Furniture

The Lexus Australian Design Scholarship · Plus a chat with Melbourne Movement founder Kjell Grant

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Thursday 13th December 2012

Australian design industry veteran Kjell Grant, in his wonderfully chaotic office at RMIT!  Photo – Lucy Feagins.

Oak pendant lights by Melbourne based Ross Gardam

Fill bookshelf by John Goulder

I had the immense pleasure this week of meeting design industry veteran and RMIT professor Kjell Grant, whose countless career achievements include founding the Melbourne Movement in 1999 – an initiative which has been assisting young Melbourne designers to show their work at the Milan international design fair for more than ten years.

Under Kjell’s mentorship many young Australian designers have managed to kick-start their careers both at home and internationally – such as RMIT graduate Lisa Vincitorio, who famously secured a deal with iconic Italian design brand Alessi, when they took on her ‘Fruit Loop’ salad bowl design at the Milan fair in 2004!

Kjell Grant is 85, and full of beans!  His career path is long, winding and very colourful…! After a celebrated career as a furniture and industrial designer for various companies both here and in the US since the 1950’s, Kjell joined RMIT as a senior lecturer in 1996.  Not long after this, he founded the Melbourne Movement, and took the first group of RMIT students to exhibit their work at the Milan Fair in 2000.

Kjell Grant was inducted into the Design institute of Australia’s Hall of Fame last month. Congratulations Kjell!

Kjell’s ongoing work mentoring and supporting emerging Australian designers received a boost last month with the announcement of The Lexus Australian Design Scholarship.  This initiative is open to any emerging Australian designer (there is no age limit) across Australia, and will see one winner selected every year for the next three years, and given the chance to attend and showcase their work at the Lexus-sponsored Tokyo Designers Week from 2013.  The scholarship will be administered by the Melbourne Movement, under Kjell’s expert supervision.

More details of the scholarship will be officially announced by Lexus on February 1st, 2013.  Those interested in applying should keep an eye on both the Lexus Australia and Melbourne Movement Facebook pages!  Alternatively, email info@melbournemovement.com to register your interest in receiving more details when applications officially open early next year.

Earlier this week I asked Kjell a few questions about the Melbourne Movement, the Lexus Design Scholarship, and the challenges faced by emerging Australian designers today… here is what he had to say! –

Can you give us a bit about your background, how long you’ve been at RMIT, and when and why you started the Melbourne Movement?

Well, I’m very old so it is a long story!

I was going to be a sculptor. I got my MA degree at Sterling University in Scotland. Then I got a scholarship to the Royal College – I studied under Henry Moore there and Barbara Hepworth.

Whilst at the Royal College I attended a workshop at he Ulm School of Design in Germany, and I met László Moholy-Nagy, who ran a design school in Chicago. He convinced me to go to Chicago – he said they had the best architecture school in the world. I asked him how I would get in – he said ‘I’ll talk to Mies’!

So László Moholy-Nagy spoke to Mies Van der Rohe, and arranged for me to get in to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). It was the top architectural school in the world at the time, and Mies Van der Rohe was head of architecture there. I studied under him. I am the greatest name dropper in the world!

In the end I dropped out of final year of architecture, because Industrial Design was just beginning. I transferred to industrial design and got my masters in the school set up by Moholy-Nage in Chicago. After graduating, I was headhunted by Raymond Loewy, along with two or three other names who became much more famous than me!

Whilst at Raymond Loewy I worked on the design of Rosenthal porcelain dinnerware, which was incredibly beautiful, modern, and new. It was my first job, it was 1952.

In the following years, I travelled a lot. Raymond Loewy sent me to Australia to design television sets – that was my first visit to Australia. Then I went back to the US. Then I spent a year and half in Casablanca designing buildings for wealthy people. At that time I was also a sailor – I was into ocean racing. When I got up in the morning and went to work in Casablanca, I used to walk along the harbour. I saw this rather beautiful old yacht, and the harbour master told me it was about to be confiscated, because it was owned by a Scotsman who was in jail!  I was determined to buy this yacht and sail it back to Australia. I was a very good sailor, pretty well indestructible… my wife will tell you!

Anyway I ended up buying that yacht for £300. After a few months I fixed it up and sailed to Fremantle, WA. That’s when I came to Australia to live, in 1956.

When did you go from being a fulltime designer to an educator and a mentor for young designers?

I have been a consultant designer all my life, but instead of working to briefs, I have tended to have a dream, and then just make the thing, if you like. And sell it of course – because I’m a good salesman. Selling design is easy because it’s good for people. That’s what I tell my students.

I met a couple of good firms and I kept designing from them. Burgess Furniture was probably the first one – they made affordable furniture, and I managed to introduce a sort of Scandinavian feel, which sold quite well. Then I met a company called Latchford, which was my long run of ‘world class design’ if you like. It was mostly furniture for office fit outs, they were the first of the big office fit out people really.

Anyway, that was a big part of my living for many years.

Way down the line, probably twenty years on, I had a friend who was the head of industrial design at RMIT – Elivio Bonollo. He invited me to work at RMIT as a sessional. I would bring my stuff in and talk to students.

After a while I couldn’t afford to do sessional teaching anymore – it was getting in the way of my business – and I’ve never been a well organised person, so that was problem. So I didn’t see much of RMIT for a long time. And then, years later, Dimity Reed, an architect, took over industrial design at RMIT. She introduced a couple of new people, and my name came up, so I helped sort of re-design the course for industrial design. That must have been about 1975 or so.

