Landscape Memoir of a Fine Furniture Artisan


Landscape memoir is a way of re-membering our local connection to place. Like literary memoir, it often tells a greater truth than more factual history. Landscape memoir connects philosophy with words and place through creative objects. Words alone do not fully describe our connection to country because place is much too slippery a concept. We need art, imagination, festivity, and creativity – the fundamental forces of culture and of society – in order to explain our connection to the local places we inhabit.

The visual and performing arts that embody the local describe landscape memoir. They are more likely to be found in community halls than in opera houses, danced along animal migration paths, made with local materials and local wisdoms, celebrating local culture. Landscape memoir is unlikely (but possible) to be great art because it reflects local cultural development, the craft of a people. Landscape memoir encapsulates the creative expressions that connect community to place. Landscape memoir uses the arts to reveal the mythic archaeology of a place’s past, present, and future and hence defines regional identity.

Our environment is shaped as much by our words and ideas as it is by our bulldozers or reafforestations. (And hence the importance of understanding each culture and its unconscious assumptions so as to understand every place we inhabit.) But country also shapes us and our lives. It is no passive resource waiting to be consumed. Land has an active force in our lives. It shapes our living by dictating how our buildings lie in the landscape. This active land is consciously recognised by those who practise feng shui, yoga, or bioenergetics health approaches. But we all have experienced this awe of land in our wilder moments. It creates the panic in the woods, the moments of bliss on the bushwalk; it is the small child’s experience in the vacant site, the hiker’s understanding of a starlit night. It is the reason for tree-hugging.

There are many ways we celebrate an active nature. There is a triptych of tools that local communities use to connect to place: we tell our landscape memoir through story, festival, and object. There are many stories of place. Some lie within the rational scientific mode that separates humans from their resource. Others tell tru-stori of the monsters that inhabit our more-than-human world. And others again romanticise to some sentimental arcadia. Or resort to biographies of great men and dates in history. Place lies beneath these semi-stories, half truths, exposing their layers upon the landscape. There are festivals of place that occur all round the world – they involve indigenous culture, animal spirits, and a long-term knowledge of that place, its climate, its shape, its flora and fauna, that goes beyond knowledge to wisdom, beyond law to lore.

But stories and festivals are ephemeral and temporary. By definition, they lie outside of normal time: an unusual treat, a delightful ceremony. Stories and festivals, unlike objects, do not live in our everyday. And we need the everyday reminder to keep place alive. By including objects in place celebrations, we get more tangible expressions of the human-land-animal place. Sometimes the objects are immovable, built in situ, site specific. They are sculptural environmental art, land art, green art – a gown made of leaves in the midst of a forest, a bower of branches erected at the edge of a lake, a crop circle, an altered terrain. These are objects that capture the immense stillness of the place for a human second and record it for all to see. More often, the art is mobile - more easily and individually consumed in our take-away culture – landscape paintings, indigenous dot art, maps and photos of beautiful places and their cute animal inhabitants are hung on home and office walls. We want that connection to place to be preached, if not always practiced. We understand this art and its attempt to express the culture/nature connection. It is the reason for its popularity. We recognise its role in our too-often unconnected lives.

The role of furniture in our lives is, apparently, even more straightforward to recognise. If it is a chair, we sit on it; a desk is a workplace; a kitchen table represents a chance for kin connection; a bed is the place for rest and re-creation of our genetic futures (and in their use, our cultural limitations are exposed). So the furniture we choose is important. It represents our cultural wants and social desires, as much as it reminds us of the thick hearsay of our family and community. Past, present, and future times are encapsulated in the objects that surround us in the everyday. Once upon a time, in traditional and indigenous society, furniture was uncommon, reserved amidst the social landscape awaiting ceremonial use. The individual possession of objects gives us a different sort of connection to place – they ground us by their weight. They extend our sense of possession from the object to the land beneath. If we own too many objects, they lose their individuality and uniqueness, becoming mere stuff. Too few, and the bare minimalism indicates both poverty of purse and of spirit. Today for almost every culture, objects express our status as well as our aspirations.

