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Arts and crafts movement in Australia

Australian design, craft and the built environment have been greatly influenced by the ideals of handmade products. Until the 1900s handmade arts and crafts dominated mainstream colonial arts. There was also a significant English influence on Australian arts and crafts, especially in architecture and furniture, from the late 1800s. However, in 1906 an Australian style of art and craft was promoted as a movement by the Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW (New South Wales) as a reaction against both the mass productions of industrialists and also against 'old world' designs and motifs. This movement by Australian artisans sought to develop and promote distinctively Australian handicrafts.

amanda shelser flitter ceramic 2008

Amanda Shelsher, Flitter, 2008(1) Photo by Bill Shaylor. Image courtesy of Amanda Shelsher.

Established in the 1940s, the Sturt School in Mittagong, New South Wales, helped revive individual studio craft practise in the 1950s. These flowered as part of a widespread community art and craft movement in the 1970s. In 1974 the Jam Factory was established in Adelaide, with four studios in the areas of ceramics, furniture, metal and glass. Since the 1990s, jewellers, metal and glass artists have come full-circle in their hand-tooling of works as part of F!NK design, to influence manufactured design with one-off as well as multiple products.

Today, internationally regarded Australian individual craftspeople, like ceramic artist Amanda Shelsher (born 1971, Western Australia), explore concepts similar to the ideals of the early Australian Arts and Craft movement. Shelsher explores the protective and nurturing role of nature, as well as notions of home, suburbia, domesticity and growth, depicting her local area and the challenges therein between an inner urban environment and 'mother earth'.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and crafts became an intrinsic part of the modern arts and craft movement with the recognition of Indigenous craft forms as art objects in the 1970s.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fibre artists, such as the Tjanpi Weavers and Yvonne Koolmatrie have given fibre products like baskets and eel traps new life and focus. Indigenous sculptural forms like hand-crafted headdresses are transformed as contemporary art.

Handmade crafts and artworks are displayed and sold in galleries and markets across Australia. Quality hand crafted items are regarded as economically and culturally valuable. Many Australians are attracted to contemporary and antique items that reflect the hard work of a skilled craftsperson. Organisations and associations, such as Craft Australia and their Object Gallery, are dedicated to promoting the economic and cultural benefits of crafts in Australia.

Australian motifs and Australiana, 1900s

Vase, elaborately decorated with waratah flowers

Marian Munday, The Waratah Vase, 1912. Image courtesy of the Mosman Municipal Council.

At Federation (1901) Australia's supply of materials and equipment was largely dependent on English imports and designs. However from Federation onwards, Australian flora and fauna were adopted as motifs in craft and design work and the use of local materials became popular.

In 1906 in Mosman, six craftspeople formed the Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW to develop and foster uniquely Australian handcrafts in both design and material. For over one hundred years since then, communities of like-minded craftspeople have persisted in the practice of Australian art and craft.

Inspiration from Australian flowers has characterised the development of unique motifs in the visual arts in Australia. In 1915, R T Baker, a passionate advocate of the waratah and other local flora as a motif in art, craft and industry wrote:

The entire plant (waratah) lends itself to such a boldness of artistic ideas in all branches of Applied Art that it has few compeers amongst the representatives of the whole floral world ...
R T Baker (1915) The Australian Flora in Applied Art, Part 1, The Waratah, Sydney.

Margaret Preston, working in the 1930s and 1940s, used the bold shape of the waratah in her hand-coloured woodcut prints and this contributed to recognition of native flowers and plants as being part of Australia's cultural identity.

Nell Holden, a ceramicist, made banksia jugs during the Second World War, based on the characters created by her cousin May Gibbs (author of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie). This was despite wartime regulations in Australia restricting potters to making utilitarian wares, and was allowed only because a mould had been made before the war.

Revival of studio craft-based practices: spinning, weaving, pottery and wood 1940s–70s

Sturt School teaching centre at Mittagong, New South Wales, is renowned for its influence on the development of the craft and design movement in Australia. Australian craft practitioners are encouraged to experience their own history as Australian artisans as part of an Australian tradition.

Winifred West founded Sturt in 1941 based on the philosophy of the development of imaginative thinking and original work, and the relationship of the individual to the community. Sturt was heavily influenced by Morris in England, and by a whole philosophy of education tied up with that—hand and mind, and the love of gardening.

terry milligan weaver 1999

Terry Milligan, Weaver, 1999. Image courtesy of Terry Milligan and National Library of Australia: an1451784.

