Think memorabilia – tacky T-shirts and mugs, tired koalas made of Chinese kitten fur, paint-splotched boomerangs that almost certainly won’t be coming back, and silver plated tea spoons with enamelled pictures on the top.
Think again. A satin-sheened dish etched with a stylish interpretation of Marion Griffin’s watercolour sketch of Canberra as designed by herself and her husband Walter. Think design, elegance, innovation and daring – with a dash of pioneer humour and youthful derring do. Think Canberra 2013.
When Dan Lorrimer and Mitchell Brooks entered the Craft ACT competition “Centenary of Canberra – a legacy of good design” in September 2011 they had no idea of the journey they were about to undertake. The brief was clear – design a high quality object to celebrate the city’s 100th birthday and reflect its unique character.
“We knew we had to focus on design,” explains Dan. “Canberra is a planned city and the Griffins, Walter and Marion, had been meticulous in setting out their vision. We had to respect that.”
The design also pays homage to Marion, whose contribution to the Burley Griffin submission to the design competition is believed to have swayed the judges. Last month the view from Mount Ainslie was officially named the Marion Mahoney Griffin view. “We wanted to acknowledge her role in the project,” explains Mitch. “She was as much a part of it as her husband.”
The designers also wanted to showcase their own talents. Dan (above right), a graduate of Sculpture at ANU, and Mitch (above left), who studied Industrial Design at the University of Canberra, were emerging as creative professionals in their own rights. They decided to pool their skills and resources for the competition, establishing Makeout Design and hiring studio space together at the ANCA collective in the north of the city
I find them hard at work there finalising the final batch of dishes, surrounded by a galaxy of bright yellow and blue lozenges. “It’s been crazy this year,” laughs Mitch. “But we’re finally shutting down production. We’ve made 600 or so and we want to remain true to the spirit of 2013, so this is the final run.” He shows me the original drawings, meticulously drafted in a small black notebook. “We kind of sat down over there,” he waves at a makeshift gazebo in the courtyard. “And we brainstormed.”
The end result is a palimpsest of precision, innovation and texture that reflects the spirit of Canberra’s conception and creation. The dish is slightly asymmetrical, mirroring the natural amphitheatre of the city, and the geometric design of the blueprint is aligned along axes aligned with topographical landmarks. “This line here,” says Mitch, “is the land axis connecting Mount Ainslie to Mount Bimberi, and here is the water axis. We wanted everyone to be able to recognise their Canberra, map out their capital. Like, if you live here in Dickson you can point to it, reconnect with your city through this object.”
Even the packaging reflects the layered consideration that has gone into this project. The drafting film wrap around the box is a topographical map, through which can be seen the geometry of the design. “We wanted to show what Marion and Walter had to work with and how they used the natural features to map their vision.”
“We didn’t want this to just be a decoration,” says Dan. “This is about life, lived. It’s about being here.”
It’s also about two young entrepreneurs cutting their teeth in their chosen profession. “When we won the prize it was like, wow, we just got serious,” says Dan. He and Mitch laugh, and I join them. “We used the AUD10,000 to buy equipment and rent this space. We bought this press off Ebay and had it delivered. It took three days for us to move it inside. We were told it weighed three tons but the truck driver who delivered it said it was nearer six so we rigged up an Egyptian-style pyramid-mover made up of rolling steel pipes and inched it in to place.” I stare in amazement at the massive behemoth behind us.
“Then we found out that it didn’t actually do what we wanted it to do,” adds Mitch. So the pair redesigned the machine, creating a system for hydro-moulding. This uses high pressure water to create a bubble shape that is smoother, more cost effective and of higher quality than the older stamping method. “It was incredible,” says Mitch. “Working with water means you never know what you are going to end up with as it has its own mind. But once it has worked you know you are going to get consistency. And it worked for us for the first time – we got exactly what we wanted!”
Another idea that evolved as the process unfolded was how to get the design onto the metal. The original idea had been to use electroetching, but this was too uneven and expensive. “Out of every 50 dishes, perhaps 10 were good,” explains Dan. “That was way too much. So after a couple of rounds we gave up.” They resorted instead to abrasive blasting, modifying their equipment as they went until they were both satisfied with the quality and consistency of the results. “Doing small runs for niche products is completely different than doing large scale production,” says Mitch. “We were learning as we went along.”
Mitch and Dan both laugh. “Our first 18 customers have bought completely unique dishes,” chuckles Mitch.
“Ha, these will be collectors’ items.” I laugh, and the two young men stare as though they had never thought of their work as an icon. Even though the two prototype designs they submitted have been acquired by the Legislative Assembly Archive, and even though the limited production run of their beautiful work will ensure that the Griffin Blueprint Dish will remain a sought-after treasure for decades to come.
These two are not naïve about their talent, however, and this comes through as they tell me of their plans and projects in 2014 and beyond. But as I run my hands over “my” Canberra dish, feeling the slight roughness of the blueprint contrasting with the creamy smoothness of the yellow paint (“Industrial Safety Yellow” – how very ACT), I realise how completely the clean, precise lines of this design have captured the centennial spirit of the city and the purity of intention of two creative minds.
“We didn’t number these or brand them in any way, except for our sticker on the base,” says Mitch. Dan takes up the story. “We did a prototype of a dish with our “Makeout Design” logo, but it seemed, well, wrong. We wanted to get away from the hypocrisy of the mass memorabilia market and so putting “our” stamp on something that belongs to everyone just seemed, well, wrong.”
“Although we might hide a signature on the last one we produce.” Dan and Mitch share a smile. “A secret ‘M’ that only we would know about….”
NOTE: Dan and Mitch will be at their studio in Mitchell at the ANCA Open Day on Friday 13 from 5pm to 8pm. 96 Hoskins Street, Mitchell. You could win your very own Griffin Blueprint Dish!
Jacky Sutton landed in Canberra on a skilled migrant visa last year after almost two decades working with the United Nations in war zones around the world. Up until October she was working in Baghdad with the Iraqi election commission and before that she was working with journalists and bloggers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Iran. She started out with BBC World Service and Vatican Radio before moving into the development aid sector. She arrived in Canberra on Melbourne Cup Day – “It was like a nuclear winter – there was no one here!” – but is now enrolled as a research scholar at the Centre of Arabic and Islamic Studies at ANU and otherwise keeping busy with Vegan ACT, HerCanberra and two rescue cats called Shirin and Narla.View all Jacky Sutton posts.