The toilet collapsed – again. But the show must go on. Ben Landau and Lucile Sciallano are creating three rooms of 120 ornate ceramics for Melbourne Design Week. Not just familiar table-bowls. Everything from "prickly" taps to ornate chandeliers will be on display at the NGV Australia. Think Hotham Street Ladies, but instead of cake icing, the looping decorative swirls are made from extruded ceramic using home-made 3D printers. The two designers even use a cake-mixer to combine clay and colour.
Decoration and experimentation are the key ingredients to Ornament is Fine, Landau and Sciallano's riposte to Austrian architect Adolf Loos' famous modernist maxim "ornament is crime". But only the title is understated. Loos himself would probably collapse at the prospect of a decorative loo.
"We like that weirdness," says Landau. "It's where we cross into a more experimental practice. We're not really interested in mass producing these objects."
Such is the nature of experimentation the toilet had to be flushed after three structural failures.
"It's the first time we've done many techniques," says Landau. "But we have to exist on the edge of possibility."
Experimentation is a key aspect of Melbourne Design Week which occurs across town with over 160 events, exhibitions, talks, tours and films. Design Effect is the theme of this year's program.
"Design is both cultural production and commercial production," says Ewan McEoin, senior curator of contemporary design at the NGV. "These things should go hand-in-hand as a vibrant design community.
"Experimentation comes into investing in prototyping and investing in techniques and the feedback loop that occurs. In theory you need an opportunity to do something crazy to then push you into another area with your commercial stuff."
Where Landau and Sciallano explore hi-tech DIY, Dale Hardiman experiments with the decidedly low-fi. Using broken and discarded furniture – garden chairs, Ikea products and household bits such as balustrades – Hardiman patches and rebuilds.
"Only a handsaw, drill and screws are used for construction," he explains. "I took away any machining and CAD. None of the work was sketched. It's about the intuitiveness of making. I use rudimentary tools to display the ease with which we can reuse these objects to have structural capabilities."
Hardiman hopes to inspire others to get on the tools. In his eyes our homes are veritable mini-factories capable of local production.
"Furniture manufacture requires buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery to [mass] produce objects," he says. "[But] the average household is like a workshop; with gas and electric ovens."
Hardiman baulks at the idea that his handmade objects are akin to artisanship. "That takes years of refinement," he says. By contrast his "bespoke" pieces are covered entirely in tile grout. This provides durability and helps disguise its prosaic roots as garden and Ikea furniture. Hardiman then hand-paints each piece with a special rubber (used in the automotive industry and waterproofing pools) that makes the pieces cohere individually and as a series.
Despite the works' artistic appearance – the sculptural quality of its impastoed surfaces and cartoonish graphic-black outlines – the works are entirely functional. The seating surfaces may not look comfortable, but the rubber is soft, Hardiman reassures.
Beyond accessible tools and maximising materials, what makes this approach sustainable is personal, he says: "It lasts longer because we have been involved emotionally in the process of making."
Where hard rubbish feeds Hardiman's collection, Nuud Studio's Burb Mechanics exhibition upcycles mass-produced household-building products. Rich pickings can be found. For Nuud Studio's Kerli Valk (interior designer) and Brad Mitchell (architect) items like the humble picket fence and skirting board are underutilised. They can be transformed into benches and tables. What's more these ornate materials – nigh impossible for the average individual to produce – are highly affordable.
"We've been personally drawn to a lot of decorative things because of the complexity that's required to make them," says Mitchell. "It's identifying the beauty of the work that's been put into them. The consumer can take advantage of that – they're ridiculously cheap."
One Nuud bench is made from 20 fence pickets at $3.50 per picket. "Nothing went over $300," says Mitchell.
To encourage others, Nuud provide instruction manuals to the seven products in the show. Like Hardiman they hope the net effect is not only a satisfying project, but instilling confidence in fellow "nuudists" to either maintain their household items or experiment further. And, like Landau and Sciallano, Nuud appreciates that embracing decoration is anathema to modernist purists.
Modernists shouldn't feel abandoned, however. During Design Week modernist experiments are celebrated too. Comedian and mid-century modernist tragic Tim Ross champions regional modernism at the 1960s modernist landmark ICI house. An exhibition of Robin Boyd's work in his own Walsh Street house in South Yarra charts the evolution of his public work from high modernity to hints of early onset postmodernity. Meanwhile, self-reflexivity gets a workout with Dutch graphic designers Experimental Jetset. Their retrospective at RMITs Design Hub unpacks experiments in modernity by mining subcultures, from situationism to punk.
The film Superdesign interviews Italian radical designers from the 1960s and '70s, with curator and filmmaker Maria Cristina Didero hosting the screening.
