It's been a long hipster season of lumberjack beards, bespoke beers and artisanal cheeses. The signs point to peak branding: eight seasons of the hipster satire Portlandia have come to an end just as global juggernauts – Lexus, Prada et al – finally turn onto the hand-made rhetoric with "zeitgeisty" advertising slogans. Was it all just a trend? Will full-sleeve tattoos be the only thing left to remind us of this "authentic" moment?
"I'm just lucky I'm female and don't have a beard," quips furniture designer Laura McCusker.
McCusker and five fellow furniture makers (Adam Markowitz, Daniel Poole, Bern Chandley, Bryan Cush and Damien Wright) are reclaiming craftsmanship from mass-market hype with This is not Memphis. The exhibition alludes to the garish postmodern movement of the 1980s, established by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. A reaction to modernist stuffiness, the movement's fun, discordant textures and graphics recently made a comeback. Synonymous with the Reagan era's "greed is good" ethos, Memphis signals the birth of neo-liberalism and globalisation.
"Memphis is a bad joke that appears in popular culture to represent the excesses of the '80s," says Wright. "We're providing an alternative narrative about what good is. What is a beautiful chair? It's not just something spiffy, but something that lasts generations."
For these designer-makers, good design respects the timber and what it represents, while building on furniture design traditions.
Bern Chandley, for example, combines the Windsor chair's 300-year-old Welsh origins with mid-century modern simplicity to create light, delicate and exceedingly comfortable furniture.
"The idea that every season you'll get a new look is fine with clothes, shoes and soft furnishings," says McCusker. "But furniture should last as long as it's taken the timber to grow."
Wright's modernist-inspired furniture is renowned for its expert use of 10,000-year-old red gum, dug up from a Wodonga quarry. Beyond its material properties, the timber carries its own symbolic weight.
"[The material] talks about 'deep time'," Wright says. "It talks about this continent as an ancient place. And it's impossible to talk about it without talking about Indigenous people."
The symbolism is palpable in Wright's Koori Court Table in Morwell and the Black Lighthouse sculpture he made with North East Arnhem Land maker Bonhula Yunupingu, which features in the exhibition. A wild colonial story inspires his Ned table, subtly "stealing" the shape of the bushranger's iconic mask.
If timber tells a story about place, furniture also tells a story about relationships. Each designer has their own list of regular clients. McCusker is MONA gallery founder David Walsh's furniture maker of choice. She designed the tables for the MONA pavilions and fabricated (but didn't design) the 60-metre phallic table for Walsh's wedding. Walsh also owns one of McCusker's Barcode screens, which have been in production for 18 years. Contrast is a McCusker signature. Where Barcode's timber slats play with positive and negative space, blackening the base of her tables (like the Short Black featured in the show) emphasises the form.
"It's really nice to separate top from base, especially in the context of timber floorboard or timber chairs where it can become a bit like a forest," she says.
McCusker manipulates the high tannin content of the Tasmanian oak. "They turn black when treated with iron oxide," she explains. "Some parts are heavier in tannin that other parts so you get this really beautiful flaming through it. I've been playing with that to make things look like a silhouette."
It's this combination of material understanding and design skills that each emphasises.
"If it's not designed well, it won't function well," she says. "I'm a better designer because I'm a good maker and I'm a better maker because it's been designed well."
Adds Wright: "What we are not doing is joining in a vain consumptive design moment. We are very much claiming ground and saying 'this is quality' … Maybe it gets dismissed as Portlandia, but maybe people will be rapt to stand in front of something that they can read with their eyes and their heart and their hand that they don't need some stylist to tell you is good."
This is Not Memphis, Craft, Watson Place, city, until May 26; craft.org.au
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