DESIGN INNOVATION PLAY is the first solo exhibition in a forty year wood working career that has seen David Mac Laren rise from a humble apprentice to a master craftsman and Artistic Director of one of the most successful specific purpose arts and craft galleries in the world.
This is not to say that Mac Laren’s work has not been on exhibit before, quite the opposite. His work sits easily on his Gallery’s floor and shelves alongside that of this country’s leading and highly accomplished makers of fine furniture, sculptural and utilitarian objects since 1983.
Like many other thinkers in his game of transforming rough sawn timber into finely tuned pieces of crafted furniture and sculptural objects, his mind is turning towards very important issues that concern him and the future of the world in which we all live, work and play.
And the prime resource of his craft, timber, lies at the heart of his concerns on no less than three fronts. These issues are carbon emission, energy usage and sustainability. The three are inseparable in the context of his craft.
This exhibition in no small way addresses these issues as the maker comes to terms with what he and his fellow makers are doing. David Mac Laren, whose generation has seen a four-fold increase in world population, is well aware that the population will top nine billion people by the year 2050. He is also aware that it has been estimated that the resources to support that number of people is equal to the amount of resources available on three planet Earths. These issues will certainly require an inordinate amount of thinking, rethinking and change, on an almost unimaginable scale, to cope with what’s coming.
He realises that timber is a crucial player in this global carbon energy resource crisis, and is addressing that in the best ways he can. He sees design as primarily based in structure, requiring an understanding of the interconnectedness of materials and other elements and how they work.
Structural design reveals possibilities for play, exploration, experimentation and innovation. Mac Laren’s structural design strategy is reductionist: to use solid timber for his work, not to travel the incorrectly perceived sustainability route of reducing solid timber to thin veneers at a high cost in terms of energy use and carbon emission.
In this belief he finds support in the philosophy of his mentor, the late George Ingham, founder of the Canberra School of Art, Wood Workshop who believed using large section timbers affords the best efficiency.
A benefit of this idea is the retention of carbon in the solid timber. There are financial and ecological rewards within this premise in that every action or process performed on the timber costs time and uses energy reliant processes. Therein lies part of his answer to the issue of energy use, less machining, more skilled handwork and clever processing means less energy use and less carbon emissions. The alternative use of thin section veneers in association with pre-manufactured chip or medium density fibreboards (MDF) consumes more energy through manufacture and uses toxic materials in the process.
At the centre of this line of thinking is the humble tree, the resource of all woodworkers. Mac Laren thinks of this by imagining an area of trees, in effect the present level of available trees on the planet. If the policy is to use more solid timber it would necessitate the growth of more trees. A policy of using veneers allows for the distribution of the present stock of trees, making the resource last longer with considerable energy costs and without providing an incentive to grow more. He and others see this as an example of maintaining an unsustainable practice.
One of the key factors in addressing these issues is the role of thinking in relation to materials. This needs to be done across the board by makers, retailers and consumers. Until recently it’s been fashionable to use exotic timbers, and to think that using thin sections will preserve these normally slow growing and highly endangered timbers so affected by wanton deforestation and greed.
In this exhibition, and in his general practice, Mac Laren employs the skill and knowledge of others to assist with new materials and process solutions. To help him achieve his ideas of structure as pure form he places content and decoration of the piece within the realm of culture. The structure holds it together and up, the content and decoration makes it pleasing, connecting it to time and place.
He seeks out processes and processors, and creates designs to take advantage of other skill sets using current machinery, new technologies and newly utilised materials to realise his finished pieces. Water jet cutting of timber, rare earth magnets replacing glues and screws, complicated articulated joints in timber, LED lighting technology, computer aided drawing (CAD) component design are areas of exploration, play, risk, the occasional significant innovation, and some likely failures and dead ends.
With this of course comes risk. As with all new aspirations for efficient and less energy reliant processes, there is the need for much experimentation. In turn experimentation inevitably leads to failures, usually in a greater proportion than successes. Mac Laren has a refreshing approach to failure, almost to the point of turning it on its head and making it part of his eventual success. Failure to him is the only sure way of knowing that something will not work. He is encouraged when he hears people like American engineer, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller declare that he did a lot of interesting things but a lot of them didn’t work.
With today’s professionalism everything is tightening up, particularly among the old guard where constraint, confinement and restraint are the orders of the day. Failure is not to be contemplated. But with younger people this may not necessarily be the case. When asked what the purpose of this exhibition is, Mac Laren answers by saying that one reason is to produce the documentation, to actually write something down about himself and the world he lives in, and secondly he really wants to try to get both himself and his Gallery to connect with the younger design ethos. He applauds those teachers trying to raise the level of their student’s flexibility to think about themselves, their work environment and the changes that must come for sustainment in the future, particularly in this material-driven line of work.
And in a seemingly endless world of digital information, social networks and hard logic, Mac Laren professes avoidance of the screens and things like Twitter. That, he says, “draws one in to all this,” and firmly believes that his creativity is part of a more intimate process. He’s finding that today’s professional paradigms for success require substantial connection with others and feels this eventually leads to agreement and compliance in place of getting out there and just doing it.
