Top image: ‘Cusp: Designing into the Next Decade’, JamFactory, Adelaide, 9 February to 26 April 2014. Toured by Object: Australian Design Centre. Photo: Ian Were, 11 April 2014.
[Article first published in Eyeline magazine no.82, 2015, © Eyeline Publishing Ltd.]
New Design on the Cusp: Into the Next Decade
The word cusp comes from the Latin cuspis, meaning ‘point’ — you can see lots of cusps in Gothic churches: the point where two arches meet, and the little points on the surface of your teeth that are flat on top (the ones you use for grinding) are also called cusps. The word also refers to a point of transition between two different states, of being on the edge or brink of something, as in ‘That smart chef is on the cusp of success’. It’s not surprising that such a potent word has been frequently used in the titles of arts projects around the world.
It’s the latter meanings that apply to ‘Cusp: Designing into the Next Decade’, an exhibition produced by Sydney’s Object: Australian Design Centre and currently touring to seven venues in five states over a couple of years. ‘Cusp’ features the work of 12 individual designers or groups, each aiming to develop creative solutions to some of the challenges we are facing. In a promotional video the designers voice their interpretations of the word: ‘Cusp means to me a transition, a moving of one state to another’, says Alison Page; ‘Signs of change’, notes Stephen Mushin; ‘. . . something on the verge, just on the point of almost tipping over’, says George Khut; ‘When I hear the word cusp’, explains Floyd Mueller, ‘I think of a leap that marks a significant change’. More poetic was this from Materialbyproduct’s director Susan Dimasi: ‘Like teetering on a very beautiful, delicate, exquisite precipice.’ The participants say a whole lot more than this, in fact, how they talk about their work forms the heart of the show.
‘Cusp’, I soon discovered, is less of an exhibition and more of an encounter; the kind of show you’ve got to spend time with, both at the venue and later, online, where there’s substantial material to consider — including additional material about several associated public events and a somewhat promo-driven text by Object’s Danielle Robson. If you saw ‘Cusp’ at the JamFactory in Adelaide, as I did, you may have had some initial disappointment, particularly if you were expecting to see an array of well-crafted or architectural items. The JamFactory gallery after all, is well-suited to exhibitions of fine objects and 3D art and ‘Cusp’ was not that. Based on the documentation I saw, the show may have looked more dynamic in the converted industrial spaces of the Casula Powerhouse just 40 minutes’ drive from Sydney where it began its Australian tour in mid-2013. At any rate, given the breadth of the design world and its future that ‘Cusp’ attempts to cover, its physical iteration is just the visible tip of a worthwhile group of linked ideas.
This is not to say that ‘Cusp’ is devoid of sculptural or other objects. In fact, walking into the Jam’s gallery, your eye is taken by architect Chris Bosse’s Cloud City: An urban ecosystem, a floor-to-ceiling, six-legged sculptural rendition — made of transparent fabric and mixed-media — of a futuristic city. Most of the other designers are, however, represented by didactic presentations on free-standing, wooden screens, in a style that makes the show tour-ready; gallery walls being only a minimal requirement. In this show there’s no one really focusing on product design or no one claiming permanency or monuments to design. Rather, most of the designers explore a diversity of ideas using both a sense of playfulness and an element of surprise, as well as innovation by way of bringing their own experiences from other fields into the projects.
Ways we might live in a more sustainable and interesting world, for example, are tackled by at least four of the 12 designers. German-born, Sydney-based Chris Bosse, who’s been working on such issues for some time, imagines future cities as large networked systems with buildings that respond to the environment. As co-founder of the architectural firm, Laboratory for Visionary Architecture (LAVA), Bosse combines new technologies with nature’s own design principles and uses fewer materials, less energy and minimal resources to do it. Indian-born, Brisbane-based architect, Anupama Kundoo works to reduce the environmental impact of building by designing quality housing that is both sustainable and affordable. Kundoo incorporates ferro-cement, a product commonly used in boat building, to create efficient structures with a low impact. In ‘Cusp’, she presents a full-size cardboard prototype for Light Matters — a strong, light-weight structure formed using folding techniques inspired by Japanese origami. The Sit Place is the work of Indigenous, Coffs Harbour-based designer Alison Page who, as director of the National Aboriginal Design Agency (NADA), has reimagined home by filling it with everyday objects that resonate with stories about the land and its people. Page founded NADA as a vehicle to connect manufacturers with unique design products such as lighting, furniture, textiles, wall coverings, and architectural products with an Aboriginal aesthetic.
