KHAI LIEW

A mo­ment in time.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Ray Edgar

Two years ago, con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art col­lec­tor Ju­dith Neil­son of­fered fur­ni­ture de­signer Khai Liew per­haps the big­gest pri­vate com­mis­sion in Aus­tralia: 190 pieces, in­clud­ing a six­teen me­tre din­ing ta­ble made from Brazil­ian cherry wood. Sixty hand-carved din­ing chairs, rugs, stan­dard lamps and ta­ble light­ing, made with­out any aes­thetic or fi­nan­cial re­stric­tions, make up what is col­lec­tively named Indigo Slam. Prece­dents ex­ist, of course. Liew com­pares it to banker and art col­lec­tor Adolphe Stoclet com­mis­sion­ing ar­chi­tect Josef Hoff­mann of the ‘Vi­enna Work­shop’ and the ‘Vi­enna Se­ces­sion’ move­ment, to build a to­tal work of art for his house, The Stoclet Palace, be­tween 1905 and 1911.

But then Khai Liew has an in­grained in­ter­est in his­tor­i­cal prece­dents. For the past eigh­teen years his studio has es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion for beau­ti­fully crafted fur­ni­ture, which draws on in­ter­na­tional styles from across all eras. An­cient Egyp­tian chairs, 14th cen­tury linen­fold, Shaker aus­ter­ity, nine­teenth cen­tury arts and craft, and Chi­nese and Ja­panese con­struc­tion tech­niques may be called into ser­vice at any time. Yet de­spite this post­mod­ern lay­er­ing, Liew’s style tends to­ward the mod­ernist re­duc­tion epit­o­mised by Scan­di­na­vian de­sign.

To com­mis­sion a com­plete col­lec­tion from one de­signer as­cribes in many ways to a “tra­di­tional sense of lux­ury,” he ac­knowl­edges. “It’s lux­ury goods, but at the same time the se­cret of this is that it doesn’t look like ‘rich peo­ple’s’ fur­ni­ture.

“I’ve al­ways felt that all the work we do has to have a hu­mil­ity to it. It shouldn’t be about my ego or mak­ing grand ges­tures. It just has to be about beauty and cap­tur­ing beauty in form.”

Aside from the ob­vi­ous grandeur of a six­teen me­tre long ta­ble, the col­lec­tion needn’t look grand; it just has to feel like it’s part of the home, he says, “It has to be do­mes­ti­cated. It has to be com­fort­able; the ma­te­rial has to have good hap­tic qual­i­ties. Any­thing like wood, wools and fi­bre all have do­mes­tic qual­i­ties to them”.

“If ma­te­ri­al­ity nat­u­rally pro­vides the heart of the finely crafted fur­ni­ture, it’s guided by a gov­ern­ing phi­los­o­phy,” Liew ex­plains. Above the en­trance to his Ade­laide work­shop are two posters. One car­ries an old Is­lamic say­ing: ‘Beauty is good­ness writ­ten in mat­ter.’ The other car­ries three words: ‘Do­mes­tic­ity’, ‘Spir­i­tu­al­ity’ and ‘Hu­mil­ity’.

“My cab­i­net­mak­ers see these two posters as they come in to re­mind them­selves of the kind of work that’s re­quired from the work­shop,” he says. “I’ve al­ways tried to in­stil what we term, un­con­scious beauty – beauty that’s not al­ways ap­par­ent. It doesn’t strive to be beau­ti­ful – it has to be pure. My idea of beauty is pu­rity. And it has to tran­scend the ma­te­rial. It has to be spir­i­tual as well.”

Where bet­ter to be­gin than with light? Work­ing on Neil­son’s com­mis­sion for the last two years has been an ex­er­cise in “cap­tur­ing light on a piece of fur­ni­ture,” Liew ex­plains. “It’s an ex­plo­ration of how I can shape a leg and in that process cap­ture light on the par­tic­u­lar curve or an­gle.”

As with all his work, how­ever, it’s about telling a story – “it has to have a life of its own”.

