The legacy of unique design

29 March 2019

The next time you sit down on a chair or at a table in one of the University's buildings, take a moment to reflect on the history behind the piece of furniture.

A new exhibition on show at the Canberra Museum and Gallery has brought together artefacts and stories of the University's original design team who helped oversee the construction of these masterpieces, when it was established in 1954.

Total Design: Derek Wrigley and the ANU Design Unit 1954-1977 details the history of the University's in-house designers, which started as a team of just two - Fred Ward and Derek Wrigley.

"The exhibition shows the full scope of design, celebrating the day-to-day work and unique legacy of designers, and local manufacturers who made an irreplaceable contribution to the design landscape of Canberra," said exhibition curator Jack Dunstan.

The ANU Design Unit didn't just create iconic furniture, which continues to be used through most campus buildings, they also commissioned many of the sculptures scattered around the campus grounds.

What is also little-known is that the ANU Design Unit played a significant role in the design of the campus landscape and its planning, including the realigning of Sullivans Creek (and installing the stepping stones across it) during the University's infancy. Derek Wrigley also designed the water feature that sits at the Bruce Hall end of University Avenue, as well as the fonts used on ANU signage and the iconic coat of arms.

University Heritage Advisor Amy Jarvis said it was also a significant time in Australian design history. She says it was an era of optimism and bravery to try new things was fresh, along with the ability to challenge the norm and think outside the box.

"The design legacy of the Unit is still so much a part of ANU and formed the building blocks of the campus we see today," she said.

"This was an era of Australia shaking off the shackles of the pre-WWII era, trying new things and standing on its own two feet."

Accompanying the exhibition is a book called The ANU Design Unit 1954-1977: Design Awareness in the Modern University by Derek Wrigley that examines the early workings of the design team.

The book tells the story of ANU embracing the concept of 'total' design, from furniture, to landscaping, interior, industrial, architectural and graphic design for a cohesive and functional campus aesthetic.

"This is a rare opportunity to hear these stories first-hand, from the very people who lived them, to have the objects, the original drawings and the original designers all in one place," said Amy Jarvis.

The exhibition is free and open to the public until 15 June. Books can be purchased at Canberra Museum and Gallery or by contacting ANU Heritage at fs.heritage@anu.edu.au.