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First Swayn Fellow spotlights how design changes our lives for the better

Genevieve Jacobs 20 September 2019
Adrienne Erickson

Adrienne Erickson is investigating how good design has shaped and can improve the way we live in Australia. Photo: Genevieve Jacobs.

Adrienne Erickson has a big task ahead of her: the inaugural Swayn Senior Fellow in Australian Design at the National Museum of Australia is investigating how design can influence every corner of our lives and contribute to a more sustainable nation.

“I’ve been speaking with people at a high level about how to develop better approaches to sustainability in managing our cities, but I want to know how that trickles right down to people on the ground,” Adrienne says.

“People buying their first homes, for example, need to know what’s happening to create better climate control, how we are dealing with energy capture and use, and recycling. There’s lots going on in the field of design but we don’t hear much about it, and we need to disseminate that information more widely.”

The Swayn Senior Fellow in Australian Design is a collaboration between the Museum, the Swayn Gallery of Design and the Alastair Swayn Foundation, both of which are named for the late Alastair Swayn, the ACT’s first government architect.

Adrienne is a landscape architect who moved to Beijing from Brisbane 15 years ago, in connection with the Beijing Olympics. She had three young children at the time but fell in love with the “dynamism and randomness and chaos” of the Chinese capital.

Adrienne says that at that point, there were few common reference points for good design. Teaching design at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art, students looked at her blankly when she raised design theories and references.

“I realised these students could be so influential at a time when China was growing so quickly. It also made me reflect on what I valued about all the great aspects of Australia I’d given up by living there, like the lifestyle-oriented design and how fortunate we are with this environment.

“I became much more interested in how to manage and care for the environment and sustainability issues.”

Those lessons, born of chaos and energy, are bearing fruit with her appointment as the inaugural Swayn Fellow.

“I have the opportunity to develop a national centre for design across Australia, to talk with people and survey what they’re doing in the design world.

“From that, we can develop exhibitions events and special programs to value Australian design and understand its role in shaping a future that is contested and difficult.”

Adrienne says that, per capita, Australia has some of the best architects in the world. She believes they are responding to these challenges with a more meaningful approach to new houses, apartments and urban landscapes.

“I have two years to find out what these critical elements are, who is playing a significant role and who needs to understand this better. I want to know how we can get this information out and broaden our audience’s understanding about what good design is, and can be.”

The National Museum seems a good fit for a fellowship inspired by one of Canberra’s most beloved architects.

“The NMA sees the importance of design for the way we live as an important element in everything they do. They hold the national historical collection and they are planning new galleries and exhibits about how we live in Australia, how we are perceived overseas and our First Nations heritage,” Adrienne says.

“Design is another lens on the collection – a way to look at objects and consider how they have shaped the way we live in this country.”

As a new Canberran, Adrienne is also fascinated by the city itself.

“It’s such a unique place. I’m entranced by the lake. You have this huge body of water and cultural realm around. Driving to work and seeing water just sitting there, I find quite beautiful.

“In Beijing water is at a premium and we had to work hard as a family to stay connected with nature – we had to visit the Great Wall of China to do that. So for me, the way that people live in the landscape here is truly remarkable”.


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