Then, in 1996 I was invited to join the staff of RMIT, as a lecturer and a senior lecturer and so on. At that point I gave away my private practice.

But I had made plenty of money by then anyway! (You must say that because I don’t want people to think designers never make any money!)

How and when did the idea for ‘The Melbourne Movement’ come about?

When I came to RMIT to teach fulltime in 1996, at the end of the year I saw the students work just be thrown away, or they’d design a piece of beautiful work and just take it home.  I would say to the students at the end of the year ‘if you lot stick together, next year, keep doing stuff, and I will get you to international exhibitions. You should have one exhibition in Australia and one internationally when you graduate.’

Nobody really took any notice until 1999 – when Donna Johnstone – the amazing, wonderful Donna Johnstone, reminded me.  She said ‘ Kjell, remember when you said we should stick together and keeping making things and you might pull some strings for us’?!   So between Donna, a Vietnamese kid called Hoang Nguyen, and a carefree Aussie surf kid with blonde hair, we got together for a coffee in the city, and we came up with the name – The Melbourne Movement. And we planned to take their work to Milan.

We took the first exhibition there in 2000, and it was a huge success. And almost every year since, we have taken RMIT graduates to Milan.

How important is it for emerging Australian designers to gain international exposure and reach international markets?

Well, for a start, you have to design new fabulous things. But the wonderful thing about Milan is that you can have no record, no experience. We took Lisa Vincitorio to Milan in 2004 – Alessi took her work straight away, which was fabulous.

Fruit Loop bowl for Alessi, designed in Melbourne by Lisa Vincitorio and exhibited in Milan in 2004.

I just think it’s easier to show internationally, especially in Milan, because they’re used to a whole collection of sort of artistic nutty Italians, who do nothing but fabulous design. It’s the design beginnings of the world in my opinion. Milan has been the hotbed of design. They’re open to new things.

If Australian designers get there, and the work is good enough, there’s a real chance for them. BUT it has to be new. It can’t just be different – it has to be truly new. That’s my opinion.

What are the main challenges faced by emerging designers in Australia?

Manufacturing is our weakness, especially in furniture. But it can be done.

A few companies shake things up – people like TAIT furniture, they’re doing very ‘normal’, tasteful, quite simple designs, not sort of too expensive or expressive – but they’re good. And they’re open to slight craziness I think. Which is always a good thing.

Kate Stokes‘ ‘Mr Cooper’ spun copper pendant light
What do you think of the new Lexus Design Scholarship?

Well, I like young people to be successful. The thing about the Lexus initiative is that is gives students of design another ‘family’ that’s with them, because Lexus supports them, and Lexus has a terrific image – it’s a design image, it’s a big name, it’s Tokyo. I can already see kids this year saying to me ‘how do you think this will go in the Lexus award’? It gives them something to work towards.

The scholarship will assist young Australian designers to show their work in Tokyo. I particularly like the idea of it being Tokyo – because, for start, it’s my favourite city. And I like the Japanese refinement. The Japanese courtesy, the awareness of good and bad ‘taste’ if you like. That will lift our young designers.

If we get nice write ups all over the place, it will be good!

Which young Australian designers do you think are doing really exciting things at the moment?

There’s a few. But they still need finetuning before they can be exposed!

Designers should have personality. Our newest successful graduate designer would be Adam Cornish. Adam will charm you. He is a young, beautiful guy. He and I are ridiculously alike, we meet all the time. And it’s funny because he has all the faults that I had – he was a bit brash in the beginning, I sort of softened him out a bit. We meet a lot, I’m always available, and he runs things past me.

‘Trinity’ bowl by Adam Cornish

At the other end of the spectrum, someone like Marc Newson’s work is at the ‘dream’ end of the thing. He started not caring about money or whether anyone liked it or not. Like an artist, really. I knew Marc when he was quite young – he’s always had quite impractical dreams. But Marc is able to get the impossible done. The Lockheed lounge is just the most ridiculous thing to make. But he’s talked three different makers into making them. That’s the sort of guy he is. His thing is dreaming the impossible.


by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Thursday 13th December 2012

9 comments

  • Anne-Claire 2 years ago

    Thank you for sharing Kjell’s perspective on Australian design Lucy. We need more people like him… what a story! Lucky RMIT students being able to work alongside him… you don’t get to have mentors like that often, with such amazing knowledge to share and a real desire to make things happen…

  • Barbara Fisher 2 years ago

    What an amazing man! And I adore his office – not primped and preened to perfection – just how most creatives work in reality.

  • Christine Quach 2 years ago

    just a correction . . one of founding members of Melbourne Movement was Hoang Nguyen and he is Australian of Vietnamese heritage. Great to hear Kjell’s story! such a lovely talented inspiring man.

  • Amy Prior 2 years ago

    Really wonderful interview with Kjell! so positive and encouraging.
    Love that his office hasn’t been styled up x

  • Lucy 2 years ago

    THANKS Christine! Have made that amendment now! x

  • instant retail 2 years ago

    What an interesting guy, an awesome career….. and a great article, thanks Lucy !

  • What an incredible man! I admire his philosphy and gosh how he keeps engaging and giving is so inspiring! Really really enjoyed this interview – love your work, Lucy!

  • My husband and I, who met studying Industrial Design, both had Kjell as a lecturer in 1996, when we were in 3rd year. He was a fantastically enthusiastic man. It is so lovely to read a piece about him.

    ps: I think you have a typo. Dimity Reed took over ID (etc.) in 1995, not 1975.

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