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Long Weekend,
01 SEP - 01 OCT 2012
JamFactory, Adelaide

Remi 2000arrow

Remi 2000
European limewood,
painted handle
1300x1300x450

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Remi 2000
European limewood,
painted handle
1300x1300x450

An infiltration of red

colours which you can hear with ears; the taste of spice on your tongue; the fragrance of dimensions

Marcel Breuer

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An infiltration of red

colours which you can hear with ears; the taste of spice on your tongue; the fragrance of dimensions;1

In the six years since furniture conservator Khai Liew began to apply his extensive knowledge to the design of furniture, he has come to be associated with a refined and urbane sensibility that represents the distillation of myriad influences. Pieces like the latticed blackwood benches for the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Deloraine2 chair, the Aldo table and the Pianova3 sideboard have confirmed his position as an apogée of elegant restraint and a Donald Judd-like minimalism, which he asserts is more predisposed towards ancient Egypt, Greece and China than the European modernists. However the frame of reference also and perhaps increasingly extends to his adopted homeland. Named for the eponymous region in Tasmania, the Deloraine chair emulates the breakaway construction of the Jimmy Possum chairs, whilst simultaneously quoting from a European design-tradition of the ribbed Windsor chair.

Liew’s designs invariably begin with the drawing of a single line. With deliberation further lines are added. But the resultant rectilinear forms are by no means entirely reductivist. Unmistakable in the new body of work, subtle embellishments are also present in earlier pieces – like the woven leather seat of the Candy bar stool, the concession of the gentle curvature of the backrest/seat of the Zani chair, the lattice work of the Gallery bench. Materials are emphatically natural and the ostensible simplicity of Liew’s designs is achieved through a deft concealment of the conundra of construction.

With colours drawn from nature, Liew’s palette is intentionally subdued; a ploy designed to confer absolute emphasis on form. Colour he believes can 'demand too much'. Yet within his restricted range, colour can be transforming – in the oak Turner table, Liew employs his favoured limed finish in order to alter and lighten the impression of mass.

When in fin de siècle France, Marcel Proust dipped a madeleine into his tisane of linden blossom, the fusion of sensations triggered a flow of recollections which became the seven volumes of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. For Liew, the genesis of a new body of work was a fading 1960s photograph of his father, attired in the elaborate costume of the Chinese Opera.

The slash of crimson lips and scarf. A rice powdery-white visage above the splendour of a silver-embroidered robe. These elements in that seminal image of Wan Thye Liew, have provided the stimulus for the designs of Long Weekend,4 in which the oriental influence that has from the beginning informed Liew’s output, becomes manifest. In addition, there is a bold and unprecedented deployment of that most auspicious of all Chinese hues – the colour red.

Associated with the Red Cross and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, danger and passion, blood and wine, pigeon’s blood rubies and revolution, the colour red has inspired numerous works of art – Hokusai’s red nineteenth-century rendition of Mt Fuji; Kasimir Malevich’s Red Square (1915); Robert Rauschenberg’s red paintings of 1953-54 and Mark Rothko’s central triptych (1966) for the Rothko Chapel. More recently Gerhard Richter’s powerful Abstract Paintings (Rhombus) series of six red paintings, depicting the stigmatisation of St Francis of Assisi, were shown at the 2001 Venice Biennale.

The limewood creaminess of the Remi cabinet with its red-stained, slatted handles, emulates both the pale countenance of Liew’s father and the scarlet of his scarf and lips, whilst referencing a centuries-old tradition of comparable pieces of furniture. Yet complicit within the graceful autonomy of its exterior is a more serious narrative.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, in the wake of the influx of Chinese to the Victorian goldfields, the area around Hindley Street became the business centre for almost fifty Chinese cabinetmakers. These craftsmen produced inexpensive furniture for a conservative Adelaide market of British tastes. Large numbers of immigrants were prepared to work long hours for little pay in sweatshop conditions and they soon incurred the wrath of the trade unions. Anti-Chinese sentiment became endemic throughout Australia and towards the end of the century, legislation was passed in most Australian states making it compulsory for all furniture of Chinese manufacture to be so stamped and for working hours to be restricted.5 Liew conceived the Remi cabinet as an opulent piece of furniture, designed without constraints of any kind, as a memorial to those early Chinese workers.

In this sense the cabinet transcends its status as an object, becoming a monument to progress and the belated espousal of multiculturalism. Like Liew’s much-utilised sixteenth-century Chinese mitre joint – innately complex yet superficially straightforward – his designs enshroud not only a multiplicity of influence, but also stories of racial intolerance endured by the Chinese immigrants. On a more personal level, it was the violence of the racial riots in May 1969 Malaysia, which precipitated the exile and dispersal of Liew’s own family.

The confluence of cultural influences fluidly coalesces in Liew’s Jian cabinet. Patently oriental in its provenance, the red lacquered cabinet on a silver gilt stand unexpectedly has its origins in an unassuming piece of Barossan furniture. Exhibited in 1989 as part of Lord McAlpine’s collection of early Australian furniture the red storage trunk was brought to the Barossa region of South Australia by German immigrants around 1865.6 A coat of red paint had been applied to protect the wood and a rustic stand constructed from branch timber and eucalypt palings – its elevation above the floor level linked purely to considerations of practicality. For Liew the luxuriousness of the Jian cabinet exists not so much in the silver gilding of the stand or the sterling silver handle, but in the non-functional space beneath the cabinet. In an urbanised community, he says, space has become the ultimate luxury. It is Liew’s perception that the cabinet on stand is an accurate barometer of a society’s cultural evolution.

