MAAS Magazine

Common Good

Two smiling children holding a Lucky Iron Fish cooking tool
Lucky Iron Fish, a small iron cooking tool that helps provide iron in meals. Credit Lucky Iron Fish.

Senior Curator Keinton Butler discusses the impact of contemporary design practice in Australia and neighbouring regions.

In Australia and our neighbouring regions, we are faced with increasingly complex and diverse social and environmental challenges. Ranging from water scarcity, poor nutrition and natural disaster to affordable housing, economic inequality and the depletion of our natural resources, these challenges are amplified by the scale and speed at which change is taking place.

Common Good brings together pioneering research projects and contemporary designers from the Asia-Pacific region who have taken action by responding to these key issues. Common Good reflects the diversity of global design practice through a wide range of projects by both established and emerging designers. The exhibition explores the continually evolving field of contemporary design through a number of disciplines including interaction design, speculative design, critical design, co-design and craft. These areas of practice are presented through five themes that create a critical framework in which to analyse design’s role in affecting positive change and its influence on the long-term sustainability of our region. The exhibition features leading international designers and architects from Asia, including Nendo, Bijoy Jain, Jo Nagasaka and WOHA, as well as globally recognised local designers Ken Wong, Lucy McRae and Henry Wilson.

The exhibition begins with ‘Life Cycles’, a materials reference library that examines the issues of our natural resources and environmental sustainability. While creating a foundation for a broader conversation about overconsumption, responsible manufacturing and industrial processes, the library features new materials developed from raw organic matter including corn, coffee husks and pineapple leaves, as well as industrial and agricultural waste and plastic marine debris. The library includes an award-winning project by Japanese design collective AMAM that uses agar, a product derived from algae, to create biomaterials that act as alternatives to non-biodegradable plastics found in packaging. The ‘Life Cycles’ materials library has been designed for use beyond the exhibition, as an important ongoing educational resource.

‘Return to Craft’ profiles contemporary designers looking to preserve the cultural heritage of their local communities through collaborative projects with artisans, craftspeople and manufacturers. Through the reinterpretation and use of traditional craft skills and techniques, designers are contributing to the survival of centuries-old crafts and are reviving entire industries. This important area of practice is demonstrated by South Korean designer Kwangho Lee’s New Armor Stool (Blue). Lee’s contemporary application of ott-chil lacquer brings exposure and interest to an otherwise forgotten craft. The technique, which was once common practice in Korea, uses a dense natural lacquer obtained from the sap of lacquer trees native to Korea, Japan and China. After multiple applications to the base material (in this instance, traditional paper and bronze), the lacquer hardens and leaves a high-gloss finish.

New Armor Stool by Kwangho Lee
Kwangho Lee, New Armor Stool (Blue), 2014.

The projects in ‘Community Engagement’ were developed through the exchange of ideas with local people and tapping into local expertise. Here, projects that address social integration and poverty in the face of rapid urbanisation are exhibited alongside international development initiatives and fully integrated, collaborative design concepts.

In ‘Connected Experiences’, recent developments in interaction and information design are explored through experiences that demonstrate technology’s ability to generate social awareness and influence our personal behaviour. The Watermelon Sugar Wellness Lab is an immersive experience from graphic designer and visual artist Pamm Hong, commissioned for Common Good. The experience allows visitors to create a digital version of their online self by taking information from their online behaviour and transforming it into a personalised virtual living organism.

The final room in the exhibition offers space for reflection. ‘Design Fictions’ explores the emerging practice of critical and speculative design. These research projects enable designers to question and debate the possible social implications of our scientific and technological developments, through carefully staged fictional scenarios. The Rare Earthenware project is the result of an expedition to Inner Mongolia, during which design research studio Unknown Fields followed rare earth elements to their origins. As part of this expedition, toxic mud was taken from a radioactive rare earth tailings lake and used to craft a set of ceramic vessels into the shape of highly valuable Ming dynasty porcelain vases. Each vessel is sized in relation to the amount of waste created in the production of three items of technology: a smartphone, a laptop and an electric car battery cell.

Rare Earthenware by Unknown Fields
Rare Earthenware, Unknown Fields, 2015.

With the exception of M+ Museum in Hong Kong and the Victoria and Albert Museum in Shenzhen, China (both currently under construction), there are few major international cultural institutions looking to exhibit and collect works of contemporary design from Asia, even though there is a growing appetite for such works from an increasingly design-aware and engaged local audience. In addition to extensive loans for Common Good, MAAS has recently made several significant acquisitions from Australia, China and South Korea. Through this project, MAAS has been working directly with a new generation of socially engaged designers from Asia, enabling the Museum to build important networks and further strengthen its international reach.

MAAS is actively responding to local contemporary design and architectural practice through its exhibitions and public programs, and aims to reflect the evolving nature of contemporary design and its intersections with the Museum’s other key disciplines, including science, technology and engineering. Common Good looks to introduce MAAS audiences to a discipline undergoing significant change, with a view to spark discussion and debate, and perhaps even facilitate new connections with our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region.


Common Good exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum open from 2 March 2019 to 2 December 2019. Purchase the Common Good publication online or at MAAS Store.

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