There is one vexed issue that concerns him, the use of so-called exotic and endangered species such as Ebony and other rainforest timbers. Having come into possession of a substantial amount of the timber he now feels guilty about using it, even though without his intervention it was in danger of rotting away on a Sydney wharf. Rodney Hayward, recently retired Head of the ANU Furniture Workshop, related a similar story of students finding a quantity of New Guinea Rosewood laying as scrap in a local timber yard. He considers this sourcing method of looking, finding and scavenging “as giving a rare timber another chance of showing what it can do.”
Mac Laren’s salvaging of the Ebony, recovered following a shipping debacle, should be seen as a saviour of this exotic West African timber. He did not commission anybody to cut it down, and likewise, the student’s use of the Rosewood did not mean that loggers would rush out and cut more. It should be looked on as a valid use.
Finally, David Mac Laren finds that his work is almost meaningless unless there is a sense of play involved in the design and making process. For him, if there is no play, there is no fun, no experimentation, no failure, and ultimately little chance of success over and above the odds.
This long time coming exhibition will let Mac Laren know where he’s at, what he’s doing and who he is. He’s taken the risks and if there are failures along the way, then so be it. Being a risk-taker can only increase the chances of becoming a groundbreaker.
Stan d'Argeavel MA(VA)
David Mac Laren represents the epitome of the term "JOURNEYMAN" He began that journey in 1973 on the corner of Manhattan's Lexington Avenue and 27th Street when he responded to the classic 'Help Wanted' sign in a gallery called Impressions in Wood.
In the basement workshop he worked with up to seven male and female makers. All talked incessantly about woodworking techniques and design.
Mac Laren became possessed and obsessed with shaping timber and was hooked on woodworking, influenced by the natural edge furniture of George Nakashima and the stack laminated sculptural furniture of Wendell Castle. (This sculptural focus, based on structure, resurfaces with the suite of chairs in this exhibition)
After two years he moved on to a larger space with four other makers on the Lower East Side, just off the infamous Bowery. Building domestic furniture and kitchens from White Oak and Walnut, and fit-outs for architects, became the main game while always designing and making small items for craft fairs.
Mac Laren’s network of makers and experience with materials and techniques grew in those exciting times offering a superb education in the wood medium. In 1977 he left the US for the wide-open spaces of Australia settling near Bungendore in Southern NSW.
Armed with a quantity of American Black Walnut and a desire to create “a place for woodworkers to display their works, where diversity is encouraged and fine craftsmanship essential,” Mac Laren approached seven or eight makers from the region and asked them to produce a piece from the Black Walnut. In 1983 Bungendore Wood Works Gallery was born out of this exhibition of fine wood work in the heritage listed Bungendore Store building opposite the present day site.
The arrival of Englishman George Ingham (to head up the new Canberra School of Art Wood Workshop) and South African David Upfill Brown (who established a substantial workshop in Canberra) had a profound affect on the development of wood working in the region. The three formed a philosophical and working relationship, and together with the dynamics of successive art school graduates, gave rise to an authentic arts and crafts community, one of many emerging throughout the country at the time.
Twelve years ago a heart wrenching fire claimed his workshop, tools, timber and work in progress. All were lost. The charred remains of his machinery still displays the name, Rudolf Bass Machinery, New York City and the loss closed another chapter in Mac Laren’s journey. Philosophically it meant a time for review, for a change of direction perhaps.
Instead of rebuilding he decided to spend time developing working relationships with makers around the country. The journey continued from the Jarrah rich forests of Western Australia through the exotic softwood stands of northern NSW and Queensland to the ancient Huon Pine environments of Tasmania.
Recognising the simple, and at times, alternative life styles of dedicated woodies, Mac Laren decided to aid and abet those who shared his obsessive love of all things wooden. Realising the relationship with his fellow makers required sensitivity in encouraging them into a special partnership, he set about treating this as equal to, if not more important than, any eventual commercial outcome. He freely gave the designs he had developed over the years to makers and encouraged them to send him finely crafted pieces that he would display and sell in his new Gallery built in 1994.
In 2003, a new workshop emerged phoenix-like from the ashes, and a more limited and considered continuance of the maker’s journey began. This phase gave rise to new designs and prototype works laced with innovation and experimentation, culminating in the work on show in this exhibition, ironically his first in nearly 40 years of woodworking.
Bungendore Wood Works Gallery began as a “place to display” and Mac Laren has elevated that display to the level of an art form. Under his daily direction, he and his staff display the country’s finest wood work from its best makers, matched with an exceptional level of customer service. Getting it right is an endless quest and one more step of the ongoing journey.
Mac Laren sees craft as a way of life that compliments the tourist ethos. His nationally and internationally renowned award winning Gallery offers visitors a genuine Australian arts and craft experience that aspires to be the de facto national collection of wood craft. The story of David Mac Laren parallels the development of fine wood working in Australia over the past thirty years. Where he and the gallery are today is where the standard and level of Australian woodworking is also.
What’s next for this intrepid artisan? Well, the journey simply continues. His fire in the belly attitude towards the passionate pursuit of his chosen medium can only continue to be constructive, addictive and persuasive.