Gordon Andrews: a design original

Wednesday 1 Dec

>>Gordon Andrews: a design original<<

Remember the last time you clutched a wad of crisp $50 bills in your hot little hands? Me neither.

Even if you did, you could be forgiven for not realising you were actually grasping the handiwork of Australia’s most talented and influential postwar designer — Gordon Andrews.

Though these days he spends most of his time working on more whimsical projects, it would be a travesty if this surprisingly little known fact were to be lost along with his family of paper notes that are gradually being taken out of circulation. With the recent appearance of a major publication and retrospective, “Gordon Andrews: a designers life”, that seems unlikely to happen.

Both book and exhibition are themselves excellent examples of Andrews’ ability to control the arrangement of shape, space and form in a wide variety of situations. Together they provide an extraordinary visual journey which traces the remarkable career of one of our most versatile design originals.

Over his sixty year career as a designer of graphics, furniture, interiors, photography, and sculpture, Andrews (b 1914) has faced more than his share of challenges. His designs for the first decimal currency notes certainly didn’t please everyone when they first appeared in 1966. They were a bold transformation of old sterling reserve into vigorous contemporary form. Trying to pull Australians beyond the unsophisticated meat-and-potatoes approach to graphic design that prevailed during the fifties and sixties was no easy task.

Andrews tells a quintessential anecdote about just how low the level of visual literacy actually was. During a trip to the 1937 Paris International Fair Andrews encountered some of the most exciting, dare I say revolutionary, ideas that were shaping the culture of the machine-age. There he saw beautiful furniture and fabrics made in Poland, Picasso’s provocative “Guernica” in the Spanish Pavilion, and abstract kinetic mobiles by Alexander Calder. Elsewhere he encountered a pile of tinned fruit and jams surrounded by a small herd of stuffed koala bears and wallabies. The ‘pavilion’ was as Andrews remembers it a “box with letters spelling AUSTRALIA like a row of birds perched on the top of the front wall.”

The design and construction of displays for international trade fairs and biennales has come a long way since then, the present Venice Biennale pavilion notwithstanding. Andrews even got the opportunity to wreak his revenge on kitsch nonsense in 1960 when the Department of Trade commissioned him to design the government pavilion for a large international fair in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The first in a series of sophisticated and logical exhibition spaces that Andrews conceived throughout the course of his career, the pavilion presented a confident and distinctive industrial image of Australia to an inquisitive world audience. The pavilion’s copper-clad wall displayed rolled steel girders, aluminium extrusions, and lightboxes depicting scenes from steel mills.

A large and fully functional Rolls Royce jet engine that sat on a specially made cradle in the middle of the exhibition space heightened the industrial allusions. It was an impressive demonstration of Andrews’ ability to create a design that could lead a visitor through the didactic space of the pavilion.

Andrews’ pragmatic philosophy of design is still pertinent. Question: “What are we designers trying to do in the long run?” Answer: “One’s priority should always be to make a good product, whether it’s a washing machine, a poster or the interior of a building.”

That might not quite have been what NSW Govt Tourist Bureau employees immediately thought when they saw his new Martin Place interior, also built during the 1960s. Its cloudlike hanging ceiling, unconventional floor mosaic and minimal sculptural fixtures and furnishing were just “too modern” for some.

The sparse clean lines and skeletal desks caused one long-serving staff member to enquire when the modesty panels were going to be fitted to the front! Although keen to create a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing working space for staff Andrews refuses to hide his impatience at it all: “In my view, when members of staff insist on conditions which allow them to change into their slippers for the day, it’s time for them to take a job in the back room.”

Not that Andrews is insensitive to the demands of clients. The success of the design is always paramount. “If the product is more efficient, more comfortable, more visually attractive and handles better than its competitor, it will be appreciated, attain high value, and sell well.”

If that message is finally starting to get through to Australian entrepreneurs and business people, then it’s bound to have been in some small way due to the maverick efforts of Gordon Andrews.

(A Gordon Andrews retrospective, curated by Judith O’Callaghan, is on exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney till ???? 94; “Gordon Andrews: a designer’s life”, New South Wales University Press)