Inspiration can flow from many sources. Uncompromising in its De Stijl-like severity, the blackbean day bed with polythene upholstery was conceived as a contemporary homage to a classical Egyptian form and to Jacques Louis David’s famously recumbent Madame Recamier. The mesmerising image of a flock of birds coming in to land gave rise to a design for the proposed public seating of Adelaide's Riverbank Promenade. Through a process of paper folding, an origami-like bench seat evolved, its protective bird-like ‘wings’ designed to enfold the figure.

In conversation, Liew makes repeated reference to rhythm and flow of space. With its slatted back sections – which invoke the staves of musical notation – a bench called Wanda is an eloquent illustration of his design philosophy. Although it is a substantial piece of furniture, echoing both the form of the oriental gateway and the exaggerated proportions of a Mackintosh seat, the impression conveyed is one of lightness, since air and light are permitted to flow between the timber battens. This strategy, much used in oriental screening systems and in evidence for example in the designs of the Wiener Werkstätte, evokes in an Australian context the “matchstick mannerism”7 of tropical Queensland. The Wanda bench according to Liew is simultaneously ‘noisy’ and ‘light’. On the other hand a solid design like the Pianova sideboard is both ‘quiet’ and ‘heavy’ – without succumbing to ponderousness. In 1955, Marcel Breuer gave poetic expression to a variation of this theory: 'Transparency becomes more so next to solidity – and solidity makes it work… Sun and Shadow does not make a cloudy sky…Both in their undiluted clarity, are part of the same life, part of the same ideal.'8

With contemplation, it becomes apparent that all of Liew’s designs can be seen in these terms. A red glass mosaic-topped table with stainless steel base adroitly reiterates both the red and silver theme and in the calligraphic configuration of its base, the recurring oriental leitmotif. Requisite lightness derives from the airiness of the stainless steel base and from the subtle shimmer of the glass tiles. Indubitably, a very evolved design sensibility is at work here. Liew’s aesthetic quest does not represent a desire for perfection, but rather aspires to a certain rhythm, a poetry of form, capturing in the process a sometimes elusive balance between air and substance, light and shade.

© Wendy Walker, August 2001


Endnotes

1. Marcel Breuer, in Muriel Emanuel (ed) Contemporary Architects, London & NY: St James Press, 1994, p. 134.

2. and 3. Liew won a 2000 Design Institute Award for the Deloraine chair which has been acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia for its permanent collection. Liew earlier won a 1999 Design Institute Award for the Pianova sideboard.

4. Liew says that with this new body of work he wanted to 'bring back glamour'.

5. The perception was that furniture of Chinese manufacture was shoddy.

6. Graham Cornall, Memories: a survey of early Australian furniture in the collection of the Lord McAlpine of West Green, Perth, WA: Aust, City Properties Ltd, 1990, p. 67. The photograph on page 4 of this catalogue is reproduced courtesy of Graham Cornall.

7. Davina Jackson uses this expression in Australian Architecture Now, London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

8. 'The solution for black and white is gray – that is the easy way…Sun and Shadow does not make a cloudy sky. The Spanish sun is not diluted by the Spanish shadow. Both in their undiluted clarity, are part of the same life, part of the same ideal.' Peter Blake, (ed) Marcel Breuer: Sun and Shadow, The Philosophy of an Architect, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1955, p. 32.

Jian 2000arrow

Jian 2000
Tasmanian oak, red lacquer,
silver gilt, sterling silver
1380x1300x450
National Gallery of Australia

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Jian 2000
Tasmanian oak
1380x1300x450
National Gallery of Australia

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Aldo 1998arrow

Aldo 1998
American white oak
740x2400x1000

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Aldo 1998
American white oak
740x2400x1000

Candy 1996arrow

Candy 1996
Queensland walnut, hand-woven
kangaroo hide
1010x380x380

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Candy 1996
Queensland walnut, hand-woven
kangaroo hide
1010x380x380

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Deloraine 1998arrow

Deloraine 1998
Queensland blackbean
945x620x520
Art Gallery of South Australia
Art Gallery of Western Australia

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Deloraine 1998
Queensland blackbean
945x620x520

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Gallery 1996arrow

Gallery 1996
Queensland walnut
450x1600x630

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Gallery 1996
Queensland walnut
450x1600x630

Jeannie 2000arrow

Jeannie 2000
American white oak
1000x2400x1500
Art Gallery of South Australia

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Jeannie 2000
American white oak
1000x2400x1500
Art Gallery of South Australia

Jess 1997arrow

Jess 1997
American black walnut,
hand-woven kangaroo hide
855x420x470

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Jess 1997
American black walnut,
hand-woven kangaroo hide
855x420x470

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Turner 2000arrow

Turner 2000
American white oak
740x2400x1000

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Turner 2000
American white oak
740x2400x1000

Wanda 2000arrow

Wanda 2000
Queensland silver ash
1426x1846x580
Art Gallery of South Australia

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Wanda 2000
Queensland silver ash
1426x1846x580
Art Gallery of South Australia

Zani 2000arrow

Zani 2000
American black walnut
840x490x500

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Zani 2000
American black walnut
840x490x500

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Sami 2000
Queensland blackbean, upholstered
700x600x1980