Sculptor Peter Mclisky making miniature chairs


Peter Mclisky went to art school in his native New Zealand in the late 1960s when pop art ruled, advertising was cool, and graphic design was tactile.

"We used to use drawing boards - there were no computers," he says. "It was all scalpel knives and wax and glue and rulers and T-squares and set squares, and that was really fun - it was more like drafting. It was very precise work, using scalpels [to do] paste ups with type. Totally different idea to what you do now with graphics.

"My last few years of graphics kind of turned me off, because it was just sort of sitting behind a computer and you weren't doing anything with your hands. That's why I was doing sculpture work at the same time, probably. I needed to."

Mclisky got his first job in the ad industry in 1969. Over the next three decades he landed fun roles in advertising and design studios from Auckland to London, Paris, Sydney and finally, in 1983, Melbourne, doing everything from graphic design to set design for theatre, graphics for television, model-making for architects, illustration for Vogue, and art direction for newspapers and magazines such as Outrage.

Always, on the side, Mclisky made and sold things: plastic lights and clocks, balsa wood models of old English clock towers for Liberty in London, cardboard lampshades, handpainted canvas rugs, large concrete sculptures. The success of these sidelines meant getting retrenched in the mid-90s as he was approaching 50 was far from traumatic. Mclisky simply repaired to his studio and focused full-time on sculpture, swapping heavy concrete for lighter, laser-cut steel. Handpainted, powder-coated, blackened or rusted, steel seems the perfect fit for Mclisky's bold, gently humourous, highly graphic silhouettes - many of which are cleverly supported without the need for welding by their own shadows.

Twenty years later he still gets visibly excited showing Spectrum around his studio at the old Boyd School in Southbank. It's inhabited by a huge cast of characters - not just his familiar giant rabbits but jewellery inspired by the sea, enormous bushfire totems, bonsai bookends, children's planter box trolleys inspired by a gift for family friends, and mini-versions of iconic mid-century chairs, including a new set of Australian designs commissioned by the NGV. Small-scale works with multiple planes and moving parts including intricate cityscapes, and dioramas are a particular delight - to visitor and maker alike. "Most of my stuff is very child-like," Mclisky says. "I don't think I ever got out of that kiddy fascination, that satisfaction, with making things."

Peter Mclisky's chairs are on sale at the NGV shop as part of the Mid-Century Modern exhibition running until October 19.