‹ Referred by Meredith Turnbull

 

We then introduced Oslo Davis ›

Nella Themelios

The RMIT Design Hub building has, until now, sat as an intriguing cuboid block on the corners of Swanston and Victoria Streets, its surface camouflaged by the light-reflecting discs that finish the facade. Its public opening is set for February 2013, and soon it will function as the new, purpose built facility for collaborative, cross-disciplinary design research. The processes involved in this research will be regularly exposed to the public through a series of inclusive, curated programs and exhibitions. It is the first of its kind in Australia; matched by few in the world.

Nella Themelios is the Creative Producer at the Design Hub. Following her role as Coordinating Curator at Craft Victoria and her continuing position as Board Chair of BUS Projects, she is representative of all the Design Hub's ambitions - bridging research activity and the public in this innovative amelioration of social progress and design.

How did you come to work here, having recently come from your previous role as a curator at Craft Victoria?

The Craft Victoria role was my first curatorial role - I was an intern at first and when Kate Rhodes (the previous curator) left Craft Victoria to join the National Design Centre, I moved into the position. I was there for 4 years looking after the exhibitions program - everything from developing shows to getting my apron out and installing them. My position also allowed me to do freelance projects and I did a show with Amelia Barikin, who is an academic at Melbourne University with a particular interest in sound and time-based contemporary art. She was on the board of BUS Projects at that time and, from that, I ended up on the board of BUS Projects as well. I was eventually, and still am, the Chair of the Board there so I had these parallel roles that have continued into my role here as well. I started at Design Hub in February 2012 and am very happily working with Kate Rhodes again!

Up to this point, your experience had been purely curatorial?

Yes - I studied cultural studies, I never studied fine art and I have never been an artist but I have always been interested in art theory and critical theory, and I am always searching for a way to apply that thinking in the real world which is how I came to curating. A lot of the thinking and ways of approaching cultural material has come through from my cultural studies education. Before I started working at Craft Victoria I started a Masters degree in curatorship, part time, which I am still trying to finish - 6 years on! It's been good to study and work at the same time. When you're working full-time, you don't always get the opportunity to do in-depth research.

And when you study, you don't always get the opportunity to think outside your subject...

It's nice to do it in tandem! Over the 4 years at Craft Victoria, I developed a particular interest in interdisciplinary practice and the curation of this kind of practice which has also been reflected in my studies. A lot of the work we showed at Craft Victoria sat somewhere in between art, craft and design and we were interested in exploring 'craft' as a kind of nomenclature, a system of language, a process as opposed to just a set of formal propositions. We showed some really interesting Australian and international practitioners while I was there - Martha McDonald, Nathan Gray, Lisa Walker, Alex Selenitsch, Adele Varcoe, Meredith Turnbull and Bridie Lunney, Ricarda Bigolin & Michael Spooner, Chaco Kato, Kate Just, Chicks on Speed, BLESS, and a host of many others.

Yes, I've noticed the shows at Craft Victoria celebratory of shared boundaries-

Absolutely. Craft Victoria has been around for over 40 years, it's a very old organisation and is unique in the creative landscape of Melbourne. The organisation has a range of different arms working together - a membership program, professional development and advocacy roles, an exhibitions program, a successful retail venture - all housed in a tiny space with a small, amazing and dedicated team of staff. And so many interesting people have gone through the organisation. In the 90s especially, when Suzie Attiwill was the Artistic Director and Susan Cohn was the Chair of the Board; when this critique of craft as an idea began to really form. There is a long history of thinking at Craft Victoria about what craft is and what it means in a contemporary context. Exploring the tension between the old and the new, how traditional labour-intensive skills are still being utilised in tandem with new developments in technology... I was very aware of it while I was there but I was also interested in connecting craft to other disciplines. In recent years there has been a real resurgence in craft-based techniques and materials being adopted by visual artists and vice versa. Generally speaking, there isn't so much fidelity anymore amongst artists to a particular medium. One of the questions I was interested in exploring then at Craft Victoria was what is a 'craft exhibition'? What can an audience get out of encountering a beautifully made object and how can we start to bring to the fore some of the processes, ideas, and critical thinking that go into craft-based practice? And that's why a lot of the exhibitions we did were certainly not traditional craft exhibitions. So it really was there that I developed this interest in the interdisciplinary nature of other practitioner's work too and the way artists might borrow from and appropriate other disciplines.

So it was a perfect fit to move into the Design Hub!

I guess that is why I have ended up here - this whole building is dedicated to design research, facilitated in a collaborative environment. Design Hub houses groups of researchers from different disciplines working together on a range of problems which is also very much reflected in the layout of the building itself. On Levels 4-9 there are working zones, where researchers come and do their research and think, discuss and critique their work. These working zones also house 'Long Rooms' - exhibition spaces where researchers can begin to discuss their work in a public forum. In addition to that Design Hub houses a series of rather grand interconnected presentation spaces that are dedicated to the public presentation of design in all its phases - from concept to prototype to final outcome. Eventually the whole building will be accessible to public audiences. I am the Creative Producer and my job, alongside that of the Curator Kate Rhodes and the Exhibition Technician Erik North, is not only to manage the building, but to program the building, in a holistic sense. It is our job to know what work is being done in here and translate it into public programs such as talks, exhibitions, bike rides, symposiums, dinners. My role here is really focused on the how questions - how do you to take an idea and make it real? What people, resources and spaces are required to bring an idea to life?