But there is a difference between the objects we choose and those that are thrust upon us. There is a plastic and mediated advertising which deafens taste with shouts of false economy, invading our space, demeaning our idiosyncratic requirements for beauty, self-expression, and connection. It is a trend with no respect for time or space, no awe of our locale, no reverence for the more-than-human world. Fashion endangers and creates the rare: the memory of elephants remains in ivory or worse (eg 19th century wastepaper baskets made from elephant feet); the late 20th century fashion for wenge timber flattened the African landscape. Fashion dictates the next colour for re-decoration, turning furniture into meaningless throw-away accessories to be replaced each season (and in doing so, we throw away that last vestige of elephant, or the rainforest – we reject our home, that which makes the earth). And for those even richer, it similarly transforms our houses and our landscapes into mere accessories (Nice or Monte Carlo no longer ‘the’ place to be). What little remains of our connection to place is lost to capitalist hopes for eternal consumption.

So how to provide for beauty, self-expression, and connection to place in the everyday? How to replace the fashion elite with an ever-present craft that speaks our local authentic voice? In reconnecting with the simple beauty and the environmental resource of the objects that surround us (that express us), we begin the reconnection of our more-than-human souls. We remember place, we tell the story of country, we celebrate this earth. We create place-based objects that imaginatively journey with us on our own landscape memoir.

This landscape memoir journey is reflected in the design evolution of the furniture by Ross Annels. Ross’ childhood was spent in the towering forests of south-west Australia, his father a forester, his mother running the timber museum; and so his love of wood was innate. But until he met David Upfill-Brown his furniture was purely utilitarian, born of need alone. David introduced an aesthetic understanding that opened the possibility for full-time furniture creation. Ross moved to south-east Queensland at the end of the 20th century because of the beauty of the land, the fecundity of the earth, and the loveliness of its hardwood timbers. His material research in building fine place-based furniture has embedded him firmly in the beauty of this Sunshine Coast hinterland place.

Ross’s zoology degree and long term environmental campaigning means that a careful use of resource comes first in every design. He uses locally sourced and plantation timbers and plants new fine furniture timber trees across his property, replacing those he has used. They include Silky Oak, White Cedar, Silver Quandong, Crows Ash, Black Bean, Silver Ash, Brush Box, Queensland Maple, Sandpaper Fig, Native Tamarind, Hoop and Kauri Pine. They stand as witness to Ross’ self-proclaimed practice of eco-regionalism. He is interested in design that uses resources lightly – evolving techniques to bend and strengthen small dimension timber rather than carve large blocks. The strength of the bent form runs throughout Ross’ work, reflecting his own careful connection to the land. But Ross’ work is not driven by this passion for the natural alone. He has an informed and powerful understanding of the history of furniture, and particularly an overwhelming passion for 20th century chair designs, that creates the cultural new. As a result, there are designs here that will go down in history and that are reflected in both academic recognition and in gallery exhibitions around the world.

But most importantly, his work has found its way into our homes and other small places of repose. Ross’ furniture helps create connection to those that possess it. Not only through the use of local timbers and environmentally sensitive design, but through the careful life of the artisan – living country and expressing its voice. Sometimes such connection is made all the more apparent through the use of words, carved into pieces. Chairs sit ‘in silent stillness’, sapling thrones make pleas for a different more vegetative story in which ‘landscape’s dreaming the wild’. His furniture tells not only Ross’ landscape memoir, but also that of his clients – their soul is written into the body of each piece. And the land’s voice becomes embedded in the shaping and the grain of each hand-some design.

There is a covert festive celebration here of place, of locale, and of country that we can see everyday in the midst of home. Furniture becomes kin, passed down through family generations. We value the furniture object for its ability to express our own beauty, self-expression, and connection. The object owns us more than we own it. It becomes an active force in our lives; its hidden messages shape more than our lifestyle choice; it changes the very way we live. So we might re-imagine our own connection to place through this beauty and careful craftsmanship that surpasses fashion. Ross Annels’ artisanship is reflected in his contemporary furniture. It offers another way to inhabit place - a tangible and accessible art that releases every day in the practice of landscape memoir.

Dr Tamsin Kerr, 2008

Essay from  The Contemporary Design of Ross Annels produced by the Cooroora Institute