West was passionate about Australians learning to take their place in the larger world as Australians. She stressed the importance of creative activities and participation in the arts. Sturt became a site for teaching in a much broader sense—teaching spinning, weaving, pottery and poetry writing.

The 1950s saw revived interest in studio craft-based practices, initially with pottery, then in furniture, woodcrafts and textiles in the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of a national movement in craft-based practice. This was facilitated by the development of organisational and funding structures, such as the Craft Association of Tasmania.

A new 'Arts and Crafts' generation, 1970s

A dynamic cultural shift to the crafts was sweeping the United States in the early 1970s and soon after it would manifested itself in Australia. This shift was connected to the 'flower power' peace movement that arose during the Vietnam War. This laid the ground for a profound craft practice and an unparalleled and extraordinary generation of craft, and wood craft, turning and furniture making in particular.

Arts and Crafts furniture in Australia

art deco furniture

Australian furniture industry history, Art deco, hero, 1925-1939. Image courtesy of Australian furniture industry.

From 1900 to 1920, Australian furniture makers embraced the Arts and Crafts style. The designs featured strong lines with solid construction. Often joins and fixings were large and prominent and were the only embellishments on a piece. This style was also adopted by Chinese furniture makers who dominated early furniture production in Australia.

From the 1920s, and continuing through until 1939, Art Deco was popular. Its name is derived from the 1925 Paris Exposition of Decorative Arts.

Their pieces have a streamlined richness that owes as much to superb handcrafting—lustrously finished rare woods with inlays of such exotic materials as ivory in angular, abstract designs—as to their daring geometric shapes.
Australian furniture industry .

Use of Australian timbers, 1900s–1970s

Australian hardwoods such as Blackwood, Queensland Maple, Mountain Ash, Silky Oak and Queensland Walnut gradually replaced the use of cedar during the early 1900s.

Sometimes the Australian timbers were stained to imitate European timbers, but often they were used in their natural state. Used naturally, Australian timbers display unique characteristics in grain patterns and colour variations and they provided a distinctive touch to the Arts and Crafts pieces manufactured in Australia.

In Western Australia, jarrah (Eucalyptus Marginata, formerly known as Swan River Mahogany), only found in the south-west of the state, was sent all over the world. Because of its durability, tensile strength, and resistance to borers, termites and fungal attack, it was used for railway sleepers and for construction purposes, including wharves, bridges and piers and the London Underground. It was not until the 1960s that furniture makers explored jarrah timber for its red-coloured beauty in handmade furniture.

The 1970s practice of hand crafting furniture made from jarrah is maintained today by Boranup Gallery and Nannup Furniture Gallery in the south-west of Western Australia, and Port Jarrah Furniture in Fremantle.

With Australia's unique and diverse species of extravagant timbers, turners in the 1970s found a passionate expression matched by skills and daring that made them world leaders.

George Ingham, from the 1980s

ming chair by george Ingham

George Ingham, Ming chair, 1997. Image courtesy of the Australian National University.

Modern interpretations of Australian craft in timber by master wood workers like George Ingham have completely transformed the craft and the use of Australian timbers. The influence of Ingham's teaching and creative output in Australia was highly significant. In 1982 he came from the United Kingdom to set up and direct the Wood Workshop at the Canberra School of Art, ANU. He taught there for 20 years until his death in 2003.

The exhibition Chairs of the Alumni: the ongoing narrative (2009) explored the current practices of 31 of the students who studied under Ingham. In responding to the brief to design and build a chair, each alumnus revealed the interplay of their own personalities and development with the legacy of George's influence. Students include Mark Woolston and Scott Mitchell.

Bungendore Wood Works Gallery

David MacLaren, David Upfill-Brown and George Ingham seeded the beginnings of a woodwork community in Bungendore. Bungendore Wood Works Gallery has engendered a cooperative networking attitude to other woodworkers, display, diversity and fine craftsmanship and exhibitions.

The gallery continues to be a leading presenter of woodwork and fine arts. It now presents work by over 200 of Australia's leading designers, makers and artists in most mediums including wood, painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, jewellery, printmaking, photography and textiles.

Ceramics – Sturt Pottery, wood firing and beyond, 1950s

kilns at sturt workshop

Kilns at Sturt, Mittagong. Image courtesy of Sturt.

Sturt Pottery holds a unique and significant place for the history of ceramic training in Australia. Many important figures in ceramics trained at Sturt during the years when there was not the wide range of training provided by universities and TAFE colleges as today.

