Culture Victoria

Craft in Context - interview with Helmut Lueckenhausen

By Craft Victoria Posted Under Craft in Context interviews

Helmut Lueckenhausen's interests lie in exploring the cultural currency imbued in objects, the commonalities and disparities of the object as a cultural artefact in relation to the 'counter cultures of art, craft and design'.  

Born in Germany, Lueckenhausen has exhibited widely nationally and internationally during his extensive career and is represented in numerous public collections including; The National Gallery of Victoria, Hamilton Art Gallery, The National Gallery of Australia and The Jewish Museum of Berlin.  A Professor Emeritus, Lueckenhausen maintains an active profile as a leading exponent of the field of studio furniture, in addition to his role as Executive Dean of Design for Think Education.

CRC Cabinet (2008), Queensland silky oak and Queensland silver ash, gift of Professor Barbara van Ernst AM to the Hamilton Art Gallery collection, photography by Lynette Zeeng 

What are the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of your piece Mahogany Chest by the Victorian State Craft Collection and your Introduction to the Wood Collection essay, which appears in the accompanying catalogue? 

I’m not sure I remember the circumstances of the purchase exactly – from memory it must have been included in one of the survey exhibitions run at the Meat Market Craft Centre (MMCC) from time to time. I will attach a CV, which lists my involvement with exhibitions there.  For some of that period I was the President of the Crafts Council of Victoria, and then of the Crafts Council of Australia and had association with MMCC from its beginning to its end.

Are there any aspects of the Mahogany Chest piece that continue to contribute to your current practice?

I undertook close study through detailed drawing – drawing as seeing more than drawing as expression – of a variety of seedpods and seeding fruits. I then made my first works beginning with a cradle for my daughter evolved from a Currajong (or Kurrajong) seedpod – a cute metaphor to say the least. As to the skills and materials knowledge required that represented a whole other learning curve.

Daughters of Coercri, (circa 1990), partners desk with chairs, mahogony, MDF, lacquer, commissioned for private collection, photography by Ray Kinnane

I wanted to do more than find inspiration for surface decoration, rather a catalyst for the development of form not necessarily limited to the core geographic icons of modernism – the square, the circle and the triangle. Of course all those years of development started, they didn’t end there. One of the most successful eventual flowerings of my work dealt with reconciliation of opposite influences – geometry, architectonic forms with curvilinear, zoomorphic forms, and natural timber colours and textures morphing seamlessly with highly finished lacquers in saturated colours.

So rather than struggle with the pure design values of my 60s industrial design education I created a mannered collaboration in which the biological and pretty soon zoomorphic creations of my imagination ‘landed on’ and blended symbiotically with their geometric hosts. Even when my works manifested at their most expressive and/or decorative they were designed on an undercarriage of pure design such as the golden mean.

Ark of the Law (Aron Hakodesh) (1999), cabinet for the storage of Torah Scrolls in Jewish Ceremony, blackwood (Acacia) case with book-matched Blackwood veneers, anodised and engraved aluminium plates, National Gallery of Australia collection, photography by National Gallery of Australia

Within the catalogue essay you wrote for the Victorian State Craft Collection you mention the process of cataloguing and labelling and how labels act as ‘common denominators for rational discourse’. What importance do you place on titling your work to convey the meaning or intent behind a piece?

Naming/labelling became part of my narrative – Mahogany Chest is quite prosaic, as are all the earlier titles, I think I may have been conscious of not wanting to seem pretentious. However gradually I came to weave more complex allusions and references into the titles. The word Teraph is utilised in many of the titles of this period – cropping up periodically every since. Teraphim are early Hebrew household gods, the idea of the humble, benign and protective kitchen god that also finds a place in many Asian belief systems appealed to my sense of the object as domestic icon finding its place in, and protecting the ritual of home life. 

As a migrant child in Australia I witnessed the German friends of my parents clinging to the domestic paraphernalia and environments associated with ‘gemütlichkeit’ – which translates literally as comfort, but can also refer to a total, cultural and socially located, sense of wellbeing. And even then I understood the familiar stuff they gathered around themselves to be a life raft in the sea of cultural strangeness and insecurity surrounding their new home. For myself - I have now come to think of the works of my imagination, of my hands and the hands of my collaborators, as Teraphim hearth and kitchen spirits, occupying the quiet corners of our memory palaces.

Telperion (1982), Huon Pine trinket case, photography by Clive Jeffery, private collection

Wood can be an ornery material to work with sometimes, but you can make it look fluid and voluptuous. How long has it taken you to perfect the techniques you are currently using?

Yes, many of my earlier works involved ‘making it up as I was going along’. Perversely some things worked as long as I didn’t know better and stopped working once I did – a bit like the roadrunner only falling into the ravine once he realised he was treading air. I have been working at this endeavour for nearly 40 years so I have managed to develop some skills especially in creating fluid form. However for many years now I have needed to have recourse to the skills of a number of subcontractors to both increase the volume of work and fill the skills gaps – particularly in standard cabinetry and joinery – where I chose not to put my main efforts.

Is there one piece that continues to resonate with you long after its completion and why?

The catalogue from my survey exhibition The Memory Palaces at the Warrnambool Art Gallery covers a number of watershed works that marked important milestones in the development of my imagery. For example I conceived of and made the piece Telperion for the International Year of the Tree. It’s not as sophisticated as some later works but it was a watershed in my practice. It’s also loved by its owners.

When was the last time you visited a public collection for research purposes and what was your intention with the visit?

I visit public collections, museums etc. all the time, wherever I am in the world. Including, but not limited to art – I visit natural history collections, exhibitions of contemporary and historical cultural artefacts etc. etc. for constant visual stimulation. The most recent was an exhibition of early Australian photography at the Art Gallery of NSW. I am going to the Venice Biennale late in May and to the Design Expo in Milan early in June – I have work reasons for going, but fortunately my work takes me to places where I can visit exhibitions of all kinds. The intention – curiosity, what I hold to be the ‘chiefest’ requirement of creative practice.

Yom Hashoah Magen David Candelabra (1991), Queensland blackwood veneer over hardwood, aluminium, Jewish Museum Berlin collection,photography by Lynette Zeeng

What is it about wood in particular that holds your fascination and continues to inform your practice?

I don’t like to get too religious about the material actually. I came to wood because it was a low-tech way of realising my concepts not because I was particularly ‘woody’ by nature. I still use timbers for pragmatic reasons – stability, clarity of form (I’m not overly given to the use of figured timbers), ease of construction for one-off pieces etc. Of course it would be disingenuous to claim I am impervious to the sensuousness of timber, or do not react to the attractions of one of the primal materials of human experience and our understanding of the world – or for that matter the role of trees in the formative mythologies of most cultures. However I am not given to peering into the grain for inspiration or ‘allowing the material to dictate’ as is sometimes claimed by others. In my work I do the dictating, albeit within the parameters of the possible.


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