An exhibition of limited edition work by Australian designer Trent Jansen opened on Thursday the 17th February at Criteria Collections in Melbourne's Cremorne district. The collection is a collaboration between Jansen and Broached Commissions, a studio that commissions limited edition design pieces within the parameters of a historical context. Jansen has worked with Broached Commissions to produce limited edition pieces in the past but these were always a group effort with several designers working on a historical theme proposed by Broached Commissions director, Lou Weis and historian John McPhee. Broached Monsters by contrast is a solo show consisting of seven pieces of Jansen's work conceived around the mythological figures Pankalangu and The Hairy Wild Man From Botany Bay (to be referred to as HWMFBB from now on!). The collection therefore had a dual source of inspiration. On one side ideas were drawn from indigenous stories about Pankalangu, a largely invisible scaly creature, while on the other it was British colonial reports from the late 18th century of strange man-beasts that roamed what is now called Australia that formed the ideas behind the collection.
Creating a collection of limited edition furniture, lighting and accessory pieces conceived around mythological creatures from two cultures is a tall order by anyone's estimation and it has taken the best part of five years for Jansen to bring it to fruition. It all started back in 2010 when Jansen was completing a design residency at Edra in Tuscany. The brand's then Creative Director Massimo Morozzi, had spent some time in Australia as a younger man and advised Jansen to seek inspiration for a collection in the desert areas of central Australia.
Luckily for Jansen his partner was working there at the time and so he was able to begin researching ideas almost immediately on his return to Australia. The first drawings came out of those initial visits to Alice Springs in 2010/2011 while the first object - a side table with timber and copper scales - was made in 2012. Jansen has put thousands of hours into the project and only completed the last piece in the collection a few weeks prior to the exhibition opening.
While Morozzi and chance took Jansen to Alice Springs, his insatiable appetite for history and storytelling led him to begin researching a project on a famous Central Australian, Ted Strehlow - the son of the first Lutheran minister at Hermannsburg. Jansen spent months researching the Strehlow family, but it was a discussion on the way to interview Mavis Malbunka, a senior elder at Hermannsburg that became the first and key inspiration for what was to become Broached Monsters.
“I was staying in Alice Springs when I was introduced to a Western Arrernte man by the name of Baden Williams. He took me to his hometown of Hermannsberg and on the way we got talking about Western Arrernte creatures. According to Western Arrernte story telling, pankalangu is a territorial being that lives in the scrub and is completely camouflaged in the desert and bush. Pankalangu can only move with the rain, and is only made visible when the rain that falls on him is caught by the light, defining his form in a glistening silhouette" says Jansen in the literature that he has written to accompany Broached Monsters.
As pankalangu is a Central Australian creature, Jansen's designed objects took further inspiration from some actual living creatures from the region, the perente and the Central Australian locust. Both these animals possess an ochry, camouflaged exterior that hides an iridescent element – the perente (a large goanna) conceals a lilac tongue while the locust hides translucent blue wings.
The other objects in the collection are all named after the mythical Hairy Wild Man from Botany Bay (HWMFBB) with inspiration coming from an early nineteenth century engraving of the same name (shown below). According to Jansen's research the British public were very much taken with tales of a giant hairy man/creature that roamed the hauntingly strange vegetation found in newly colonised Australia:
"The exotic nature of this new land was so extreme to the average Britain that the line between newly documented flora and fauna, and fantasy seemed arbitrary. Long before the First Fleet of convicts left England bound for Botany Bay, a new mythical Australian creature arose from the frenzy of stories of the new continent, this creature was known as the Hairy Wild Man From Botany Bay. Described as a savage giant of 9 feet tall, with a broad face, deathly eyes and covered in long, but sparse wiry hair, the Hairy Wild Man From Botany Bay surely occupied the thoughts of some of the new British arrivals. as they surveyed the alien bush around Botany Bay or tried to sleep on their first night in the new colony".
As hybrid creatures themselves, the Hairy Wild Man From Botany Bay objects employ materials, such as leather, glass and animal pelt, that were common materials during the time when the stories of the Hairy Wild Man From Botany Bay were at their peak.
The forms of the chaise lounge, chandelier and bowl from this collection are influenced by native Australian and European creatures, such as the Tussock Lymantriiddae - a spiky native Australian caterpillar whose spines are reflected in the glass spikes of the chandelier and in the leather elements that hang from the daybed. European animals are also referenced by the use of Icelandic sheep skin on the 'HWMFBB' daybed.