You mentioned before the interview that this building is the largest of its kind. Seeing as there are few other institutional precedents, do you ever feel overwhelmed in the role to make this a successful, functioning building?

It is a little daunting! There is not another place quite like this in Australia. Yes - there are important University based galleries such the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University and RMIT Gallery but nothing quite like this. There are comparable research centres and galleries in different parts of the world - like the London College of Fashion or The Sheila C. Johnston Centre at Parsons - but none quite of this scale, where the making and production of knowledge is happening in the same space as its presentation.

What has shifted in design practice, broadly, that has led to a position where a place like this could flourish?

I think audiences are increasingly more interested in design and the type of creative thinking that designers adopt in approaching a problem. There is a growing interest amongst the general public about the role that design plays in everyday life and there seems to have been a shift more broadly within design to embrace an expanded field of practice. This necessarily requires different ways to engage with and present these ideas.

The role of a designer becoming someone who thinks rather than produces?

And design as an idea, not just a set of finished, formal outcomes. Despite the growing interest in design, there is currently no one space in Melbourne to talk about, think about or see examples of contemporary design practice - there are places like Craft Victoria or the NGV, and some of their programming can be dedicated to design but not all of it which is what is unique here. I am interested in design as a way of doing and thinking about things. And then how you might take those ideas and present them in a space like a gallery; how do you use the framework of exhibition to start to talk about design ideas? I think this is again an important role we play as a team at Design Hub, where we are working with researchers who don't necessarily use exhibition as a means of talking about their process or thinking in relation to design. And that's what I find exciting about this role and this building. We have talked a lot about this and a lot of the projects we have programmed for next year will test and toy with the way we might bring the public into a conversation. Another problem that our programming will attempt to address is the lack of public, critical discourse around what designers do. We see ourselves as contributors to that, finding new and accessible ways to talk about design.

What would you regard as success for The Design Hub, and your role here?

I think I can safely speak on behalf of the whole team. We want to see rigorous, critical thinking and discussion in the spaces of Design Hub. We want to see the public getting involved and we really want this space to be both a critical space for research and a civic space - to hang out in, to drop in and out of the various activities and forums. That's our goal. To build a critical discourse around design. Our program for next year will test that. We have waited so long, we really just want to see people in here!

When will it open?

We open to the public on the 1st of February 2013, with two linked exhibitions - Archizines, curated by Elias Redstone and Public Offer curated by Timothy Moore and Kate Rhodes. These shows will really set the tone for the type of programming we want to do here and in the way we want to do things. Then we have a whole series of other events including a retrospective of the work of the RMIT Design Research Institute and then in the middle of the year, we will host a huge, important show by Walter Van Beirendonck, the Belgian fashion designer. We are bringing out a retrospective of his work from the Mode Museum in Antwerp. He is an academic as well as a prolific designer who uses an interesting mix of influences within his work. The show is very much about sampling his research process. It's going to be a huge undertaking with an extensive public program as part of that. And then, we have already started working on 2014! It's going to be very interesting to see how the public responds, as well as our peers within the University. As I said before, a lot of the researchers here don't necessarily use exhibition or event formats as part of their practice, so it will be interesting to see how they might adopt and respond to some of the programming.

What about your practice? Will you still freelance?

I am still involved in BUS Projects and are about to move into a new space in Collingwood. BUS has been around for nearly 12 years, always in the city, so it is a big move, but the space is amazing and will bring a whole new audience to what we are doing. We will announce more information about this soon. Beyond that I have a couple of shows coming up: I am working on a touring exhibition with my former Craft Vic colleague Kim Brockett. The show is called Signature Style and explores collaborative modes of practice in jewellery. The show has been supported by NETS Victoria and opens in March 2013, initially at Craft Victoria and then it will tour to a range of regional galleries. I am also working on the second instalment of Dolci & Kabana, a collaborative project with designer Ricarda Bigolin. Dolci & Kabana appropriates the mechanisms of a brand, selling illusions, allusions, delusions... It is an opportunity for Ricarda and I to explore the mediation and circulation of fashion from our respective positions of practitioner and curator. And I have to finish school! And I'm sure lots more will pop up along the way...

The RMIT Design Hub temporary site

Image Credits:
1 - 3. RMIT Design Hub. Photography Earl Carter. 4 - 9. Installation shots, BLESS No 38 Windowgarden (in collaboration with PAM), Craft Victoria, 17 June - 30 July 2011. Photography Lily Feng. 10 - 13. Installation shots, Chicks on Speed, Viva La Craft!, Craft Victoria, 12 March - 24 April 2009. Photography Jake Walker. 14. Dolci & Kabana publicity image. Graphic design Simon Browne. 15 - 17. 'The Launch', day long event presented by Dolci & Kabana (Ricarda Bigolin & Nella Themelios) as part of Dolci & Kabana: Brand Delusions, BUS Projects, 18 September - 6 October 2012. Photography Marc Morel. 18 & 19. Blake Barns, making her appear is the same as making her disappear - just backwards, performance presented as part of 'The Launch', Dolci & Kabana: Brand Delusions, BUS Projects, 18 September - 6 October 2012. Photography Marc Morel. 20 & 22. RMIT Design Hub. Photography Earl Carter. 21 & 23 - 29. RMIT Design Hub and Nella Themelios. Photography Double Days.