Sturt Pottery was established by Ivan McMeekin in 1953 with the clear vision of providing a teaching and production centre. In 1959, Les Blakebrough followed McMeekin as manager of Sturt Pottery. In 1964, Blakebrough was made Director of Sturt and built the three-chambered climbing wood kiln in the pottery. With Blakebrough's departure in 1972, wood firing lay dormant.

Sturt Woodfire is now the annual Australian international wood firing conference. The conference explores a range of issues central to wood fired ceramics and includes environmental concerns, marketing, technical issues, creative expression and cultural identity. Over the years potters from New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Belgium and the United States have visited Sturt.

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, from the 1960s

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott OAM is one of Australia's most acclaimed potters, her works collected across the United States and Europe and in the Australian national, and all state, arts collecting institutions. Pigott was born in Ballarat in 1935, and worked for three years at the Ivan McMeeken Sturt Pottery, New South Wales, as an apprentice in the 1950s. In 1965 she spent a year researching porcelain enamels at the University of Melbourne in collaboration with McMeekin before she established a pottery at Acheres, near Bourges, France, in 1966. In 1975 Pigott established a workshop in Kingston, Tasmania, with John Pigott, funded by the Crafts Board, until she moved to Adelaide in 1980. From 1981 to 1988 Pigott was the Potter-in-Residence at QUT, Brisbane, before establishing a studio at Netherdale, Central Queensland, in 1989.

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Pale still life, 1990–91, porcelain. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

A Gwyn Hanssen Pigott retrospective exhibition in 2006 at the National Gallery of Victoria spanned the fifty years of her career (1956–2006). The exhibition ranged from the functional wares she produced through the 1960s and 1970s through to the still-life groups of porcelain vessels that she developed in the 1980s and for which she is internationally renowned.

Pigott's approach to her craft practice is reflected in her statement:

it seems to me that, in the alchemy of making, the pot becomes subtly humanized ... So we speak of pots as though they are animate: we call them gentle or generous or strong or vulnerable. A group of bottles becomes a family.
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Objects of Ideas: Ten Approaches to Contemporary Craft Practise, Crafts Council of Queensland, 1996.

Potters and potters studios, 1970s

Amongst a number of influential studios in the 1970s was Keane Ceramics, which evolved from Roger and Margaret Keane operating Churinga Potters Studio in 1973 at Somersby on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

Other established studios in New South Wales include Pilliga Pottery, a family business based on Coonabaraban. Maria Rickert, the owner, manages the Pottery and the Pilliga Farm with her sons Johannes and Bernhard.

Jann Kesby trained at Sturt Workshop with Ian Mackay and has evolved work that draws reference from wide open waterways displayed in bowls and landscape platters to nooks and crannies where mangroves abound. Kesby is passionate about wood firing and relies upon an anagama kiln for natural ash glaze effects.

Master potters: Jeff Mincham and Bruce Nuske

Jeff Mincham is one of Australia's most prominent and long-established ceramic artists and for thirty years his practice has been influenced by the remarkable landscape setting of his home in the Adelaide Hills.Mincham started at the Jam Factory in 1979 as head of the ceramics workshop, and has over 40 solo exhibitions to his credit.

Mincham was honoured by Craft Australia at Object Gallery, through the 2009 Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft series, for playing a key role in the professional crafts movement.

The strength of being 'defiantly crafty' in the new millennium

bruce nuske beakers

Bruce Nuske, [beakers]. Image courtesy of Ceramics: Art and Perception.

While Mincham is influenced by Asian ceramic traditions, his contemporary Bruce Nuske has evolved a personal idiom that adapts European decorative traditions with considerable imaginative flair and impressive technical finesse. Margot Osborne argues that

The strength and diversity of ceramics by such respected practitioners as Gerry Wedd, Jeff Mincham, Bruce Nuske, Stephen Bowers (Adelaide Central Gallery) and by Angela Valamanesh (at the Barr Smith Library) would appear to put the lie to claims in some quarters that ceramics are in decline. Ceramics exhibitions during the SALA [South Australian Living Artists] festival were defiantly crafty, running counter to the unifying global trends that depersonalise designer products.
Adelaide Review .

Bruce Nuske's pitchers, dippers, jugs, bottles, beakers, bowls, cups and teapots are all connected to fluids. His concern is with water—in some cases the lack of it. (Stephen Bowers, TableWare For the Table and Beyond , Ceramics: Art and Perception)

Cloth, fibre and textiles

Cloth is a universal material. Everyone uses it, everyday, in many different ways, for warmth, protection, as a covering, for decoration, for health and safety, from birth till death.
Liz Williamson.

