Selling Yarns


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Art beyond the canvas: storytelling and design

Selling Yarns 2: Innovation for sustainability – March 2009

Designer Alison Page's key note presentation from the Selling Yarns 2 conference in which she outlines her proposal for a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Design School.


I felt the honour of being asked to give the keynote address at the Selling Yarns 2 conference in March this year; giving me the opportunity to articulate my personal vision for the future direction of Aboriginal design. As a national symposium on innovation for

I felt the honour of being asked to give the keynote address at the Selling Yarns 2 conference in March this year; giving me the opportunity to articulate my personal vision for the future direction of Aboriginal design. As a national symposium on innovation for sustainable Indigenous arts and crafts, I saw it as a chance to build support around the emerging opportunities in Aboriginal design in Australia.

I am from the Tharawal people at La Perouse, a community that is as equally influenced by its traditional saltwater identity as it is by the thriving city of Sydney at its doorstep. In 1997, I graduated from the University of Technology in Sydney with a Bachelor of Design and a determination to tell the story of my culture with the language of design. I had developed this passion having met First Nation Architect, Douglas Cardinal, in Canada, during my final year of studies. His work is about expressing traditional stories and cultural values in the built environment and developing an exciting new Indigenous architecture in North America.

A similar phenomenon is happening here in Australia with Merrima Design, Australia's first Aboriginal architecture group, led by Dillon Kombumerri and Kevin O'Brien. I joined the group in 1998, and since then we have been working collaboratively with Aboriginal communities delivering architecture, landscape design, interiors and public art.

Our work builds on a proud tradition of Aboriginal design and innovation. Boomerang, gunya's, woomera's and fish traps are all examples of objects that are functional, sustainable and beautiful, but which also tell a story. With sustainable and contemporary design, our work continues this philosophy, telling stories about the land, family, communities and our Ancestors.

Boomerangs spin and fly through the air but always return to their thrower. This was the inspiration behind the wumura earrings, when if given to a loved one who is travelling, will always bring them home. These earrings are one of eight pieces of contemporary Aboriginal jewellery in Diamond Dreaming, a collection I have designed in collaboration with Mondial Neuman Jewellers. This joint venture, which has been built on trust and integrity, is an example of what is possible for Aboriginal design to move into new and exciting areas.

Given the popularity of Aboriginal art internationally, the 'potential' of Aboriginal design and where it could go is largely untapped. We have yet to realise Aboriginal furniture, lighting, architectural products and home-wares. What does a contemporary Aboriginal chair look like and how will it be made?

Joint ventures between Aboriginal artists and manufacturers to create high quality, authentic design products with an Indigenous aesthetic was an idea I took to Kevin Rudd's Australia 2020 Summit last year. Although it is recognised as a key idea the Government wish to take forward, how the strategy will be supported is still a mystery.

I realised, that the national gathering of the Aboriginal arts and crafts sector at the Selling Yarns 2 conference would be the perfect opportunity to flesh out this strategy and that Craft Australia could play a vital role in implementing it. In my address, I proposed the creation of a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Design School that would travel to communities to train Aboriginal people in fashion, interior and industrial design in partnership with the manufacturing sector. The training would be provided by a collective of various design schools nationally and could respond to the remoteness of many communities. The partnerships with national and international manufacturers would be brokered through a commercial design studio serviced by Aboriginal design professionals.

If a manufacturer wants to develop a range of Aboriginal fabrics, the studio will find an appropriate community and coordinate with training providers to offer tuition in fabric design. The studio will work with students, graduates and manufacturers to see the product development through to production. The studio provides legal assistance to ensure that the rights of the artists are protected. The participating artists receive a royalty for the each fabric design produced. Through this coordinated approach, this strategy can provide meaningful employment opportunities for Aboriginal arts and craftspeople living in regional and remote Australia.

Through high quality training, the nature of the partnerships between Aboriginal communities and the manufacturing sector can be broadened to include the training of both designers and the makers of the products. Design, when coordinated in this way, can offer sustainability to the craft sector and to Aboriginal communities. It brings traditional crafts into the 21st century by way of process even though the meaning and the stories remain as ancient as our culture. In preparing my address, I wondered if I was proposing an idealistic dream but with the conference's formal endorsement, I know that we are now on our way to making a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Design School a reality.


Alison Page is an Aboriginal designer and artist from La Perouse, Sydney. Since graduating from UTS with a Bachelor of Design (First Class Honors) in 1997, Alison has been working on various projects in health, education, office design, exhibition design, cultural arts centres and public art. Exploring links between cultural identity, art and the built environment, Alison is an advocate for the growth of contemporary Aboriginal design in Australia.Since it's beginning in 2004, Alison Page has been a judge on the ABC TV program, The New Inventors and is a regular commentator on all things 'design', particularly involving Aboriginal communities. One of three associates of Merrima Design, Alison works with various urban and rural Aboriginal communities in the delivery of culturally appropriate architectural services. Projects range from multi-story buildings in the city to art projects in remote Australia as well as exhibitions overseas.