‘Cusp’ profiles British-born, Melbourne-based Stephen Mushin’s most recent project, a zero-waste, human-powered, low-cost aqua-culture system for growing food in developing countries. He and his collaborators, Dr Wilson Lennard and engineer Neil Faragher, won the British Council’s ‘Big Green Idea’ grant for this project in 2011. Included is a series of satirical illustrations from Mushin’s new graphic work, Now, If, What, Then, and, while these designs represent ideas that are scientifically possible, as he puts it though, his work is a playful exercise in ‘logical absurdity’. Also playful is work by Materialbyproduct, a Melbourne-based fashion house that designs wearable systems rather than conventional garments. Materialbyproduct’s Susan Dimasi creates clothes that become part of the life of a wearer. In last year’s Bleed project, a series of garments were inscribed with a coloured marker which, activated by the wearer, ‘bled’ into the fabric. Emotional states of the wearer such as passion, frustration or anxiety trigger increases in body temperature, consequently changing the look and feel of the material. For ‘Cusp’, Materialbyproduct’s Embodiment, invited five well-known people to wear a Materialbyproduct dress and publicly document their emotional experiences and private musings online — via social media and blogs — over the course of three months.
German-born, Melbourne-based Floyd Mueller and his team at the Exertion Games Lab at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology believe we can exercise and play better than we do (say, with Nintendo or similar games). They design new ways of use gaming technology for interactive experiences like Cart-Load-O-Fun that require quite intense physical effort. At ‘Cusp’ you could try Hanging off a Bar for as long as possible above a projected simulation of a wild river, resting when an occasional ‘raft’ floats downstream.
Not surprisingly, a couple of the designers focus in different ways on data systems — harnessing digital information so it’s useful for making sense of the world. New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based Greg More takes large amounts of data and translates it into visual stories, such as revealing how water is used in urban environments. As a founder of data visualisation studio OOM Creative, More has worked on several projects that demonstrate how complex information can be more easily interpreted. For the past 15 years, Athens-born, Sydney-based artist Mari Velonaki has established herself as a leading practitioner at the nexus of art, science and design. Velonaki was the first artist in Australia to use a range of intelligent interfaces in her work, including speech recognition, breath activation, light-reactive screens, robotics, and multi-sensor data fusion.
Three of the designers — George Khut, Healthabitat and Leah Heiss — explore the intersection of health and design. Sydney-based designer Khut is working on creating products that help sick children. Brighthearts, developed with Dr Angie Morrow (a paediatrician with Kids Rehab at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in NSW), is a therapeutic application designed to help seriously ill children manage stress and anxiety while in hospital. Using a clip-on heart monitor and an iPad, the ‘app’ creates a biofeedback loop of colours and sounds that respond to the child’s heart rate encouraging a progressively calmer state to better cope with the stress of hospital procedures. When Paul Pholeros (architect), Paul Torzillo (a thoracic physician) and Stephan Rainow (an environmental health officer) arrived in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands in northwest South Australia in 1985, their brief was simple: stop people getting sick. They designed a methodology that became the ‘Nine Healthy Living Practices’ — principles used to assess and address the living environments of disadvantaged Indigenous communities in remote Australia. Over the past 25 years, 195 ‘Housing for Health’ projects have improved over 7,000 houses across Australia. In ‘Cusp’, Healthabitat’s series of interactive displays reveal the close relationship between health and housing.
