Semi-Permanent 2013 – part3


Day one of Semi-Permanent Wellington (SPWGTN) was bracketed with a brace of design talent in the forms of creative director Michaela Webb of Round Studio, Melbourne, and, at the very beginning, Gemma O’Brien – also known in the persona of typography obsessive Mrs Eaves – of Sydney, PLUS the Designworks trio of Michael Crampin, Noel Blackwell, Jef Wong.

Michaela Webb, as well as partner in life Robert Nudds (in the SPWGTN front row with their 4-year old daughter Eva), could be described as one of the ones who ‘got away’.

Both are expat New Zealanders making a success in their adopted country, as per that vital phenomenon sometimes known as the ‘kiwi diaspora’ so closely monitored and mirrored by initiatives like Brian Sweeney’s enduring project NZEDGE.COM

Round Studio’s impression on Melbourne alone saw Michaela named as one of the city’s top 100 influential people in Melbourne Magazine two years ago, as noted in the official SPWGTN programme. What this could only fail to even allude to was Michaela’s opening prelude – her love affair with her childhood in Tokoroa.

Born in South Africa to English parents, she called Tokoroa home from age 6 and shared what may well have been one of the most captivating reels put up on the towering Embassy screen at SPWGTN – a sample of theatrically staged old film footage from the ‘suitcase’ of her family upbringing, a home movie as produced and directed by her talented dad. This was a wonderful moment, transporting a well-preserved episode of backyard comedy into the Embassy, which, if it had been in scratchy black and white would have resonated as a piece of classic silent movie magic.


In an ode to Tokoroa, Michaela celebrated the emboldening layers of the forestry engulfed township – set apart by the dominating physical presence of the Kinleith pulp and paper mill and characterised by the immersive influence of Polynesian classmates and teachers.

Having just touched on this part of the world Michaela then leapfrogged straight into a sampling of her aspirational design career, supercharged by the experience of working on some of the world’s biggest brands while at renowned brand agency Wolff Olins, where she worked on drawing out a bolder identity for the Tate as a nexus of world-leading gallery venues. The brief was to democratise the Tate, without “dumbing it down” and her work on this gave Michaela a lasting appreciation of the strength of an aligned strategy.

Following this, she moved to smaller agency Spin in London where she shared responsibility for developing creative ideas and strategies for a wide variety of fashion, cultural and corporate clients. Her work there featured designing a “reductive presence” for the then dealer gallery Haunch of Venison.

Within the decade since establishing ideas-driven Round Studio in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane,  Michaela and Rob have assembled a 12 strong team and maintained a strong emphasis on the design of public / private venues people are drawn to inhabit: museum and art galleries, restaurants, retail spaces, workplaces, hotels, homes and cities.

For SPWGTN Michaela provided insights into three specific case studies and projects, one in Tasmania and two in Canberra.

The Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery typified the role of designers in mediating practical solutions (“I love doing signage”) and getting alongside the people who experience venues from the inside-out and outside-in.

Michaela’s Canberra imprints both keyed into a synergy with architecture and property and hospitality, both located within the Molonglo Group’s impressive NewActon / Nishi development near the shoreline of Lake Burley Griffin.

Michael Webb

The first was designing a retail tenancy pack for a mixed-use building and apartment complex. Sounds prosaic yet the approach was to highlight financial and social benefits through the use of specially sculpted timber pieces deployed as infographics, and a host of other collected materials.

Round Studio’s design input to the soon-to-open Hotel Hotel within Nishi’s ‘vertical village’ was informed by the idea of beg / borrow / steal as a rationale for re-utilising and re-purposing disused or excess local materials and from hotels around the world – described on the Hotel Hotel blog (yes, it has a blog even before the hotel has opened) thus: “It’s a bold, bold idea. And the execution is difficult”.

Michaela: “Our approach was why add something new when there’s a plethora of material already in existence.. to arrive at a patchwork of personality, not over-branding”.

The execution has surfaced in multivariant forms e.g. notepads, pencils, and expressive sources such as playful hotel-centric pull-quotes from people like American writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz (“Los Angeles is a large city-like area surrounding the Beverly Hills Hotel”) … all in accordance with a design recipe of 10 guiding touchpoints:

  1. People
  2. The sensorial
  3. Provenance
  4. Humour and fun
  5. The importance of makers
  6. Diversity & tolerance
  7. Participation
  8. Open source
  9. Curation
  10. Disruption

Last but not least Michaela grounded her SPWGTN talk in a quick unpacking of two words central to her design practice: Humanity and Culture.

