Design and Reinvention in 'The Minds Eye'
Walking through the doors of The Victorian Artist’s Society to see The Mind’s Eye was like stepping into Australia’s rich history of art and graphic design. Both the artists and the space have a history worth rediscovering. Recently, on a visit to Melbourne’s CBD it would have been very easy to drive past The Victorian Artist’s Society building in East Melbourne without blinking an eye. This beautiful American Romanesque building has struggled to find its place in today’s public awareness. Yet recently, three stalwarts of Australian graphic design all exhibited their latest work there. Myriam Kin-Yee, Heather Towns and Trevor Flett were all designers in the 70s, 80s and 90s who made significant contributions to Australia’s history—something that has also largely gone unnoticed in today’s history of graphic design.
Figure 1. The ornate stain glass over The Victorian Artists Society’s front doors. Image: Jane Connory, 2019
The Victorian Artist’s Society is a cornerstone of Australia’s art establishment. It was erected in 1891 at 430 Albert St, East Melbourne and was founded in 1870 by the likes of Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder. 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the space and the completion of a four year $2.5 million heritage restoration. Back to its former glory, the work now being exhibited in the gallery also celebrates the future of Australia’s creative industries by incorporating new technologies and emerging artists.
Aligned with the reinvention of The Victorian Artist’s Society is the evolutionary journey of Towns, Flett and Kin-Yee’s careers. Heather Towns was among the first women in Australia to have run her own graphic design studio in the 1970s. She now paints full time in Cape Paterson, Victoria. Myriam Kin-Yee founded the Sydney based studio EKH Design in 1987 with partners Anya Eymont & Alison Hulett. Together these women worked on large corporate brands like Optus, RM Williams and the 2003 Rugby World Cup. This work is far removed from her current collection of still lifes. FHA Image Design was formed through the collaborations of Trevor Flett with Richard Henderson and Jeff Arnold. They worked on iconic branding jobs like the 2006 Commonwealth Games and the 1990 redesign of the City of Melbourne logo—a corporate world Flett has left behind for a more esoteric type of creative expression.
Figure 2. Left to right: Robin Stewart interviewed artists Myrium Kin-Yee, Heather Towns and Trevor Flett at the opening of ‘The Mind’s Eye’. Image: Jane Connory, 2019
Town’s experiences as a designer are very evident in her work. Her self-confessed need for control is reflected in the precise and deliberate nature of her work. Towns established her one-woman design studio as a single mum at home in the 1970s. This grew into Towns & Co by the 1990s where she employed eight people. The glass ceiling was very real to Towns who was initially denied the BP annual report contract because a woman had never done the work before. Even though she had won awards for such publications, she only eventually received the job when the male incumbent found the work too difficult to complete. Also, early in her career, she presented some branding work for the Victorian Producers in an aging boardroom in the Melbourne Showgrounds. As she began, one of the clients remarked that she had been the first woman in the space that wasn’t serving tea or coffee.
The precise angles, acute geometric shapes and bold flat colour in Town’s exhibited work hold a mirror to her strong demeanor and astute management skills, something instilled in her from her graphic design career. The colours in works like Opus 4 – Shape Shifting vibrate with intent yet the shapes sit somewhere between the mathematical geometry of Leonardo da Vinci and the distortion of the Cubists. Her work also relies heavily on decorative and reflective patterns to give the some-what abstract still lifes their figurative allure.
Figure 3. Left to right: Trevor Flett’s Bondi Girl (left) and Heather Town’s Morning Fruit, Green Glass Vase, 2 Red Roses and Asante Sana and tapestry arrangements on plinths. Image: Jane Connory, 2019.
Trevor Flett was a young working-class boy from Foots-cray when he discovered he was ‘good at drawing.’ It was a Sunday School teacher who complimented his work and sparked his eventual interest in graphic design. Later he studied at Prahran Tech and worked in Melbourne and Sydney as a graphic designer, establishing FHA Image Design in 1976. One of the biggest legacies of this collaboration was the brand strategy and logo design for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. This studio developed into Futurebrand, eventually employing up to 65 staff across Australia.
Again, Flett’s background in graphic design seems to have influenced his view of the world through the lens of fine art. His abstract work is full of metaphors and symbols which are tools widely used in graphic design. However, unlike design where this form of visual communication has to be defined and clearly focused, Flett’s work leaves the interpretation completely open to the viewer. The multi-media experiments are heavily influenced by urban street graffiti and the female form.
Figure 4. Myrium Kin-Yees Phillip’s Yellow Irises, oil on linen, 30 x 40cm. Image: Jane Connory, 2019
Myriam Kin-Yee’s work is not abstract in any way, like Town’s or Flett’s. Kin-Yee confesses to painting in a realist style because she can ‘only paint what she sees’. This is evidence of her long career in graphic design where personal inter-pretation and expression is foregone in favour of a client’s brief and a ‘single-minded proposition’. Although painterly, her Instagram account (@myriam_kinyee_art_studio) reveals a laboured method where every colour is mixed carefully to match what she sees. Another skill forged in the graphic design studio where colour palettes are chosen using Pantone colour guides. This ensures a colour’s consistency across every printed medium. Studying the planning methods of Renaissance painters, she also strives to use their methods of composition to ensure what she labels a high rate of ‘success’. Her personal definition of success is embedded in real-ism and has become attuned to getting a client’s ‘sign-off’. She has described her transition from designer to artist as ‘easy’.
In the 1980s, Kin-Yee’s success with her partners at EKH Design was extraordinary and trail blazing in its nature. The women built their studio to be a strategic powerhouse that attracted global clients. However, early on in their development they pitched for a new player in the tele-communications market—Optus. This was the early 1990s and when the client realised an all-female studio had created the winning designs, they had the audacity to comment that they shouldn’t ‘worry their pretty little heads’ about implementing the strategy. Kin-Yee and her colleagues fought to finish the job and the stylised eucalyptus green and desert red logo they ended up using was theirs. In fact, the success of this new logo prompted the competition, Telstra, to implement a refresh of their brand too
Though closed, The Mind’s Eye exhibition was an opportunity to celebrate the extensive multi-disciplinary careers of Towns, Flett and Kin-Yee. It was also a chance to celebrate the newly renovated gallery spaces at The Victorian Artist’s Society. Both have important yet almost forgotten stories and deserve a special place in our history of design. However, you can now follow all three designers on social media and The Victorian Artist’s Society is open to the public every day.
Jane Connory has a PhD from Monash University, Art, Design and Architecture, which worked towards a gender inclusive history of Australian graphic design. She was awarded a Master of Communication Design (Design Management) with Distinction from RMIT in 2016 and has been a practising designer in the advertising, branding and publishing sectors, in both London and Melbourne, since 1997. She has also lectured in and managed communication design programs in both the VET and Higher Education sectors since 2005. Alongside her research exploring the visibility of women in design, she is currently a lecturer in Design Futures, Branding and Publication Design at Swinburne University of Technology.