many months of negotiations with designers, collectors and cultural institutions to borrow a large number of significant contemporary Australian works of design, chosen to compliment and sometimes disrupt the highly regarded Georgian furniture collection that normally lives within the walls of Old Government House. The collection covers the era between 1790 an 1850 and includes some outstanding pieces like the Packer cabinet – the first piece of signed Australian design.
"What appealed to me immediately upon my first visit to Old Government House was the colonial austerity of the front rooms. The colony here was effectively a prison on the other side of the world and yet in this house it is obvious that great efforts were made to present a more refined civilisation. Beyond the house itself, the starting point for AT HOME was really Broached Colonial. This was the first collection by Broached Commissions, the limited edition design programme directed by Lou Weis. As soon as I saw the house I wanted to see the Broached pieces placed here as they were made by the designers with precisely this type of colonial context in mind" says Clark.
AT HOME features a number of limited edition pieces from the Broached Colonial collection, including Lucy McRae’s ‘Prickly light’, Adam Goodrum’s ‘Birds Mouth table’, Chen Lu’s ‘Dream Lantern’ table light, Charles Wilson's 'Tall Boy' cabinet and Trent Jansen’s ‘Briggs Family Tea Service’.
Clark admits that the exhibition was initially intended to be a much smaller affair with just 10 or 12 objects being placed in a few key rooms, but the possibility of showcasing a wider cross section of Australia's most accomplished designers was too hard to resist. "It's mostly contemporary" says Clark "but there was an opportunity to go a little further back and bring in some significant pieces of Australian design from past decades like the Featherston and Parker chairs from the early 60's".
The final number of contemporary design objects in the AT HOME exhibition ended up climbing to more than 60 and includes one-off, limited edition and mass produced items. Covering furniture, lighting and object design AT HOME has turned into a unique snapshot of the development of design in Australia. While past exhibitions at the NGV in Melbourne and the Powerhouse Museum (now MAAS) in Sydney have been heavily themed or selected solely from an institution's own collection, AT HOME has had the luxury of a much wider remit.
Beyond Clark's deep understanding of Australian contemporary design after years at the helm of Vogue Living, the only other selection criteria was availability and how an object might interact with a given space within Old Government House. "I started asking designers to lend me what they could and approached a lot of friends and collectors before deciding what should go where". says Clark. "I didn't set out to create a survey show but it has sort of ended up being one".
"You get some moments of joy where things find a natural place within the house – others have been somewhat harder to integrate but overall its been a very rewarding creative process".
AT HOME encourages visitors to take another look at colonial era antiques and observe their craftsmanship and integrity. It allows visitors to re-engage with many important contemporary design pieces while showing them in a surprising new context. It is encouraging to see just how well many of these modern design pieces integrate with the colonial pieces. Designs that seem so flagrantly contemporary in furniture showrooms and contemporary exhibition spaces are given an opportunity to partake in a wonderful dialogue with antiques.
According to Roxanne Fea, the National Trust's Regional Manager Western Sydney, Clark's choices caused quite a stir with the staff of Old Government House. "In almost every room we have discovered uncanny associations brought to bear by David’s curation" says Fea. "Once the pieces arrived we had so many sharp intakes of breathe – some pieces like the Featherston ‘Scape’ chair in green velvet that he has placed beside a 19th century bergere in another shade of green, feels like a bridge between 200 years of design".
Fea is grateful to Clark for not only creating some exciting and sometimes discordant juxtapositions of old and new but also for his ability to subtlety compare forms, materials and patterns. "For us to remain relevant in a world where people’s attention spans are getting shorter and people want immediate gratification, this exhibition is a really beautiful and highly visual way of kick starting a new way of thinking about history", says Fea. "There is a preciousness about many of the objects in the exhibition that is not dissimilar to that found in many of the original colonial objects within the Old Government House collection".
AT HOME is a joyful experience with a great number of surprises as visitors move from room to room. It is also an example of how heritage institutions can modernise themselves and by doing so bring a greater appreciation and wider audience in contact with the past.
The AT HOME exhibition opened on the 11th of November and will run until January 22nd 2017.
You can find the opening hours and other details here.