The fine line between art and design is explored in Artefacts, which showcases 11 Australian object makers. "We wanted to present work that fits into a gallery context that's experimental and doesn't have a clear-cut commercial outcome," says co-curator Jonathan Ben-Tovim. "Every piece is made physically by the designer. There's a lot of material experimentation."
Maddie Sharrock casts concrete objects, Michael Gittings weaves strips of stainless steel to "upholster" furniture pieces and Makiko Ryujin applies Japanese "Sugi Ban" burnt-wood techniques to salvaged roadside logs.
"People are pinching and borrowing cultural references," says Ben-Tovim, whose own designs recycle crumpled panels from crashed cars to make bowls and lights. "The exhibition is a real representation of what design in Australia is, which is ultimately not really tied to anything in Australia."
Indeed identity is the subject of several exhibitions. In How Much Can a Koala Bear? Eugenie Kawabata and Felicity Mark asked 16 emerging and established textile and fashion, lighting and furniture designers to represent Australia through their designs. How much of a role does design play in shaping identity? they ask.
While one might expect multiculturalism to feature, landscape dominates. Native flora has been a decorative motif in art and design for over a century. In the Hakea table lamp Richard Greenacre updates the rich Australian tradition using computer aided design, 3D printing and LED lights alongside traditional craft techniques. Inspired by his fellow native West Australian, pin-cushion hakea (Hakea laurina), Greenacre's playful porcelain lighting requires the user to place or remove a steel counterweight to turn the light on and off.
Kawabata's Yakka vessels respond to her childhood memories of the yakka plant, resplendent with colour after bushfire. Her Karijini Twilight sidetables are based on her time teaching in Western Australia's Pilbara and Kimberley. The tables draw on the interplay of light across the distinctive landscape.
"The colours at dusk there are uniquely Australian," she says. "Karijini National Park in the Pilbara has these amazingly beautiful mauves, reds, purples and earthy red oxides. It's drawing on how light interacts with a unique interior landscape."
Jeweller Katheryn Leopoldseder, however, can't bear too much. Venetian Blind Tragedy and Security Amulet are inspired by her travels through India. They were borne from false expectations. Like so many before her, Leopoldseder expected India to provide an opportunity to disconnect from material culture. She found the opposite. The same lust for material possession that she had left behind in Australia was evident there too.
Miniaturising ubiquitous Venetian blinds and security doors to jewellery scale reflects what Leopoldseder sees as the "dystopia emerging from the rise of Australian consumer society." "The more we own, the more we feel the need to protect ourselves," she says. "We keep the world at a distance. The necklaces capture the ironic loss of personal security that emerges from our insatiable acquisition of stuff."
Security Amulet's title refers to the tradition of wearing symbolic objects for spiritual protection. "Sometimes immersing yourself in another culture enables you to see your own," says Leopoldseder.
Decoding Design flips that premise: sometimes an outsider sees your culture more clearly. Three designers from three nationalities interpret three traditional objects from each other's culture: the Jewish menorah, the German cuckoo clock and the Chinese pagoda. Yan Huang, a former car interior designer for GM, uses her styling skills to turn the decorative cuckoo clock into a sleek postmodern clock that lays eggs. Huang's cuckoo comments on the bird's extinction and German immigration policies. Are there too many eggs in the nest? Meanwhile, she transforms her own cultural icon, the pagoda, into an incense burner. After a long stretch of continuous financial prosperity China has become an increasingly materialistic society and a spiritual vacuum has arisen with a generation of people searching for a deeper meaning in life, according to Huang: "There is a resurgence of spiritual quest in China."
For all this soul searching, finding what constitutes an Australian culture might be easily answered by the oldest surviving culture in the world. To assist in embedding some of that knowledge and cultural heritage Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria is launching the International Indigenous Design Charter.
In its own way the charter carries the seeds of an experiment. For many this will be a new way of working. "They are essentially innovative or experimental ways of developing processes," says architect Jefa Greenaway, cofounder of the IADV. "It provides a guide to feel empowered and understand cultural sensitivities, the protocols and processes, around how to utilise design culture within a design context."
The charter was workshopped with First Nations peoples around the world to respond to a rising recognition in the value of connecting to place and culture.
Additionally as part of MDW Greenaway hosts a walking tour around Melbourne. "It's trying to give voice to a presence, a deep connection to the history and memory revealing layers of a city beyond just the built form and the artefact. There is a landscape heritage and a cultural heritage. There's intangible heritage that coexists with the built form. These are also part of our stories."
Melbourne Design Week, March 15-25, various locations, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/melbourne-design-week/