Comedian and broadcaster Tim Ross talks about his collaboration with MAAS and the invisible icons of Australian design.
In my early twenties I came up to Sydney from Melbourne with a bunch of my uni friends for the Festival of Student Theatre at the University of Sydney. After a day of boring drama workshops, we were lured by the sights of the city and that afternoon we found ourselves riding on ferries, wandering around the Sydney Opera House and getting used to the size of schooners of Tooheys New.
On the way back to our motel in Glebe, we stumbled across the Powerhouse Museum. Immediately curious, we piled inside and almost the first thing I saw was a classic Leyland P76 car on display. Next to it were two small screens with headphones telling the story of Mojo, the advertising agency responsible for jingles such as ‘You Ought to be Congratulated’ for Meadow Lea margarine and ‘C’mon Aussie C’mon’ for World Series Cricket.
I was dumbfounded. This was the first time I’d seen things that had been part of my life represented in a museum. As a Melburnian, I’d spent too many school excursions looking at Phar Lap and, not that I want to throw shade on an Australian legend, I always felt disconnected from ‘a stuffed old horse in a glass case’.
The programming at the Powerhouse was a revelation to me and it has had a long-lasting effect. So when the opportunity arose for me to curate an exhibition there on my passion for Australian design, I jumped at it. With Design Nation, a selection of iconic but ubiquitous Australian design objects from the MAAS collection, I’m paying homage to the work of those curators and trying to capture the essence of how I felt on that memorable first visit.
Australia is a practical nation. The utilitarian has always been championed in our inventions, and a number of our designs, such as the Hills Hoist and the Victa Mower, have been given iconic status. Make it work, keep it simple, solve a problem . . . these are the demands we have constantly made over the years.
This obsession with the functional has often made us overlook the high standard of design in this country. The best of our design objects and their remarkable stories have been under our noses for years but we’ve been seemingly oblivious to them.
With Design Nation I’ve assembled classic objects like the Stackhat (the bike helmet that emerged when helmets were made compulsory in the early 1990s), the Wiltshire Staysharp knife (famous for launching thousands of Sunday roasts) and the Sebel stackable Integra chair (we’ve all sat on them around pools and in schools). I’m hoping that visitors will look at them with fresh eyes and a new appreciation to discover the extraordinary stories behind them and, in many cases, their unprecedented global successes.
Tim Ross is a comedian, writer, television presenter and self-proclaimed design nerd. His award-winning ABC documentary series Streets of Your Town, on the evolution and architecture of our suburbs, was the most watched arts program on television in 2016.