Liew may baulk at the grand ges­ture, but the am­bi­tion is ev­i­dent. He wants the Indigo Slam col­lec­tion to em­body “the story about where we are now in Aus­tralia in terms of dec­o­ra­tive arts…i’ve al­ways thought that a piece of fur­ni­ture is a win­dow into a cul­ture at any point in his­tory,” he ex­plains.

At a time when crit­ics ques­tion whether in fact we need yet an­other chair, let alone a whole col­lec­tion, Liew con­tends that each gen­er­a­tion must de­sign to claim their own mo­ment in his­tory. “One hun­dred years from now some­one can look back and say that par­tic­u­lar work de­fined that time.”

Khai Liew’s ded­i­cated de­sign ap­proach is pred­i­cated on a se­ries of happy ac­ci­dents. He be­came an ex­pert in colo­nial fur­ni­ture by col­lect­ing and restor­ing it sim­ply to fi­nance his uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion. As a Chi­nese-malaysian im­mi­grant it was also a con­ve­nient way to learn about Aus­tralian cul­ture. “It took me to coun­try towns and auc­tions and the back streets of Tas­ma­nia,” he re­mem­bers. “The fur­ni­ture was un­ap­pre­ci­ated. I could fill a van for $100 and there was a lim­it­less sup­ply.”

His first de­sign com­mis­sion came from Ron Radford, then direc­tor of the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia (AGSA). “He was aware I had good cab­i­net­mak­ers and I had al­ready made re­pro­duc­tions of frames and cab­i­nets for him to match other work. So he said ‘can you de­sign some­thing for me that would fit in with the new ex­ten­sion?’ Maybe it was false con­fi­dence, but to me it was just a piece of fur­ni­ture, not rocket science. That one com­mis­sion led to an­other and I haven’t stopped since.

“The AGSA bench es­tab­lished the path of how I ap­proached the whole de­sign process. To make things look as sim­ple as pos­si­ble – but to hide com­plex­ity be­hind that sim­plic­ity. That’s one of the main tenets for me in terms of de­sign­ing lux­ury. It’s very so­phis­ti­cated and highly re­solved, but looks sim­ple. You’re not con­fronted by this re­ally com­plex ob­ject that you have to work hard to ab­sorb and en­joy.”

Be­neath the bench’s sim­ple ex­te­rior, Liew se­lected a so­phis­ti­cated an­cient Chi­nese con­struc­tion tech­nique – a three-way mitre joint – to pro­vide greater strength at the cor­ners.

Since then Liew’s work has joined the col­lec­tions he once sold his colo­nial pieces to, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia and the Pow­er­house Mu­seum. Mean­while he has ex­hib­ited in group shows at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum and De­sign Mu­seum in Lon­don.

“One of the rea­sons his work is col­lected by ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions is there is more to it than just the sim­ple func­tional as­pect,” says Brian Parkes, who in­cluded Liew in the ma­jor tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tions Freestyle: New Aus­tralian De­sign For Liv­ing (2006) and Wood: Art, De­sign and Ar­chi­tec­ture (2013). “These things cap­ture val­ues that re­late to nos­tal­gia, his­tory, as well as sim­ple things like warmth and com­fort within both the form and ma­te­rial.”

For any­one feel­ing the need to ques­tion a lux­ury pur­chase, Liew de­signs his fur­ni­ture to last hun­dreds of years. “I think in terms of gen­er­a­tions with my work. I imag­ine each piece hav­ing to last 200 years,” he says.

In­deed the ad­van­tage of such an ‘heir­loom piece’ is that you can ra­tio­nalise its ini­tial price over gen­er­a­tions. What’s more, ar­ti­sanal pieces tra­di­tion­ally in­crease in value over time. Ex­clu­siv­ity too be­comes a by-prod­uct of the work, ow­ing to the time in­vested into its crafts­man­ship.

“Khai’s cur­rent out­put is so pre-com­mit­ted that if you are think­ing about a com­mis­sion you will have to wait years,” says Parkes. “It’s lux­ury through scarcity as op­posed to au­da­cious dis­play.”

“This kind of lux­ury takes time,” says Liew. “It’s not some­thing you can rush. Skill is every­thing in ad­di­tion to aware­ness space – an idea of what to do.”

