Design Innovation Play - Review by Meredith Hinchliffe

I find it amazing that this is David Mac Laren’s first solo exhibition after 40 years of practice. Amazing because his name is synonymous with high quality furniture and excellence in design in woodworking in Australia and has been since 1983.

This exhibition has two main parts: the first is the work on display in the upstairs Octagonal Gallery of Bungendore Wood Works Gallery and the second is the accompanying catalogue in which he is quoted at length from discussions with Stan d’Argeavel. In these transcripts he speaks about his philosophy and his approach to his materials and how they impact on his designs.

There is surprisingly little work on display in the exhibition considering that the artist's career spans nearly forty years. However, the reasons are that many of his pieces over the years have been private commissions, and also that this is not a retrospective exhibition but an exhibition of the maker’s more recent works and design ideas.

The work is diverse, but it is all derived from the same belief: “the idea of structure as pure form” and the “decoration which makes it pleasing, connecting it to time and place”.

The exhibition and the catalogue are arranged into sections. The first is Seating. While three forms of seating are on exhibit and discussed in the catalogue, this is an area Mac Laren has investigated throughout his career.

The three works exploring seating are closely related. They are sculptural and austere – pared down to the minimum number of “members”. Leda, the first, in pale Silver Ash, is stark and seemingly simple in construction. The curves of the legs, seat and back all emanate from a solid cylinder of timber. Jester is a harsher, more masculine form of seating, ironically made more playful by the addition of turned spheres on the back slats, the seat and the legs. Mac Laren says that Jester is in the playful territory between domestic seating and sculpture. Strut, the third work, is a pure structural form particularly when viewed in profile and evokes the blades of the wind towers bordering the shores of nearby Lake George.

Large photographs of Bunk Beds commissioned for a client’s grandchildren demonstrate Mac Laren’s thoughtful design processes. All elements are rounded or ‘ovalised’, so they are soft, and as he says, cuddly. They meet the exacting standards for safety for bunk beds, are completely resolved and dearly loved and used by the children. Mac Laren reflects on the making processes in the catalogue and his choice of timber – in consultation with the client. He says at the time “it felt like he was building a house”.

We can see from this commission that Mac Laren usually complicates things, which he freely admits. He seeks resolutions to three issues that confront furniture makers: carbon emission, energy usage and sustainability. A fourth could be the use of noxious fixatives and surface treatments. He thought about the use of magnets a “whole new way of holding furniture together”. One benefit would be that flat packing furniture held together by magnets could be more easily transported. The second is the versatility of more than one fixed piece of furniture. Still is a table, or two tables, or two with a display shelves.

Mac Laren explains that the experimentation behind this work, which took him a year to resolve, led to the thinking behind the other solid timer projects in this exhibition. The table is solid, resolved and would be ideal for a small area, when a larger table is needed for dining occasionally, but takes up too much space when not being used.

Stack is derived from the work he undertook on Still. Two rectangles, divided by a diagonal can be made into several pieces of furniture as required. Shelves, seating and low tables are made up by eight triangular tables. One set is ebonised and the differences in colour add a dynamic which could be lost.

In his search for conserving resources, Mac Laren has jettisoned the traditional belief that using veneers will help stop the destruction and eventual loss of exotic timbers. Partial Ellipse is of curved solid timber, which he says is “veneer’s natural territory”. He describes the processes he followed to make this dynamic work. This work is further demonstration of his penchant for seeking to complicate things.

One line of design and thought leads to another, and Mac Laren has created several sets of ‘shoes’ for one table, a truly whimsical line of pursuit. The shoes are interchangeable, and combine different coloured timbers and designs including one with stainless steel stilettos. They are simply fun and come from a sense of complete knowledge of design, materials, what can be done with them, and how you can create a playful approach, providing enjoyment for both maker and audience.

Mac Laren is exhibiting several works which he titles Products. These include clocks, gifts, business card holders, mobile phone holders, hand mirrors and lighting. The same amount of thought has gone into how the making of these objects can help conserve resources both in the materials and the making.

All pieces have a poetical simplicity, including the three versions of Conical , lamps in three heights. As viewers we are not aware of the complications that are worked through in the making – clearly one mark of the skills required in the maker.

The excerpts of conversations are illuminating, making the catalogue valuable. Mac Laren tells us he is not afraid of failure – most people are wary of taking risks and this boxes them in. Mac Laren tells us about the risks and failures, as well as celebrating the successes. The exhibition is the ultimate celebration of Mac Laren’s successes in his pursuit of design, innovation and play, while the catalogue details the pathways he took to them.

Meredith Hinchliffe
November 9, 2011
Approved to value Australian ceramics, glass, textiles, jewellery, leatherwork, wooden objects and furniture from 1970 for the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program.


Thursday 10 November 2011