Keeping it real

Alison Page, Creative Director of the National Aboriginal Design Agency (NADA). Image courtesy of NADA.

The Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance Aboriginal Corporation was established in 2009 to promote Aboriginal art and culture, and create employment and economic opportunities for Aboriginal artists and craftspeople on the mid-north coast of NSW. In 2012, the Alliance established its first commercial business arm, the National Aboriginal Design Agency (NADA).


Sitting in the Coffs Harbour office of the National Aboriginal Design Agency (external website, new window) (NADA) its Creative Director Alison Page is smiling broadly and shaking her head. She has been sharing images and samples from the extensive and eye-catching range of contemporary Aboriginal interior design products and homewares the agency has under development. ‘I know, it’s unreal, right?’ she says.

‘Unreal’ too, says Alison are the collaborative artistic and strategic business partnerships NADA is forming, which it hopes will move Aboriginal design to the forefront of Australia’s built environment and interior design industry.

Such partnerships brokered between the Aboriginal artists that NADA represents and Australian manufacturers will enable the artists’ designs to be realised as carpets, lighting, furniture, textiles and architectural products.

Or, as Alison describes it: “objects with stories, architecture with a soul”.

‘Co-creating – it’s my favourite word of the moment’, said Alison. ‘It’s about partnerships; formal and informal partnerships, people coming together and asking “what can we do?” It’s having that blank piece of paper sitting in front of you, and going for it’.

That spirit of co-creation and a desire to record and share stories in new ways is fuelling the creative design process for Alison and NADA’s client base of Aboriginal artists and craftspeople.

‘We work with artists to develop their understanding of how they can turn their art or story into a design for commercial application’, said Alison. ‘It’s taking a small element or piece of an artwork or story. It can be quite literal or simplified. The designs are contemporary or sometimes retro in feel, and we digitise them and play with different colourways. They are repeatable patterns that can be applied across wallpaper, carpet and so on. Some are very ornate and have an almost Victorian feel about them, which I really like – that juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary [styles].

The Agency is working with Indigenous artists to create an extensive range of interior and homeware products. Image courtesy of NADA.

‘I think it’s very powerful when we connect story and meaning to objects’, continued Alison, ‘because we are building preciousness into those objects. When we build preciousness, we are building sustainability because we pass those things on to our children, we don’t throw them away. If we then build longevity into the object or building – from a functional level – then we are doing a huge amount to create a more sustainable world’.

This philosophy, says Alison, reflects cultural values common to many Indigenous peoples across the world. ‘It all comes back to caring for country, connection to country and sustainability’, she said. ‘Years ago we used to look at the mountains, rivers and trees and say, “Oh, they tell the story of such and such” … I want to look to our built environment to show us that – the chairs we sit on, the cups we use, the fabric we wrap ourselves in, so they become our visual indicators. It’s the objects we use every day, the ubiquitous parts of our lives that I want to see become more meaningful. I want to buy things that are handcrafted, that last a long time, that are meaningful to me – and I will pay more for them. In that, I am not alone’.

To help bring design products such as carpets and textiles to market, NADA aims to establish mutually-beneficial partnerships with Australian manufacturers.

‘Our success depends on building external partnerships’, said Alison. ‘And for manufacturers, it’s a smart business decision because it’s giving them an edge in the interior design marketplace’.

To assist Australia’s corporate sector to more easily adopt Aboriginal design within its built environment, NADA offers culturally appropriate interior, landscape, exhibition and product design services for one-off projects such as public buildings, capital works and corporate premises.

‘We have been commissioned by Westpac to design rugs and textiles for 21 floors of its new building at Barangaroo [a commercial and residential precinct under construction on the Sydney Harbour foreshore]’, said Alison. ‘The designs we have presented to Westpac tell the story of hunting and fishing as well as representing the surfaces of Sydney Harbour, where land and water meets… And one design is about Barangaroo herself. From historical references we know she was a very strong and resilient woman, but how do you show resilience and thick skin in an interior design? So that’s going to be an iron bark pattern’.

While the agency’s focus has been the commercial and corporate sector, it is also working on a collection of NADA-branded fashion items and homewares that will be available to the general public in 2014.

A NADA-branded range of fashion items and homewares will be available to the general public in 2014. Images courtesy of NADA.

‘That’s about you buying something for yourself like bags, cushions, lampshades, cups’, said Alison. ‘A group of Aboriginal artists in Forster [on the NSW mid-north coast] have designed ceramic cups that allow blind people to have an experience of Aboriginal art, because they are embossed on the side and so people can feel the story… I know, unreal right?’

Alison believes NADA’s product offerings are unique in mixing fine art with culture and functional design, but says that combination is nothing new within Aboriginal culture.

‘If you think about a traditional object like the boomerang; it’s sophisticated in function, highly sustainable, very beautiful and has a story because it’s always carved with something’, she said. ‘I take those four principles into adapting the work and stories of Aboriginal artists into contemporary design’.

To protect the intellectual property and copyright of its artists, NADA draws on the cultural and professional expertise of its industry networks.

Alison said: ‘We have a brains trust that is made up of Aboriginal lawyer Terri Janke, artist Bronwyn Bancroft, architect Dillon Kombumerri, Phillip Hall from the Saltwater Freshwater Board and Sam Muller who does a lot of business consulting for IBA’.

‘Terri has created best practice licensing for each of the agency’s three arms, to provide maximum protection for the artists. On the other side of the coin, it also makes it really easy for Australian businesses to do the right thing by Aboriginal artists’.

‘As Creative Director, I am the agent who can guide all parties’, said Alison. ‘I don’t lock artists into exclusivity with NADA. But when I represent them, I will pursue more money and more opportunities for them, which means they can stay doing what they do well, which is making and creating art on country. And the artist always retains the copyright of their original artwork’.

‘In those instances where a manufacturer creates and distributes the products for us, we negotiate ongoing royalties for the artist’, she continued. ‘Royalties are ideal and are very liberating economically. I know with my own jewellery design business, Diamond Dreaming, that the partnership with Mondial Neumann [a Sydney-based jeweller] changed my life, because that gave me an income stream year after year. Royalties are something you can pass on to your kids, and that’s ideal for economic independence’.

And achieving that economic independence for both the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance (see below) and National Aboriginal Design Agency is a high priority, too, said Alison.

‘One of our values is that we are here for future generations, so that drives our sustainability model’, said Alison. ‘We want to create economic independence for Aboriginal businesses out there, and create independence for ourselves as an organisation. And we want to grow profits so we can support cultural projects in this region. Because that hopefully will create more engagement with land council membership, which in turn will strengthen leadership in those ten [Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance] regions… So it’s about building strong governance and developing our future leaders….’

Find out more about the National Aboriginal Design Agency (external website, new window) and the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance (external website, new window).
(Alison Page is a recent graduate of the MURRA Indigenous Business Masterclass Program, of which IBA is a proud sponsor. You can read more about her learning experience and why she places a high value on her own continuing education).