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Ambassador Paul Grigson on Australian Design

Paul Grigson loves architecture and design. It’s obvious as the ambassador talks about the Dutch Indies style favored by the Tugu Kunstkring restaurant in Menteng, South Jakarta, which he notes used to be the tax office, or the nearby Hermitage Hotel, which he notes used to be the telegraph exchange. With obvious relish, Grigson can also discuss trends in mid-20th-century Australian residential architecture to the new appreciation of design connoisseurs for the beloved Australian ute (utility truck). Speaking with Indonesia Design’s Banyubening Prieta, Grigson describes the utiltarian ethos underscoring Australia’s character.

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PHOTOS BY Denton Corker marshal, Bagus tri laksono and Creative Commons

How has Australian design has changed over the last 50 years?

Utility has always been important, particularly in Australian industrial and engineering design. Australians are a practical people. Objects of art or of everyday use that managed to be combined with utility are the ones that have been most popular and most striking in Australia. not that you realised it at the time, but when you look back many objects—such as mid-century modern furniture—they offered a real life combination of utility and design.

What trends do you see in contemporary Australian design?

At the moment, 40 percent of Australians were either not born in Australia or are the children of a person who was not born in Australia. Over time, i don’t think Australia will become more “Asian”; i think it will become more varied. you will get the melting pot effect. they will take europan traditions, others will have an Asian eye for shape and texture—and they will mix it with an Australian fondness for utility.

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What’s your personal approach on buying art?

I am always drawn to pieces that are not perfect, but which have something new or unusual. my wife and i buy what we can afford, so it’s not so much about cost. if you buy art early, i think that is the most interesting. if you look at our Australian collection, it’s very “Australian”—but we never buy any established artist. For example, we bought a piece of art from a woman (name) who lives in a little beach side town where we live, in merimbula. We bought it because it was unique.

How are Australians designers crafting a unique identity?

If i were outside of Australia looking in and trying to pick something very different, i would say take a look at Australian home design. What you get out of Australia is Australian design for a residential property that will look different from anywhere else. the best example is Harry siedler. He’s very Australian. i always think of Australian design in terms of object and utility—from a very european style to a vernacular design—as well as an inclusive design style and sustainable design.

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Where can we see cool residential designs in Australia?

I say this because i know it well. For me it is brisbane, particularly an style called the Queenslander. it is the only example of a [distinct] provincial style that is found in Australia. you do see something in sydney, too, called “Californian bungalow”. but for modern design, you should head to the beach. the beach is where Australians have been much more clever in finding ways to design homes that bring the outside in, which is a very big theme in Australia.

What’s on your agenda for a design trip Australia?

Besides melbourne and sydney, one of the most striking single destinations for those who like art, design and architecture in Australia is the museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, tasmania. it was built by a private collector and has a collection of old pieces, as far back as egypt, all the way through to very striking Australian art installations. if you’re insterested in Australian historical design, go to the national museum of Australia. it has a vast collection of design from everyday Australian life, for example, kitchen pieces from the 1950s. it also speaks to Australian industrial and engineering design. What Americans called a pick-up truck—or what Australians called the ute [utility truck]—was invented in Australia.

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Any local Indonesian touches?

the best collection of batik in the world is actually in Canberra. the Australian national Gallery has curated a digitzed collection of indonesian batik and has about 1,200 pieces in it. the gallery also has a fine collection of Australian colonial furniture–very european in style, but using Australian wood and timber. last is the Queensland Gallery of modern Art [QAGOmA]. they have a very big collection of contemporary southeast Asian art. they also have had exhibits on Japanese fashion design. my wife and i were so surprised on how they carefully curated everything.

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