Eight ar­ti­sans in Liew’s studio bring his de­signs to life in ei­ther unique one-off pieces or lim­ited edi­tions of ten. Liew’s de­signs are ex­er­cises in form and tra­di­tional tech­niques and how they might be in­cor­po­rated into beau­ti­fully crafted con­tem­po­rary fur­ni­ture.

“Liew’s work is all about crafts­man­ship, but he doesn’t make it,” says Parkes. “He sits in an in­ter­est­ing zone [of ar­ti­san­ship]. His skills aren’t as good as the peo­ple he en­gages. But he has an in­ti­mate knowl­edge that al­lows him to di­rect each ar­ti­san.”

As Liew ex­plains, “I’m not a cab­i­net­maker, but I used to re­store fur­ni­ture so I’m used to be­ing very care­ful with the kind of work I do. All of my cab­i­net­mak­ers have at least twenty-five years of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with fine cab­i­netry”.

These skills are ev­i­dent in the ex­quis­ite de­tail­ing: from the kan­ga­roo leather han­dles of Gwyn (2010) to the faceted sur­faces of the Min­ton (2007) cabi­net that re­flects light while re­veal­ing the ma­te­ri­als grain. In Liew’s de­signs the use of linen fold is not just as a tra­di­tional in­set. It might dom­i­nate as an origami like ges­ture on the top of a ta­ble, or the back of a chair ( Dakota, 2007), or across the en­tire front of a side­board ( Linen­fold, 2007).

For all the se­ri­ous his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, Liew also in­cludes hu­mour and lat­eral think­ing. The over­laid top on the Dou­ble Dutch (2009) side ta­ble may sug­gest a ta­ble-cloth made from tim­ber, but to Liew its ta­pered edges also har­bour a zoomor­phic qual­ity; “they are like a dog’s ears,” he chuck­les.

Sim­i­larly the Prue (2010) cabi­net, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with artist Prue Ven­ables that formed part of Liew’s Col­lec­tors se­ries, was in­spired by the Arts and Craft move­ment. Its wim­ple-like top ref­er­ences 19th cen­tury ar­chi­tect Charles Voy­sey’s de­signs of clocks and block tow­ers. But the Cana­dian rock maple and pierced porce­lain cabi­net is also laden with Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar ref­er­ences such as meat safes and enam­elled pan­nikin pots. It even car­ries a dis­tinct lean which Liew says was in­spired by the quin­tes­sen­tial Aus­tralian out­back painter Rus­sell Drys­dale’s tac­i­turn coun­try women whose arms were of­ten cocked on a kinked hip. “I was think­ing of that great Aus­tralian im­age,” he says. “A lot of my work is about im­ages and bits of his­tory pieced to­gether.”

If this at­ti­tude sug­gests an ‘art for art’s sake’ ethos, Liew em­pha­sises the im­por­tance of re­fine­ment: “I try to dis­til it all into a form, keep­ing in mind that there is very fine crafts­man­ship un­der­pin­ning the process and out­come.”

In­deed the dis­til­la­tion of that fine crafts­man­ship – of Liew’s quest for beauty into pure form – will man­i­fest in Indigo Slam. The com­mis­sion in­cludes a se­ries of carved lime­wood art­works no higher than 200 mil­lime­tres, fea­tur­ing the “heroic as­pect of each piece”.

“If the leg of the chair is the hero idea of the chair, I will make a minia­ture sculp­ture of that,” says Liew.

By cre­at­ing a col­lec­tion of ‘heroic’ ab­stract sculp­tures, Liew ful­fils his de­sign am­bi­tions to cap­ture the essence of a piece on a scale that’s both in­ti­mate in size yet grand in vi­sion. Indigo Slam will in­deed be a to­tal work of art, and as Liew in­tends, cap­ture an im­por­tant mo­ment in his­tory.

Photo: Courtesy of Sam Noo­nan.

Photo: Courtesy of Grant Han­cock. Pho­tos: Courtesy of Grant Han­cock.

Photo: Courtesy of Randy Lar­combe.

Photo: Courtesy of Grant Han­cock.

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