In conversation with Stephen Todd, Creative Director of Powerhouse Sydney Design Week

Stephen Todd, Creative Director, Sydney Design Week

How have the parameters of ‘design’ expanded beyond the idea of a singular practitioner working independently or in only one discipline, particularly in the last five years?

The modernist tradition was very much the lone genius practising a solo process, and there’s been a big generational shift particularly in the last ten years away from this as we’ve started to re-read this to look at those who are often overlooked in practice – particularly women. The classic case is Charlotte Perriand, and recent exhibitions have really brought home that idea that she designed most of the furniture that was attributed to Le Corbusier for so long. That cracked open the idea of looking at women who were in practices and doing extraordinary work, allowing for a rereading of the history of modernism – which was written by men – through a new lens.

There’s also a new openness to looking at other cultures while these design traditions are being reconsidered, and we have Nipa Doshi as a keynote speaker this year who will discuss the importance of cross-cultural perspectives in her work. She trained at the National Design Academy in Ahmedabad – which was established on the principles of the Manifesto developed by Charles and Ray Eames at the behest of the Indian government – before doing post-grad at London’s Royal College of Art. The studio Doshi Levien that she set up with fellow RCA graduate, her husband Jonathan Levien, started out with the goal of creating products for mass industrial production but has more recently segued into craft and textiles and small batch production, with everything becoming more nuanced. In this way, to my mind, Doshi Levien is a litmus test of current thinking in design. (I will be in conversation with Nipa as a SDW keynote on September 18 at Powerhouse Ultimo.)


What are some of the most powerful examples of collaboration and cross-pollination between established and emerging designers you have seen recently? Why have these partnerships or ventures been so effective?

Collaboration between established and emerging designers is really something we started to explore two years ago with our ‘hybrid’ theme, which was about challenging established designers to work with people outside the practice of design. This year, we’re getting the people who are just starting out in the industry or even still in school into the room and starting to have conversations with established designers. We want them to be curious and start having conversations with people who have the experience.

This collaboration is something that David Flack, who designed the interiors of the SDW venue partner Ace Hotel, is extremely passionate about. Dave’s putting together one of the programmes with Ace Hotel called ‘PLAY: Community Clay’ to really focus on this intergenerational and cross-disciplinary collaboration. As an interior designer of finely-crafted homes for often-wealthy and sometimes celebrity clients (such as singer Troye Sivan) Dave understands first-hand how design can be prohibitive and exclusive, and the whole practice of Sydney Design Week is about really opening up to people who may not have access to capital-D design.

David’s commissioned ceramicists, including Karen Black, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, and Glenn Barkley, to create works specifically for Ace, and for Sydney Design Week he’s created a space in the laneway behind the hotel where people will be able to create their own clay pieces while Karen and a bunch of other creatives from diverse fields tell stories. Participants can elect to either leave their work as part of an iterative installation in Ace’s Good Chemistry bar/café, or take them home with them.


Who are some emerging designers we should be watching closely? Why?

Marlo Lyda is one to watch. She’s an Australian-born designer-maker who studied at Design Academy Eindhoven, one of the best design schools in the world, and just recently returned to Australia. She is working on an ongoing collection called REMNANTS, using discarded offcut fragments of quite precious marble to create very beautiful armatures – or scaffolding as she calls it – with copper wires which she then patinates. They look fantastic in sets of three, like a reinterpretation of mid-century typology: a nest of tables.


What about cross-disciplinary collaboration between, for example, industrial design, art direction, sound, graphic design and so on?

Our art-director Emma Elizabeth has brought in a lot of people from different disciplines, including fine art, sound, graphic and video design which we’ll be showing alongside works more readily recognised as ‘design’ – whether realised by industrial or small-batch production.

Inside Powerhouse Ultimo, Emma’s curated the New Australian Design exhibition featuring two dozen designers that run the gamut from well-established to really new – including two undergraduates she’s mentored at UNSW School of Art Architecture and Design.

Emma’s also overseen several installations at the Eddy Multi Space in the undercroft of Central Station, which is being activated by Right Angle urban design studio for Transport NSW ahead of the elaboration of the Central Tech Precinct. It has these incredibly beautiful, six-metre-high gallery spaces underneath it with this classic, Mondrian-eque paint job from when it was a mini-department store in the 1950s.

