Thought – Process

5 November – 19 December 2015

Tom Skeehan

SKEEHAN Studio, HOSHI Collection, 2015, Rock Maple,Leather,wool-felt. Image by Stella-Rae Zelnik 

Thought – Process by Magda Keaney

I think traditionally we have tended to understand that something ‘designed’ is something finished. A product. An end point. Consider then, ‘Thought – Process’, the title of this presentation of new work by Tom Skeehan.

Tom Skeehan is an industrial designer by training and before this worked for a fine furniture maker, Craig Harris, so that two more words, ‘Design-Craft’ seem apt to bring together here. Though these may have recently seemed a complex, incompatible, or at least an unfashionable combination, they sit together simply and without any tension in this discussion of his work.

Another pair of words which seems to fit with what Tom has proposed in this exhibition is ‘Design -Thinking’. First put together in the 60s, the term has found traction in these the first decades of the twenty first century, now describing an influential cross disciplinary methodology to problem solving used widely outside of creative industries. Design Thinking emphasises the means as much as the end.

It seems we are looking for and finding lots of new words with which to consider contemporary design – or perhaps more accurately - ways to re-apply or re-connect existing words, because more than ever before the potential of design, what it is and can be, has been recognised as highly relevant.

Design has become a social/organisational value, an attitude, as much as a word that is about an object or the making of it.

Have we achieved the ‘close connection’ between ‘the arts, business and daily living’ that Grant Featherstone so passionately called for in 1968? In 2015, I would argue that the idea of design has certainly become more a more mainstream value rather than a utopian ideal. Featherstone’s ‘discerning few’ have now become our ‘public’. More than ever we expect good design – a considered aesthetic, functionality, sustainability, innovation - or at least the allusion to it in almost everything we consume.

For all its drubbing as a boring, small political centre (mainly by folk who don’t live here), Canberra, the city where Tom Skeehan lives and works, has a particularly strong and progressive expectation of design. After all Canberra is a designed city. Living here we experience extraordinary design in our daily lives -often without even realising it. Think for example of Fred Ward whom Tom cites as one of the major influences on his work (he also speaks of Japanese aesthetics and particularly Naoto Fukasawa, the work of contemporary British designer Benjamin Hubert as well as Jon Goulder and Alexander Lotersztain). Ward, one of the founding fathers of Australian industrial design advocated simple, practical and sustainable furniture that is regarded as some of the most important in design history. These are wooden chairs and tables you have probably used at the National Library, furniture that remains in service at halls of residence and University House at the ANU, that you can still sit in in public spaces and offices at the Academy of Science, the Drill Hall Gallery or the University of Canberra.

Tom Skeehan’s work, like Fred Ward’s is lived by this city and has already had an impact on our urban landscape. Let’s take Lonsdale Street in Braddon as an example. When I returned to live in Canberra in 2012, it was still a gritty semi industrial thoroughfare. A version of Tom’s Kashi stools appeared and caused a buzz as a hip fixture at Lonsdale Street Roasters around that time. Shortly after this his elegant Stay stool was commissioned by the Eightysix restaurant.

Subsequently he designed and built his own food van which he ran with fellow artist and friend Luke Chiswell. The two also opened a pop up gallery ‘Friend’ before the demolition of Lonsdale Street Traders in 2014. Tom’s studio is currently located at ‘The Hamlet’ also on Lonsdale Street. While younger generations will soon not conceive of a time when you’d go to Braddon to get your car serviced rather than for a strong flat white, I challenge any long term Canberra resident over 40 to tell me they could imagine the transformation of the streetscape into a design led retail, cultural and foodie precinct.

Thinking of that time reminds me too that I feel a kind of convergence between Tom’s work and my own in Canberra. It was a launch event in 2012 for his Aruku stool at the trailblazing Two Before Ten, a café that promoted much local design and food, which was the first opening I attended after moving back from London. That night I met Tom and the talented architect Erin Hinton and the idea for our future collaboration YOUNG.HOT.CANBERRA, an exhibition at the Gallery of Australian Design, was born. It felt like an exciting time to be home. At that time Tom was a recent graduate and regarded as an emerging designer striving to establish his practice. It seems to me that this exhibition, the launch of his new Hoshi collection, marks him as a designer who has come of age, who is hitting his stride as a mature designer of great skill, vision and dedication, which will sustain an important practice for decades to come.

Tom describes the hero detail of his new work as the large curved radius of the Hoshi chair. The chair is manufactured as part of a small run capsule collection and the frame required the resolution of complex woodworking technique in American Oak. It is a clever development of the Setto low chair which featured a slim line frame with enveloping upholstery. In Hoshi the frame is a thicker profile of tubular wood, yet with a softer more organic line that the metal framed Setto and with more compact cushioning.

The Hoshi chair and accompanying pieces in this collection come to us beautifully resolute, which is as it should be. Yet each whole can also be considered as a set of smaller components that requires precise intent and articulation. There are no shortcuts to achieve their final perfected formation, only the experimental efforts which we call process. Process involves repetition, failure and uncertainty as much as breakthrough. Process is problem solving, design thought in action.

Process is drawing and sketching, prototyping, sampling, cutting, sanding, stitching and thinking. Photographs assembled in a book for this exhibition reveal that for Tom process is haptic, sensory, physical, concentrated, detailed and material based.

To end, another particularly Canberra design moment, or maybe the stuff of urban legend. A few years back word went out that a bunch of Fred Ward’s furniture was to be disposed of or sold off from the ANU. Apparently it was rescued out of dumpsters by family and friends or bought for stupidly low prices, only to become highly valued and collectable once again. I recount this as a note of tongue in cheek reassurance to Tom – design like everything else moves in cycles. If one day one of your chairs winds up undervalued and misattributed in a second hand shop fear not. It will be waiting to be rediscovered.

The work we see today, your work, is design history in the making.

Magda Keaney is a writer and curator who lives in Canberra. She is currently Artistic Director at the Canberra Glassworks and is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University.