Designing a creative capital

Posted 18 Sep 2017

Story by Her Canberra

You only need to spend a short amount of time in Canberra to discover that our city is home to many exciting artists and designers, some of whom have attracted cult followings and big international reputations.

When Brian Tunks, the Creative Director of Bisonhome, first started creating ceramics, they were initially purchased by people wanting to put colour into their homes.

But Canberra businesses were also captivated by the beautiful blend of simple Scandinavian and stylised Asian ceramics, and today Bisonhome ceramics are found in dining venues across the city from 86 to the Cupping Room and in a range of venues around the world.

Brian Tunks

“I’d like to think that those pieces bring a sense of calm to our environments,” Brian says. And he hopes that their timeless style gives them a long lifespan and “doesn’t contribute to designed obsolescence.”

Brian has lived in Canberra for 24 years, and has spent the last 20 as a designer and maker. During that time, he says he’s witnessed what he calls “a creative epiphany of sorts” where our architecture and design has become a source of local pride, and where so many of our designers and artists are willing to share and collaborate.

Bisonhome ceramics

“This extends across film, music and fashion as well – Fashfest a case in point – to the extent that as a city we punch way above our weight,” he says.

Another locally-based design company is FINK, renowned for creating tableware products with a striking organic aesthetic and use of bright bold colours.

Robert Foster with the iconic Fink Water Jug

Designer Robert Foster the founder of FINK, who has work is in the collections of most of Australia’s major arts institutions and overseas, trained in traditional silversmithing at the Canberra School of Art. Robert’s most recognisable piece of art in Canberra is the lighting installation in ActewAGL’s headquarters on Bunda Street.

Robert Foster won the commission to create his piece in 2010, which “consists of 37 tusk-like forms that emerge through the polished concrete floor,” says FINK Director Gretel Harrison.

Robert Foster’s Ossolites

“This amazing colourful installation creates a continuously morphing experience to be enjoyed both inside the ActewAGL building and on the street beyond,” Gretel adds. “It has become one of the most energetic attractions in Canberra.”

FINK has played a role in many creative projects throughout Canberra, Gretel says, including the vibrant red sculptural curtain hanging in the foyer of the Realm Hotel on National Circuit.

Robert Foster’s hanging sculpture in Barton’s Hotel Realm.

Gretel says Canberra’s proximity to nature “allows for a kind of calmness that generates an ideal environment for creativity”. It’s also a place where art and design is appreciated and enjoyed by many, which in turn helps artists and designers to succeed.

“Canberra has a strong creative community that is very open and giving without being heavily influenced by the competitive and aggressiveness of other larger cities,” Gretel says.


Matthew Curtis. Credit: Wendy Dawes.

Glass artist Matthew Curtis agrees. He’s been exhibiting internationally for more than a decade, and his work is widely collected. Elton John even has examples of his work.

While he was born in the UK, Mathew is inspired by the “many opportunities in Canberra to work within the vibrant arts community across many disciplines, fostered by various artist access studios”.

Matthew loves our “fabulous” national institutions, and he often visits the National Gallery of Australia, but is also interested in Canberra’s local architecture. “The raw concrete surfaces of some of these buildings are in themselves inspiring.”

“Within my material, glass, the ANU and the Canberra Glassworks have become hubs that encourages a critical mass of creative makers, designers and artists,” he says.

Matthew is currently working on an exciting project – “a large-scale outdoor public art piece within a new development, fostered by two extraordinary and energetic patrons of the arts, Rosanna and John Hindmarsh”.

Matt Curtis Glass ‘Ediface Pair’. Credit: Rob Little

“There is a vibrant arts community, with many institutions and organisations to access. Go and get involved, see what opportunities unfold,” he urges.

Brian’s message to other up-and-coming designers is simple. “Don’t ever be scared to change direction and engage with other media”.

“I started my local life as a postgrad at ANU writing a thesis on male prostitution in Ancient Rome … created a ceramics brand, got ill and had a fully-blown mid-life crisis… moved my practice from a producer to a designer who also embraced glass, fabric and other objects. Oh…. and I taught myself painting and am now loving that too. Bottom line… be flexible.”

Feature image: Martin Ollman

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