The designer who never retired

5 July 2021

Amy Jarvis pays tribute to Derek Wrigley - a designer who left his touch on almost every part of the ANU campus.

Derek Wrigley believed that design had the power to change the world for the better. Taking a look at his 70 year career, it seems he was right. A pioneering powerhouse of design, Derek's fingerprints are all over the ANU campus, often hidden in plain sight.

Born in Oldham, Lancashire on 16 February 1924, Derek Wrigley was the elder of two children for Harold and Rose Wrigley (nee Bradley). Derek's sister and lifelong friend Shirley (Kral) joined the family in 1931. After failing his high school certificate, and leaving an electrical engineering apprenticeship, Derek was deemed medically unfit for active service. Based on his enthusiasm and aptitude for measured drawing, he was accepted into the architecture course at the Manchester College of Art (University of Manchester) and received outstanding results upon completion in 1945.

Derek decided to emigrate to Australia in 1947. At age 23 and with just the £100 in his pocket, he purchased an abandoned quarry in Dee Why, NSW and set about designing and building a home for himself, one of five he would design and build in his lifetime.

In 1957, on the invitation of University Designer Fred Ward, Derek moved to Canberra so he could take up the post of Assistant University Designer at ANU and thus the ANU Design Unit was established. Other members soon joined including Hans Pillig, John Stevens, David Walker, Gerald Easden, Charles Bastable and Scorgie Anderson.

In 1961, Ward departed ANU to take up commissions with the Reserve Bank and the National Library. Derek took over as combined University Designer and Architect and soon grew the ANU Design Unit team to include landscape, graphics, furniture, building and industrial design capacity.

The fledgling ANU provided the perfect environment for Derek to develop his theories of 'total' or 'integrated' design and functional design. Having travelled the world, he found that no other university had a similar in-house design team and saw ANU as a truly unique opportunity, at a time where the university administration including, Registrar Ross Hohnen and Bursar Bill Hamilton, saw great value in design as a mechanism to improve the university experience.

Derek's design experiments at ANU included the development of state-of-the-art lecture theatre seating, graphics and typeface, hundreds of furniture types, sound and lighting devices, street furniture, exhibitions, sculpture, buildings, landscapes and more. He also designed the iconic Heavy Ion Accelerator Tower in the Physics precinct and the University Avenue waterwall.

His sought after skills also saw him seconded from ANU regularly including to design furniture for the Australian Academy of Science (with Ward), and the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) - where he worked on Canberra's street furniture and lighting and even the headstone of the Governor General Lord Dunrossil by request of the Prime Minister.

Leaving ANU in 1977 to follow his growing interests in solar passive design, he purchased and restored the historic Byrne's Mill in Queanbeyan to set up his architectural practice and establish sustainability advocacy organisation The New Millwrights. By 1979 Derek has established an ACT Branch of Technical Aid to the Disabled (TADACT), which later earned him an Order of Australia.

Derek later set about retrofitting an existing townhouse in Mawson with over 20 concepts for energy saving and simpler living, including mechanisms for reflecting sunlight (and heat) into existing southern rooms, early examples of double-glazing and solar panels as well as innovative ventilation and heat-recovery systems. This saw him publish his first and very popular book in 2004, How to Make Your Home Sustainable.

He never fully retired and continued experimenting with sustainability research, writing about design in education, lecturing and speaking and publishing several books including Fred Ward: Australian Pioneer Designer (2013) and Design Awareness in the Modern University: The ANU Design Unit (2019) with ANU Heritage.

He was awarded an Order of Australia, Life Fellowship of the Design Institute of Australia and was inducted into its Hall of Fame, was a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) and namesake for the annual Derek Wrigley Award for Sustainable Architecture, and an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Derek was also the first non-academic member of the ANU Emeritus Faculty.

He once said that designers never retire - they are having too much fun, and mused that if he could have his life over, he would have no hesitation in being a designer again. Even in these last months, Derek was still searching for his own real definition of 'design', something he planned to have updated in the dictionary and a subject he had dedicated his entire working life to. An excerpt from Derek's last reflections on this definition seem a fitting close to a life of design: 'Design is a ubiquitous, positive, fundamental human force for the betterment of everything on our planet - natural or human-induced'.  Vale Derek Wrigley.

Amy Jarvis is the University Heritage Advisor.