Like most men I rarely find much to look at in shopping brochures. But glancing through a Harvey Norman catalogue on the weekend brought me face to face with something new. Australian furniture designers appear to be discovering the power of design.
Gerry Harvey does us all a great service by choosing to showcase Australian made furniture in his stores - he knows bulky fashion items like sofas can be made competitively here and there are no months-long supply chains to worry about.
But until recently while competently designed, the Aussie product was more derivative than innovative or inspiring. This is a product of history - furniture makers in the past would visit Italy for furniture shows and then intepret what they saw.
But Harvey Normal's latest catalogue shows the first signs that mainstream local manufacturers are waking up to the fact that design can create value in the eyes of the consumer. Some furniture makers have even begun to use better design to build their brand names - names that have been largely anonymous in Harvey Norman stores to date.
Australian furniture is still more Mooney Ponds than Milan, but you could imagine some of the sofas and bedroom furniture in a smart inner city warehouse or loft.
Of course there have always been local design leaders such as Moran in lounge furniture, Schiavello in office furniture and at the very apex of global design, Marc Newsom. But these are rarities. Newsom had to go overseas to make a name for himself but has been welcomed back to design aircraft and airport lounge interiors for Qantas.
We continue to export good designers. In the industrial field Michael Simcoe was promoted to head exterior body design for GM in North America, having cut his teeth on the local Monaro. GM is embracing design innovation to rekindle the competitiveness it enjoyed in the 1950s and it is fascinating that the company turned to an Australian working for Holden to help achieve it.
Looking round the streets of Australian cities you can see that good design is no national obsession - while Melbourne boasts classy streetscapes, Sydney still struggles to lay a footpath that is flat.
But maybe, just maybe, Australia's future will be better designed than the past.
- Peter Roberts web column also appears at www.BRW.com.au