A Brush with Design: 10 Designers Dish on Their First Design Encounter — Kate Alexander

2 years ago by

In the lead up to DA’s 10th birthday celebrations in March 2019, A Brush With Design asks 10 designers who have been involved with DA at various times to nostalgically recount their first memory of encountering design. In this eighth iteration we spoke people, books and moments with Kate Alexander.

What’s my first memory of ‘encountering’ design? Where do I start! I grew up in a home with a dad who ran his own graphic design business. Art was not only on the walls, we took family outings to gallery openings. I spent my weekends in dad’s office, photocopying my hands and testing every coloured pen I could find.

My parents belonged to an art group, so over the years a wide variety of New Zealand artworks graced the walls of our home. They were usually the subject of conversation at dinner time. The one that had the biggest visual influence on me is a still life of a kitchen blender by Dick Frizell. It was my parents first art purchase and they paid it off over several months.

“Kitchen painting (detail), as it is titled, always had pride-of-place in our house It’s my all-time favourite piece of art, I think it always will be. There are several old drawings my mum has kept where I’ve tried my hand at sketching something similar… I’ve had a life-long love-affair with still life paintings… collecting them and trying to create them.

Growing up my eyes were exposed to many design books. The one that really gets the memories churning is the Better Living Catalogue by Philip Garner – 62 absolute necessities for contemporary survival – published in 1983. I can remember my brother and I pouring over the images, choosing which was our favourite and laughing uncontrollably at some of the inventions. My favourite was the ‘add-a’heel, I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t just go out and buy some of these to wear.

Looking back through the pages today, I realise what an influence it had on me. In 1980-something I was a finalist in the Smokefree Young Designer Awards, my entry was a fluffy tie with a zip for holding your pen — flicking back through the pages of this book I note one of the inventions is a ‘pocketie’ — turns out my design was a rip-off of an existing idea!

I remember other random objects we had in the house. A screw-driver that had liquid in it, kind of like a ‘snow dome’. When you held it up one way the image was a man wearing a suit, when you tipped the pen upside down his clothes came off and he was naked. As a child my brother and I thought this was hilarious.

In the late 80’s my dad did a fashion shoot on location in Tokyo and I remember the outfit he bought back for my mum. It was a shirt and pant suit by Issey Miyake. Made out of the finest denim-blue cotton with hand-sewn white seams that looked like Morse Code. While my friend’s families had fish & chips on a Friday night, we had Sashimi on traditional Japanese ceramic dishes.

And there is one design memory that probably started my passion for shopping in interesting places for unique objects. The Remo General Store. It opened in 1988 in Sydney. I can remember my parents had the mail-order catalogue we would buy presents for friends. It was one of the first ‘designer gift shops’, a pre-cursor to the lies of Askew.


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