Early in her research, Melbourne-based artist and designer, Leah Heiss discovered that many people opted out of wearing or using their medical devices (such as hearing aid technologies) because they were perceived to be unattractive or have a social stigma attached. Crafted as a desirable piece of jewellery as well as an aesthetically pleasing medical device, Diabetes Neckpiece is an alternative to a syringe, painlessly and discreetly administering insulin to diabetes sufferers using nanotechnology. In ‘Cusp’ you can see Heiss’s series of prototypes created using additive manufacturing (called 3D printing) including a series of hearing technologies for the hearing impaired, an ECG neckpiece to discreetly measure heart rate, and her Seed Sensor, a swallowable device that unfurls in the digestive tract like a flower, collecting bubbles of gas that can be an early indicator of disease.
Apart from Heiss a number of artists and designers in Australia have been exploring 3D printing for some time. Henry Wilson (who won the 2011 Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Award) and Oliver Smith, both based in Sydney, and Surya Graf in Brisbane, for example. There are also several international designers who are creating extraordinary objects using this technology and two of them were highlighted at Griffith University’s one-day seminar ‘3D Printing: The Body Inside and Out’, held recently at their Gold Coast campus. Seminar convenor, Jennifer Loy, led with the work of fast emerging Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen, whose wonderfully intricate Escapism haute-couture-dress made of white polymer joined Time magazine’s list of 50 Best Inventions of 2011. Malaysian born, now world-renown fashion designer Melinda Looi, thrice Designer of the Year awardee, was highlighted in a cat-walk show late in the seminar which presented the spectacular results of a marriage of her design with the technology of Materialise, a Belgian-based pioneer in additive manufacturing. These creators were highlighted by Loy because, as she remarked, it’s the freedom and innovation applied by artists and designers, the notion of exploring the limits that has led the way for others. Currently, the others are the aerospace industry — where strength and lightness of materials represents huge potential savings on fuel and CO2 emissions, automobile design and medical applications — hearing, dental and orthodontic devices, and soon, soft tissue procedures — all formed to perfectly fit an individual.1
For artist-designers, like Heiss, Looi, Herpen and others, I’m imagining that what makes 3D printing technology extraordinary and exciting is its ability to interpret very complex designs in one go. The direct forming process where additive layers or successive processes build intricate, finished products out of various plastics and metal, are not possible using conventional manufacturing methods. Artists’ and designers’ explorations and iterations of 3D printing is teetering on the cusp of substantial development. We’ll see a huge increase in the next little while, less than a decade, both in Australia and internationally, particularly perhaps in the Asian region.
Ian Were is an arts writer and editor based in Brisbane.
‘Cusp: Designing into the Next Decade’ is being toured by Object, Australian Design Centre, Sydney to: Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 6 July to 1 September 2013; JamFactory, Adelaide, 9 February to 26 April 2014; Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo, 9 May to 3 August 2014; The Glasshouse, Port Macquarie, 12 September to 12 October 2014; State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, 1 November 2014 to 8 February 2015; Mornington Peninsular Regional Gallery, 27 February to 26 April 2015; and Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, 6 June to 16 August 2015.
Endnotes and post-script
1. Because 3D printing allows products to be custom-matched to an exact body shape, it is being used for making better titanium bone implants, prosthetic limbs and orthodontic devices. Experiments in printing soft tissue are underway, and may soon allow printed veins and arteries to be used in operations. Current research into medical applications of 3D printing covers nano-medicine, pharmaceuticals and even printing of organs. [See 3D Printing Systems]
A Costa Rican toucan is to be given a new 3D-printed beak, after its own was broken by a group of youths. Nelson Martinez, the CEO of Ewa Corps, who is designing the 3D beak, said the priority was to create a prosthesis which would help the bird eat. Toucans use their beaks to eat and regulate body temperature. Prosthetic beaks have been created for an eagle and a penguin in the United States. [See more . . .]