As part of the intense interest and activities of the Arts and Craft movement which swept Australia in the 1960s and 70s, weavers researched chemical and vegetable dies, and how to achieve textural improvement and a large output in response to the high demand for furnishings and rugs which were made from natural hand-spun and unspun wool.

Weaving at Sturt with Elisabeth Nagel, from the 1960s

Elisabeth Nagel arrived at Sturt in 1959 as a master weaver from Europe. Nagel's skill as a weaver greatly influenced weaving as a public art form in Australia from the 1960s.

By 1965 Nagel had begun work on important commissions which included tapestries, floor rugs and furniture for the Hong Kong Hilton Hotel, the Australian National University, the new National Library, the New South Wales Government and St. Columbus' Church in Sydney whilst exhibiting in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Master weaver Liz Williamson

liz Williamson textile grey edge detail

Liz Williamson, Grey edge, 2008, detail, wool cotton. Photo by Ian Hobbs. Image courtesy of Object Gallery.

Liz Williamson's influence on Australian woven textiles has been recognised through her being announced a 'Master of Art and Craft'. Williamson initially worked as a freelance textile designer designing wool upholstery fabrics. However, creating hand-crafted one-off wraps and scarves has allowed her the freedom to explore ways of integrating design, techniques and ideas.

Williamson's work has been influenced by a number of cultural traditions that span both place and time. During the 1970s Williamson travelled to Greece, Turkey, India and Iran where textiles are integral to the culture and way of life. She collected a diverse range of samples from dresses to shawls.

Williamson is also interested in samplers. Popular between the 1600s and the early 1900s, samplers were a means of recording stitches and patterns and formed an important part of a young woman's education.

In her newer work Williamson considers the protective character of cloth and an interest in the different ways woven objects can be defined. Since the 1980s she has worked with plain weave and double cloth, a technique in which two layers of fabric are woven at the same time. Williamson is now using her double cloth weaving process to create flexible tubular forms woven in rayon, cotton, silk and leather.

Tamworth Textile Triennial

The Tamworth Textile Biennale, begun in 1972, has long offered audiences an exciting and vibrant survey exhibition of hand-crafted contemporary fibre textiles.  In 2009, the biennale was put back to a three-year exhibition.

For the 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, the focus was to showcase the changing ideas and professional craftsmanship associated with contemporary textile practice in Australia.

The use of traditional and machine technologies, the collaboration and inter-disciplinary profiles of practitioners, the trend of slow making and sustainable practice is challenging and perhaps shifting the perception of the discipline of textiles within established groups and educational institutions.
Tamworth Regional Gallery, Sensorial Loop, 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011.

Jewellery and the Ray Norman school

Sturt School for Jewellery was established in 1969 by Ray Norman. His work has been described in a context of interaction:

There is around the more playful dialogues between jewellers such as Barbara Heath and Ray Norman a sense that jewellery can engage with dreams.
Kevin Murray, 'Rich and Poor in Australian Craft', Craft

Norman continues to inspire emerging jewellers across Australia like Jane Sanbrook. Sanbrook designs and makes handcrafted contemporary jewellery from silver, beads, stone and found objects. Her practice as a jeweller reflects her immediate natural environment and life experiences, coupled to a developing visual vocabulary that has gained fluency with time. Her earrings are mostly created in Sterling Silver.

Alice Whish, Milky Way Constellation, 2005-06. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia.

Similarly, Alice Whish is a jewellery maker of delicate and intricate works. She is involved in a number of community art projects, based on forms found in her natural environment: boronia, ash, snake and the Milky Way. Whish's work has been curated by Ray Norman and Doreen Mellor in Circles About the Body 1997–99. Whish's Milky Way constellation was exhibited in the international exhibition Transformations: the language of craft at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) 2005–2006, and was purchased by the NGA.

Another student of Norman's at Mittagong in 1973 was Victoria Royds. From jewellery and hollowware, Royds has moved her studies and practice to sculpture, showing at Braidwood.

Victoria Royds, in this exhibition, creates her own cave-like space with an installation of arms and hands that hang limply from a ceiling, which, far from asserting I AM', prompt questions of identity – the Who Am I?' of existence. This work, together with her series of small bronze female figures, evokes those hidden pathways of the human psyche which, if we choose to follow them, lead to moments of awareness and healing—a continuing process as we move through the moods and cycles of life.
Laura Murray Cree, Victoria Royds, Search for Unity, Studio Altenburg, May 2009, opening speech.

Useful links

Australian arts and crafts organisations

Handcraft wood work furniture galleries

Potters societies


Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales

Northern Territory



Last updated: 20 April, 2016

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