Welcome to 20 Queensland Designers. Through the Design Minds initiative managed by the State Library of Queensland I was commissioned to interview a select group of the state’s most intriguing designers.

The idea was a celebration of sorts, a showcasing of some of our top talents, and a more intimate glance into their work and background than may have been recorded before. The subjects come from a broad range of disciplines, and included areas such as medical research and digital games development — areas that are not in the usual ambit of design writing. The premise we decided on was a simple one – to ask each designer what led them to the work they do today. Everybody is interested in a life story, and it is telling that many of the people I interviewed talked about early influences and identified key moments in their young lives that were turning points for their career paths. Each was generous with their time, and candid with their comments. Each has a passion that I believe is imbued in their words. I hope you enjoy these little vignettes and insights into a designer’s mind and inspiration.

Barbara Heath is a Brisbane-based jewellery designer, exhibitor and public sculptor. Her business name, “Jeweller to the Lost”, reflects on the mystical and historic derivations of adornment and fashion. A majority of Heath’s work is commissioned, one-off pieces that arise from discussions and development with individual clients on a personal level. In league with her husband, Malcolm Enright, a collector and self-proclaimed urban archaeologist, she produces beautiful bespoke pieces richly layered with associations and meaning.

When did you first realise you wanted to be a jeweller and designer?

I don’t think I even knew what a jeweller or a designer really was, early on. But I certainly recall an amazing early experience. My family travelled around Europe a lot when I was little. I remember when I was 11 and being somewhere in Denmark, waiting for a ferry, and my sister and I were allowed to walk around and look at the shops. There was some contemporary jewellery shop, not [Georg] Jensen, but something like it…with beautiful silver and pewter jewellery, beautifully made, with punched detailing….and I remember realizing “My God, someone actually made that!”

Then my second formative moment was in Taxco, Mexico, famous for silver jewellery. 1967 was an amazing timing to be there as William Spratling, the American philanthropist, had lived and worked with local artisans, to help them bring their ethnic visual language into contemporary practice. It was the forerunner of the big fashion for Mexican silver jewellery in the 1970s.

I didn’t think much more about what I was going to do until I came back to Australia when I was 13. I was manually adept and spent a lot of time helping my Dad in the shed. For a while I wanted to do architecture. I loved art and anything to do with manual practice. I couldn’t wait to get out of school. My father, a banker, introduced me to one of his clients, Laslo Puzsar, the renowned Hungarian diamond jeweller in Little Collins Street, Melbourne. I could barely understand a word Laslo said, but he told me to go to RMIT and sign up for the gold and silversmithing apprentice course with Wolfgang Wennrich. I was just 17. At the same time I was an apprentice in Puszar’s studio working alongside 14 other jewellers. It was amazing, as I was under the tutelage of skilled people from all over the world, in a workshop that produced high-end hand-made pieces. It was a fantastic insight into both the art practice and the commerce.

Later, I ran market stalls and retail shops in Sydney for ten years with my then partner, making jewellery. Our focus shifted to boat building and in the early 1980’s  we sailed into Brisbane on the boat we had built. I was 31 and loved the place. I set up a studio in Metro Arts Centre and immediately found a network of fantastic young people to work with. I then moved to a shop upstairs in Brisbane Arcade in 1985.

People found me. Young designers and architects discovered me. Graham Bligh, a senior architect, approached me with a commission, I sensed his innate respect for what I might bring to the process.  I saw what an enlightened client could do, and it empowered me. I was then invited to talk at a symposium, so decided to talk about a commission practice. I felt I had to argue for that: I wrote a manifesto, which I still have. I’d also just met Malcolm [Enright], a graphic designer and creative director, who had also always seen that designer/ client relationship in a more empowered way than an artist does: design as a service industry. There’s the rub. Jewellers aren’t fine artists. A jeweller will never get that sort of fee for their work. We operate in another sphere. Those were the dialogues I had. There was a great art subculture here in the Bjelke-Petersen reign. Malcolm suggested I put the manifesto on my Christmas mail out. I did and everyone loved it.

Mentors: Ray Norman and Charles Lewton-Brain – both rebel metal smiths, jewellers & conceptual thinkers – both have shown me that there is no one ‘right way’ to technique. Malcolm Enright – for the grounding insight that ‘design is a service industry’ and for reminding me that the ‘power of language’ is an enabling force.

Heroes: My clients and their stories that astound me and reveal the heroic aspects of our ordinary lives.

Motto: “Negotiate the license”: if I don’t have the license (the freedom) to be myself creatively, well . . .  this is the pivot from which the work will rise or fall.

Photos by Mel DeRuter who is also a photographer and staff member at Handmark Evandale
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