Design daily visited Jansen in his studio in early January at the University of Wollongong where he is completing a Phd. The room was full of wallaby fur, silicon glueing masks and leather elements for the HWMBB daybed that was still being completed. The 'Pankalangu' wardrobe and 'Pankalangu' armchair pieces were complete and being packed for their journey to Melbourne but with over 500 hundred leather 'bristles' to be cut, sewn and attached to the 'HWMBB' daybed Jansen was looking a little worn out by it all. Thankfully he was being assisted by several interns and by a number of talented makers such as Peter Stapelton who die cut the leather bristle shapes and Boris and Mariana Emilio who sewed the leather bristle elements together.
The work of Adam Price was a key component in producing the 'Pankalangu' pieces in the collection as while the cabinet designs were rendered by designer Tom Fereday back in 2013, the making took some time to perfect. Beyond the curved shape that needed to be formed with moulded plywood components there were a number of layers of copper and Queensland walnut veneer that create the hundreds of scales that needed to be carefully glued, polished and lacquered without damaging or marking the previous layer. Multiple silicone masks were made to facilitate this along with lots of little tricks developed along the way. While summarising the process used to create the 'Pankalangu' pieces Jansen reveals why they could never be anything but limited edition items:
"The making of the copper/veneer scales is a process that combines a layer of CNC cut copper and a slightly different layer of CNC cut Queensland walnut veneer", says Jansen "These large sheets of perforated material are then hand finished and masked in a series of very elaborate patterns, so to ensure the application of glue in sections where it is needed, while keeping the material clear of glue in areas that are visible on the final wardrobe. This process is repeated four times for each of the very large faces of the wardrobe, before being edged by the very talented Adam Price. The last process is another layer of masks, to protect the face of each scale, so that the timber between each scale can be coated in a satin varnish, giving the surface an extra layer of subtle texture".
Jansen is at pains to compliment Broached Commissions, his collaborators on the project, for their unerring commitment to the project since early 2015. "Broached stepped in when I was lost and depressed after my mentor on the project, Edra's Massimo Morozzi died suddenly in April 2014. Broached is the only studio in Australia financially and conceptually supporting this type of limited edition work. They rigorously invest the time and capitol needed to make projects like Monsters happen, with little guarantee of financial return. This generosity benefits designers like me as it allows us to make work that would not otherwise be realised, but it also benefits the design public, who are exposed to projects and exhibitions that sit well outside the conventional areas of design", says Jansen.
"Extending a single visual language across a full range of pieces is always tricky, but enjoyable. Monsters really consists of two collections, and two visual languages spread across 7 objects. In my past experience of extrapolating a visual language over a collection of commercial objects, the objects seem to design themselves, as it is often a relatively simple matter of applying a series of signature characteristics to different typologies. However, with a collection of limited edition objects, there is an expectation that most pieces in the collection will have an element of innovation, rather than being a simple translation of an existing visual language. In this case I tried to make material innovations along a visual motif, and it was these innovations that were difficult and time consuming"
The 'HWMFBB' chandelier is a completely different style of piece to the rest of the collection. Unlike the other designs that have a strong anthropomorphic qualities whether that be through association with the objects outer surfaces of scales or fur, the chandelier is more like the nest of some unknown insect, dark and unfriendly.
Much of the 'HWMFBB' chandelier was created by Ben Edols, one of Australia's most highly regarded glass blowers and Jeremy Lepisto an expert in kiln-formed glass but it was up to Jansen to fix the lion's share of the 5000 glass bristles to the internal glass structure. An incredibly dense structure with black glass elements silhouetted against the fluorescent light source, the light resembles a 3-D version of the experiment we all did at high school where iron filings dance about on a piece of paper reacting to magnetism. It's ambient and sculptural but in a very unusual way.
Interest in limited edition design is still in its infancy in Australia but it is exhibitions like Jansen's Broached Monsters and past Broached Commissions projects that are likely to change that. By combining bespoke making with a deep interest in history and elements of European and indigenous culture, the work goes beyond purely aesthetic and practical judgments and presents an element of social commentary. Internationally the art world art is seeing a steady increase in designed objects filtering into the gallery environment and design enthusiasts are becoming much more aware of the exciting possibilities presented by designers who open their minds to concepts that go beyond mass production. Here's hoping that a lot more exhibitions of this nature are to follow and that the general public's appreciation of design as an art form will continue to grow. Whether they can afford it or not is another matter!
Criteria Collection is situated at 66 Gwynne Street Cremorne, in Melbourne. The showroom is open 10am - 5pm Monday through Thursday and by appointment only on Friday and Saturday. For more info contact Criteria on (+61) 03 9421 2636
The exhibition continues until March 19.
You can see more projects by Broached Commissions here