Design Canberra Festival: Why Canberra is Australia's new design capital

We're sitting under a Japanese maple tree hand-building bowls out of raku clay at North Canberra's Watson Arts Centre under the tutelage of renowned artist Richilde Flavell from Girl Nomad Ceramics. Flavell's work is in demand, she's supplied tableware to the National Gallery of Australia store and Parliament House (in the gift shop, not to the Cabinet, she is quick to point out), but is being patient with us novices as we thumb over the cracks in our creations. The workshop is an example of one of the hands-on experiences offered during the annual Design Canberra Festival, which this year takes place between November 5 and 25. No matter what one's level of ability, these experiential activities during which designers impart their expertise and passion can only serve to inspire.

Flavell moved here from Bellingen in northern NSW to study and decided to stay. Her three-year studio tenure at Watson Arts Centre has been a gift, she says, as she takes us to see the kilns and the works of other potters on display. She gets to mentor others and spends six days a week working on something she loves. She plans to stay here in the capital.

It could be argued there was a time when Canberran artists and creatives would finish their training then pack up and leave for Sydney or Melbourne to pursue their careers. Not anymore. This city holds vast opportunities for those who stay, and others are moving here to take advantage of the art and makers scene.

We already know that these days Canberra is cool, with its swathe of design hotels, Good Food Guide-hatted restaurants and new bars. It makes sense that this collaborative community feeds more creativity.

French-born Marilou Chagnaud is another artist who moved to Canberra. On a visit to the Megalo Print Studio + Gallery, where she has a residency, Chagnaud shows us some of the work that will be featured in the Design Canberra Festival. She's most excited about the interactive work she is about to create, a large scale black-and-white patterned public artwork in the centre of Civic Square. Its curved lines can be admired, and used as a walking or running track.

"Giving artists the chance to do public artworks makes them want to do immersive installations instead of just being in galleries," says Chagnaud. She says she takes inspiration from the surrounding architecture, namely the modernist public buildings and residences in her newly adopted home.

From Roy Grounds' incredible Shine Dome completed in 1959 to innovative family homes in the suburbs, Canberra has long been a design capital ahead of its time.

"Canberra has one of the greatest concentrations of Modernist architecture in the world," comedian, TV presenter and architecture enthusiast Tim Ross tells me.

"It features buildings by all our greats including Robin Boyd, Harry Seidler and Roy Grounds. They all rise like monuments in a large Australian paddock and it's a beautiful thing."

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Ross is a long-time champion of Canberra who this year will be delivering the 2018 Griffin Lecture during the festival entitled "Pick a Town and Break it Down". The Australian Institute of Architects has been hosting the Griffin Lecture since 1961 in honour of Walter Burley Griffin, and Marion Mahony Griffin, who designed Canberra. Burley Griffin's stated intent was to design a city for a country of "bold democrats".

One of those bold democrats is Dr Enrico Taglietti, a 92-year-old architect whose style of modern organic architecture will be celebrated this year. On an architecture tour with Rob Henry, a renowned architect himself, we're visiting some of Taglietti's unique sculptural-style works in Canberra.

We traverse the suburban streets of Cook to spy Evans House, a white beacon shooting up in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright meets post-war Japanese architecture. It shows Taglietti's trademark overhanging timber-lined eaves and flat roof. We pass Taglietti's Italian Embassy (the architect had come to Australia from Italy in 1955) and head to see the vertical planes of Flynn Primary School and Pre School, and Giralang Primary School. Both built in the 1970s, they became and are to this day award-winning fun and engaging structures for children to learn and play. Taglietti was able to fully unleash his creativity in this city, and he has a theory why.

"Canberra was ideal because it did not have the influence of history … Canberra was perfect, a total void, [with] fantastic light, this silence that was like music," he said in a Sydney Living Museums Australian Iconic Houses interview.

At the Design Festival there will be a symposium on Taglietti's life and works, as well as bus tours. Local artists have also been invited to contribute a new perspective to his aesthetic.

I'm visiting the studio of woodwork artist Chelsea Lemon, a designer and maker who works with timber at ANU School of Art and Design. Many of her pieces include foliage and plant themes, mixed with parquetry. She's showing us her colourful woodwork trays inspired by Taglietti's round windows at Girawang Primary School. They are wonderful. She has also created the Canberra Design signature image for this year inspired by the city's geometric buildings and will be running a workshop on parquetry design during the festival. She says hands-on workshops like this provide an opportunity for anyone to engage more deeply with design.

Over at Brodburger (Canberrans will tell you these burgers are design classics, and they're right) and a paddle of beers at the ever-expanding Capital Brewing Co in Fyshwick, Rachael Coghlan and Kate Nixon from Craft ACT tell me about one of the highlights of the festival, a three-metre-high, 12-metre-wide sea cucumber-like installation by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma on Aspen Island on Lake Burley Griffin.

"Initiating an international collaboration with one of the most significant Japanese figures in contemporary architecture at the moment is a really exciting opportunity to celebrate what Canberra is about and what Design Canberra is about, which is promoting Canberra as a global city of design," says Coghlan, Design Canberra's artistic director.

Afterwards, I accompany them to their headquarters at Craft ACT where local designs such as world-renowned glass artist Richard Whiteley and ceramic artist Anne Masters can be viewed at the gallery. It seems fitting that there's a giant statue of Al Grassby, Australia's flamboyant king of immigration from the Whitlam era, welcoming us in their foyer. Art and design are bringing the world to Canberra, not just to visit, the city is luring them to create, and stay for good.

CANBERRA'S DESIGNER CUISINE

MOCAN AND GREEN GROUT

Any design fan needs to check out NewActon, a flourishing precinct and home to Mocan and Green Grout, a cafe and wine bar offering small tasting plates. Here plates and mugs are handcrafted, there's a feature wall and the owners also run a hand-built bicycle business next door called Goodspeed Bicycle Company. They do a great morning brew as well. See mocanandgreengroutcom.wordpress.com

LAKE GEORGE WINERY

Summerhill Road Winery's Sarah and Anthony McDougall have just taken ownership of the 113-hectare Lake George Winery and have big plans.

"We want to build accommodation and also host an Elton John concert," Sarah tells me. "I am going to build 'Elton's john' with a mirror ball in it." She pulls out one of their sparkling wines featuring the Canberra Design 2018 label on it ready for tasting while we feast on Canberra's best lemon meringue pie. See lakegeorgewinery.com.au

RAKU

Named after the traditional hand-shaped Japanese style of ceramic, Raku is sleeky designed and popular, with private booths and long wooden tables. Among our ordering, the sashimi and Nasu Dengaku (deep-fried eggplant, black miso and tama miso) are highlights, as is the purposely imperfect tableware. See rakudining.com.au

TRIP NOTES

Andrea Black travelled as a guest of Design Canberra.

MORE

traveller.com.au/canberra

designcanberrafestival.com.au

FLY

All the major airlines operate multiple daily flights to Canberra from Sydney, Melbourne and the other major cities.

DRIVE

Canberra is a three-hour drive from Sydney and about a seven-hour drive from Melbourne.

STAY

Step into the lobby of the Vibe Hotel Canberra Airport and it's immediately apparent why the hotel won the prestigious Emil Sodersten Award for Best Interior Architecture at the Australian Institute of Architects' National Architecture Awards. See vibehotels.com

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