It’s a given that any brief that touches on branding will cover off questions like who are you? who needs to know? who cares? The bigger challenge posited by Michaela is the one of getting clients to see beyond the answers to those questions, and to inject intuition-based design-led thinking that enables them to “see ahead”.

In their turn on the dance card at SPWGTN, Designworks trio Michael Crampin, Noel Blackwell and Jef Wong temporarily transplanted themselves from Auckland to Wellington to impart the ethos behind NZ’s “everything”, if not yet everywhere, design house (Auckland, Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington, Christchurch).

A compacted 30 year history of clients spanning land, sea, sky was presented along with a run-through of the personalised business cards used to humanise Designworks. (As an aside this year Designworks is taking part in the 100 Days Project, pitched as ‘Telling the DW Story‘ and about which Zoe Nash of Design Assembly has written an accessible overview).

In terms of exemplars from Designworks, the unusual combo of Chocolate and Merino meat was dished up in support of the notion of design’s ability to amplify.

Artisan chocolate making – as practised by the Mast Brothers – was proffered as an illustration of amplifying connection and leveraging mythology. And branding work for Silere Alpine Origin Merino was illustrative of “amplifying sensations”.

A common factor underlined during this section of the presentation was the importance of research as applied at Designworks – “researching with the end in mind … researching for inspiration not fact”.

Also on the Designworks menu was their work with Shona McCullagh – “a kindred spirit” – of the New Zealand Dance Company. And to illustrate that no-one should be averse to making fools of themselves, the Designworks’ principals closed out with a video showing them taking a turn on the dance floor themselves, neatly described by Michael as “elegant mincing”.

Gemma O'Brien

Which now brings this furtive running record of SPWGTN to what, in a grab from the lyrics of Do-Re-Mi, is a matter of ending “at the very beginning” – with typography wunderkind Gemma O’Brien.

Gemma is a very good place to end as an inspiration for young designers to live the(ir) dream, precociously as possible but unpretentiously.

Now living and working in an attic, blissfully addicted to typography and with a jet-packed CV that happens to include art direction for motion graphics, film, televison and 3D, Gemma’s entry to design all started after a decision to drop out of Law School in her home state of Queensland to embark on new studies in Sydney.

As Gemma told it the fateful obsession she developed for eating and breathing fonts was simply unavoidable. As a sign of being happily resigned to her obsession she even has an alter-ego, Mrs Eaves, after Sarah Eaves, the mistress then wife of 18th century printer and type designer John Baskerville – a moniker which has also given rise to variations like Mrs Heaves (sic).

Finding herself in the thick of a rising tide of “typography nerds uniting”, Gemma’s own rise has something of a fairy tale quality to it. This stems from the attention she garnered by her “Write here, right now” Youtube clip made in 2008 (8 hours of writing, 5 permanent markers, 3 baths and 2 showers to clean it off) which helped to make her semi-global and was a springboard to appearing at TYPO Berlin 2009, with the invitation initiated on Facebook. One of her career highlights since, also shown at SPWGTN, is her commercial work for the Taronga Conservation Society – viewable on The Loop.

Most recently Gemma has also branched into exhibiting her artistry in her first solo show at a gallery – “Better Left Unsaid” at the Fremantle Art Gallery. As the exhibition blurb states there is a sense in which the handwritten word is becoming increasingly sparse in the digital age. In that sense “the craft of lettering is deviating away from the traditional context of graphic design and into an art form in itself”. [Ed: See also Gemma’s Instagram page at mrseaves101]

There is an awareness on Gemma’s part that to a degree authenticity has become a “commodity”. A resurgence in design of things that are inky or chalky is at the borderline between crafted authenticity and achieving authenticity by craft. While some jobs will involve vectors that never leave the computer, her own preference is to resolve designs firstly by hand.

Gemma has a deeper awareness too that there are many important questions for designers like herself to explore. Questions about writing and why we still write. Do we write to remember or write to forget?

Things that live on long after the creator are important. Writing and memory and wordplay are important. Because after all said and done, as Gemma says “the written word and language is what makes us human”.

Which in a circular way brings this write-up back to ‘Do Re Mi’:

Do Re Mi Fa So and so on
Are only the tools we use to build a song
When you know the notes to sing
You can sing most anything

A good note to end on for the 2013 edition of Semi-Permanent Wellington. Roll on 2014!

ENDS (3)