Sea Change – John Warwicker

Published:  November 29, 2012
Sea Change – John Warwicker

As part of the Sea Change theme running through the past issue of desktop magazine, we asked a series of ex-pat designers to reflect on their decision to move abroad, as well as the challenges faced and inspirations gained from working in a new space and place.

Next up is John Warwicker on education, philosophy and an Australian design identity, after he made the big move to Melbourne from the UK seven years ago.

What was it that attracted you to life in Australia, and what was the catalyst for moving here from the UK?
In a word, love. My wife is from Melbourne. Soon after our son was born, Naomi’s dad contracted Alzheimer’s, so Naomi and I thought it would be a good idea for grandad and grandson to enjoy each other’s company before the fog came down, which inevitably and sadly happened. That was almost seven years ago. Previous to that, I had visited Melbourne 15 years ago to give a talk at agIdeas, but that was too short a visit to get a proper opinion. A few years after that, however, I was invited to work on various aspects of Federation Square and spent one month in Melbourne, one month back in London, then back to Melbourne and so on for two years. So it wasn’t a conscious move, rather a move born of circumstance.

La Mer, Toyko (2010)

La Mer, Toyko (2010)

What was your impression of Australia, and more specifically Australian design culture, before you started living here?
My first impressions of Australia were formed when I was young by reading or, more accurately, looking at a large picture book, which I think was called Discovering Australia, that my grandfather had in his library. Even though the photographs were in black and white, the difference in the light between Australia and London was starkly evident. The other thing that struck me was that every car was large and had rounded corners, all the men wore hats, there were lots of trees, the shadows were sharp and deep and noble Indigenous men stood proudly on rocks looking out to the far horizon.

There were few examples of Australian design to form an impression. The paintings and objects of the Indigenous peoples were, and to some extent still are the most exciting contributions to Australian visual culture, at least from a global perspective, as there is a visual and philosophic language that is unique and true. This leads onto what, if anything, was I missing, besides individual designers working away ‘doing their own thing’? There are quite a few exceptional artists whose work has little that is quintessentially ‘Australian’ about it, but is still of ‘international’ quality. Mike Parr is a good example. Shaun Gladwell is one of the few that uses aspects of Australia in his work that resonates internationally.

Geographic isolation has played its part. I went to a show of Australian text-based art at the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Australia) in Sydney some time ago.

A lot of the work there was fantastic and as good as anything I had seen, but no one, internationally, would have known it.

I have now lived in Australia for almost seven years and I still don’t know what Australian design culture is. There are some very good designers here in many different fields, but I would struggle to define a ‘culture’ (as opposed to a number of practitioners), especially one that is quintessentially ‘Australian’ in the same way that one would probably identify something as exhibiting the visual culture and philosophy of the Swiss. I think there are many reasons for this, one being the immediate everyday culture and context and the other being education (back to an engagement with philosophy again).

What were some of the initial culture shocks that you experienced after migrating and how have you responded to them?
I wouldn’t say that I had any culture shock, as I’m always happy to embrace difference. I love the different sounds of the birds here. Hearing their songs still surprises me.

So, less a shock, but rather an accumulation of differences that are sometimes hard to get used to. Trivial things such as getting around. I can’t drive, so the distances between A and B become a chore, especially if I’m trying to get to somewhere in the hinterland between train stations or tram stops. There’s a basketful of minor things like this, but I could equally fill another basketful of London’s problems.

The biggest personal ‘shock’ has been the difficult financial adjustment. I knew moving here was going to curtail the work I do in the UK, Europe and the US, but I didn’t, couldn’t, realise to what extent. It’s mainly the opportunities that come about by chance and, if you’re not there, they don’t exist. And this has caused severe problems for me. I have a daughter in the UK finishing up her MA in fashion, a son in the UK starting an MA in sports medicine, my mum in England and my wife (who’s a sculptor) and young son here to support. The monthly outgoings are high, the cost of living here isn’t a lot different to living in London, but the income is quite a bit less. What I earn locally is fine, but the income from abroad is less. The inevitable problems of the middle-aged, middle class I’m afraid.

The other ‘shock’ lies in the general political engagement and awareness or, more accurately, a lack of either. The use of language and political ideas espoused by the politicians in general and the leaders in particular borderlines on the autistic. Oh! And one other thing: newspapers – their coverage of culture, art and design and that so few people read them or any other local form of ‘serious’ press.

Do you believe that life in Australia has had a noticeable impact on the way that you think and work? Have you developed any new design interests since being here?
My problem is that I rarely get to see the parts of Australia that really stimulate me, the landscape, for all the reasons I outlined in the last question. It’s frustrating because I want to make work that is a response to ‘Australia’ or the unique aspects of ‘Australia’ that I’m drawn to. The colours, the textures and the space are so different here. I know that if I was able to explore these, then something would happen to my sense of ‘field’ and ‘notation’, which could only have emanated from here.

What do you enjoy specifically about life in Melbourne? Are there any aspects of the place that you’re not so fond of?
Again my life, which tends to be a bit solitary and nose-to-screen, prevents me from properly enjoying what Melbourne has to offer. It’s certainly a great city for my eight year-old son to grow up in. Anywhere you go or visit, you’ve got to take the bad with the good and accept that as the character of the place. I’ve always thought it ridiculous to expect somewhere where you know to relate to somewhere you have been.



What is your personal assessment of the Australian design scene right now? What do you believe Australian designers are doing well, and where do you believe the weaknesses in our industry are?
I think the biggest weakness is a general lack of philosophical positioning and an unwillingness to experiment with both language and form. Conversely, this has produced some designers that are extremely good with ‘conventional’ language and form. The biggest weakness is in the local market and the lower level of refinement that clients think is ‘acceptable’ and with a general culture that buys, but is not engaged with design. The lack of press and media. It takes time, and I do think things are changing for the better.

How does our design education compare to what’s happening in the UK?
I don’t think I can adequately answer this in a short paragraph. I haven’t been back to the UK since I arrived in Australia and I know more about education in London than the rest of the UK. One thing I’ve noticed with students here is a general lack of knowledge of the history of their subject and context. I suspect that it’s the same in the UK. When the great wall of Google came down a decade ago, it fundamentally changed our relationship to knowledge, learning, and context.

Do you believe it’s important for designers to develop regional styles, and visual ideas that reflect a sense of place? Is this something that can be taught through design education?
I believe it’s important that designers have a ‘position’, not just a ‘visual idea’, but a philosophical understanding. This is the most important thing education can teach.

Your own locality plays a part in this. I think it’s really important to engage with the larger cultural context and that obviously includes the specific place and time that you live in. The other thing I want to say is that it’s up to the designer to continually educate themselves. Ideas, good ideas and approaches can come from what has been done before, but it is likely to be an empty copy without the designer putting something of themself into the work, to create a new angle. The other important function that education should teach is the importance of openness and the connection between head, eye, hand and heart. I cannot stress enough the importance of ‘growing old alive’.

Beyond your work, have you found that living in Australia has had a noticeable impact on you personally?
I’m pretty self-sufficient, but I do find it difficult to reconcile being ‘here’ and not being ‘there’, as there is such a distance between the two. It’s not a negative thing, just a fact.

I still haven’t got used to the idea or feeling that at the year’s end, it’s baking hot. My body rhythm tells me it’s time to hibernate, when outside there is brilliant sunshine. I lived in
London for almost 50 years before I lived here, so this is unsurprising.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone who is considering moving to
another country for work or education?

Thumbnail: Idea Magazine.

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