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In Conversation with… Brian Parkes

After a decade at the helm of Sydney’s Object Gallery, for the past seven years Brian has been pumping up the Jam as the Chief Executive of Jam Factory, Adelaide. Stephen Todd investigates.

Welcome to the first in a series of weekly conversations between Stephen Todd and Design Hunters from around the country. Join us as we learn what makes them tick, how they got to where they are, and where they’re going.


Director, Jam Factory creative hub, Adelaide

The Jam Factory was an initiative of the Don Dunstan government, back in the heady Labour years of the early 1970s. How true is the Jam today to Dunstan’s original vision?

From the reports I’ve read, the kind of vision Dunstan had was actually quite a lot broader than what the history of the organization is focused on. He was certainly interested in providing a mechanism to support craft practice – a place to make, exhibit and make craft available commercially. But he was also interested in the way the Scandinavians brought together their craft history with industry and the primary resources those countries had. Key case studies were companies like Iittala, Artek, Kosta Boda. He thought that the value add that craft-based design and manufacture could provide to primary resources like copper and wool which were really strong in South Australia, might be worth exploring. Also that it would have impact both culturally and economically. Discovering that early Don Dunstan drive played nicely to what I see as current opportunities, given the shifting nature of manufacturing in South Australia specifically but in Australia generally and the increased interest in Australian design from the architecture and design community and, importantly, from their clients.

Over the past month or so, I’ve heard a lot of people in the industry talking about the importance of developing a culture of private commissions in Australia. That this is a sector which could really drive a viable design industry. What are your thoughts on this?

At the Jam we actively encourage young designers to consider the private commission as a viable component of their practice. But it’s not just about teaching them how to run a business, it’s also about teaching clients how to become more confident with commissioning. The more people do it, the more it is seen, the more other people will gain confidence not just in the process, but in their own ability to commission. They need to understand that it may not in fact be more expensive than an off-the-shelf piece – but also that if it is, there is added value to that as well.

Commissioning product has become something of a driver in the hospitality sector, a novel means of differentiating an establishment from its competitors. Increasingly, what we find is than in fact clients – and not just architects and interior designers, but end consumers – are very keen to have the emotional become a part of the narrative that they are purchasing. Rather than just buying off-the-shelf furniture or tableware, there’s an added value to being able to tell the story about this person who is based in Adelaide who has made this thing. Increasingly, people want to know more. It parallels the food industry, where it’s no longer about beef, it’s about beef that’s been fed a certain kind of thing and raised in a certain valley. That same kind of informed participation in the provenance of a product is starting to gain traction in interior design.

Would it be strategic for Australian designers to specialize in small batch production of very beautifully crafted quality products rather than trying to compete with cheap mass-produced imports from China?

We try to instill in the people we train, this idea that designers need to be competing on value, not on price. The market is flooded with products of reasonable quality at accessible prices, driven by high volume turnover. And there’s also a lot of crap out there. Either way, the cost of entering market places with that kind of production is incredibly high before one can profit from any sort of economy of scale. But if you’re competing on value, that’s something else. The work of Khai Liew for Judith Neilson’s home Indigo Slam is a great example: the highest quality luxury brand could be engaged on a project like that, purchasing across all the sectors in which it is active and create an extraordinary showcase for its expertise. But the greater value is in the story of artistic vision and the commitment to artisanal quality that comes only from bespoke.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be ambition for Australian designers to manufacture at large scale, and there are increasingly good examples of that happening. But the backbone of genuine success has been among small to medium run batch production with local manufacturers or working to the designer-maker model.

Jam Factory

Interview by Stephen Todd