In addition to an installation of a dozen or so Sydney-based designers under the banner of Local Design, at Eddy there will also be a showcase of six Melbourne designers being shown under the aegis of Oigall Projects. As co-founder of Oigall, Andy Kelly recently told me (for my column in The Australian Financial Review Magazine): “A design community isn’t one dictated by proximity… it’s glue is the sharing of ideas, coming together to examine, explore and excite.”

We’re working closely with Sally Dan-Cuthbert, founder of Australia’s first dedicated ‘functional art’ gallery in Rushcutters Bay, to showcase some of the nation’s most celebrated conceptual designers/artists, including Olive Gill-Hille and David Tate from Perth as well as Sydney’s Edward Waring. Elliat Rich (who is represented by Sophie Gannon in Melbourne) will be coming in from her home base of Alice Springs to unveil new a lighting work made from bitumen and glass.

Since this is the last of my suite of three Sydney Design Weeks as creative director, I am keen to consolidate the base and leave a strong but supple foundation upon which future directors will be able to build.


Where will cross-disciplinary collaboration take Australia’s design industry in the future? What do you predict for the next decade?

The idea of what a designer did in Australia until maybe a decade ago was that they created a prototype that they would try to get to Milan and try to get in front of one of the big manufacturers. Over the last decade, we’ve seen a shift from this mindset, there’s a real rise in the credibility and viability of making small batch production and making things locally or working with local manufacturers. I think that in the next decade we will continue the breaking down of divisions between what used to be called ‘design’ and what used to be called ‘craft’, which will consolidate the position of the designer-maker in the public psyche.

We’ve seen the rise of a very small, very potent coterie of local manual manufacturers – like what Richard Munau is doing with Cult and the brand nau. People walk into the showroom and see products that are designed and made in Australia, that tell a local story. There’s a real value to knowing that something has been made by local craftspeople and that you might even see the designer out and about around town.


Do you think Australia has a discernible ‘design identity’ of its own? Or are we still heavily influenced by trends, styles and aesthetics from Europe and the US?

That’s the eternal question, isn’t it? I think that modernism does play very well here, we’re not as comfortable with the decorative or the flourish as those in Europe or the US so the modernist aesthetic (and to a less degree, ethic) predominates. There’s a purity of line and simplicity in Australian design, but we’re seeing the rise of a much more layered approach in our interior design, a maturation of taste to achieve a level of comfort with the decorative. So, while our product design is probably still quite pure and quite clean, the way we put things together in our interiors is becoming much more nuanced.


What is the most rewarding aspect of your role as Creative Director of Sydney Design Week?

The most rewarding aspect of my role is the level of engagement with the design community inherent in it. As design editor of The Australian Financial Review, I spend a lot of time looking, analysing and commenting on design locally and internationally, but as a creative director, I can enable opportunities and give designers a physical showcase for their work. In a way, it is like editing in three dimensions; you’re still creating stories and telling a narrative, but at the same time actively encouraging and creating a platform for people to flourish.


CC’s top picks for Sydney’s Design Week

Stephen’s insights have us more than excited to explore the full scope of events on offer in SDW2022. Whether you’re an active member of Australia’s design industry, an emerging designer or practitioner, or simply just a design lover, this is an inclusive opportunity to experience this diverse and thoughtfully curated program.

The Powerhouse Late x Sydney Design Week opening night event is free for all, featuring music, announcements, and designer talks. We’ll be heading to Making Western Sydney on September 17, an architectural tour of Paramatta with leading Australian design firms Fender Katsalidis, Hills Thalis, JPW, Blight Rayner, and Tzannes.

Another one not to miss is keynote speaker Nipa Doshi’s presentation at Powerhouse Ultimo, where she will discuss the importance of cross-cultural perspectives in studio Doshi Levien’s work for leading manufacturers and creative firms.

We look forward to seeing you in Sydney!

Yellowtrace Guide Design Makers, Sydney Design Week
Ace Hotel Sydney