Bethan Laura Wood at the ALPI wood veneer factory, Italy, 2023. Photo: Stefan Giftthaler<br/>
© Bethan Laura Wood

A kaleidoscopic lens

Gemma Savio

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Designed objects offer propositions; they suggest how, when and where they might be used. Form, scale and material composition together subtly communicate this information through visual and haptic clues. As well as functional cues, designed objects also carry the social and economic nuances of their context. Therefore, objects can be constructed through design to carry knowledge, tell stories and hold palpable value outside of usefulness. This notion of everyday design item as useable artefact is foundational to the work of multidisciplinary designer Bethan Laura Wood.

Wood has developed a distinct methodology for contemporary design practice, built on acute observation, rigorous research and a continued curiosity about manufacturing techniques. Her practice deliberately brings traditional craftsmanship into dialogue with the logic of mass production. With projects spanning jewellery, furniture, lighting and installation design, Wood has developed ongoing collaborative relationships with master craftspeople and manufacturers, garnering a wide-reaching and detailed knowledge of the materials she works with, whether glass, laminate, timber, ceramic or textile. This knowledge is captured in her work and is a method of record keeping whereby objects cast lines of information for others to interpret and progress.

The suggestion that knowledge can be communicated by many means, including through design, forms the basis of Wood’s new work Kaleidoscope-o-rama, 2023. Consisting of two pieces – Kaleidoscope-o-rama, carpet and Kaleidoscopeo-rama, bookcase – the project continues Wood’s place-based approach to design, which sees her create new work in response to the visual and material context and culture of a period or location. Informed by Wood’s research into the ideas and objects from the Regency era (c. 1811–20), Kaleidoscopeo-rama is also a response to the invitation for the work to form part of a female-focused commissioning program – the Mecca x NGV Women in Design Commission, a major series that invites internationally renowned female designers and architects to create significant new work for the NGV Collection. As the recipient of the 2023 commission, Wood has applied a gender lens to her exploration of Regency-period furniture and interiors, homing her focus in on spaces that supported the sharing of knowledge between women at a time when, despite societal limitations, they nonetheless made longstanding contributions to literature, art and science.

Influenced by the accelerated production brought about by industrialisation, Regency interiors were spaces where middle-class people could experiment with their newfound access to more affordable objects, furniture and textiles for dressing their homes. Sumptuous fabrics and upholstery in stripes, florals and geometric motifs adorned rooms clad in intricately patterned, richly coloured wallpapers. These interiors were the backdrop for conversation and knowledge exchange for women participating in intellectual circles, literary gatherings and arts societies – the salon was the site where women could engage in discourse and share non-normative ways of thinking. The details of these interiors carry this social history and are closely tied to the collective memory of these places.

Through Kaleidoscope-o-rama Wood references the colours, textures, materials and forms found in Regency interiors, reinterpreting them to foreground the social phenomena of the period and highlight the continuing social values of equality, accessible education and knowledge sharing, which were spearheaded by women at the time. Referencing the tiered revolving bookshelf that was popularised in Britain during the Regency period – an example of the orientalism that was ubiquitous in the furniture of the time – Kaleidoscope-o-rama, bookcase points to literacy as an important starting point for recording and sharing knowledge. By spotlighting books, the fundamental medium for knowledge sharing, Wood invites audiences to think more deeply about how ideas are captured and shared, as well as the permanence and ephemerality of information, and to consider whose voices are being broadcast and what ideas and mediums hold authority.

Distinct in their pattern, colour and form, Kaleidoscopeo- rama, carpet and Kaleidoscope-o-rama, bookcase are at once narrative-driven and informed by their production processes. Each work carries the expertise of their designer and her collaborators, Italian manufacturing houses CC-Tapis and Alpi. Applied as timber veneer to the bookcase and woven into the rug, the abstract visual language developed by Wood for this work continues her longstanding fascination with manmade surfaces and the ambiguities that can be designed into materials. Crafted from discontinued Alpi veneers, the timbers that line the bookcase and inform the pattern for the rug are taken from veneer books, developed by Wood, which have been book-matched, cut and collaged into a kaleidoscopic patchwork. Fusing modern manufacturing processes with artisanal and craft-based techniques, Wood’s approach to materials preserves traditional skills, knowledge and modes of production. The colours chosen for both the carpet and bookcase are also carefully selected, drawing inspiration from popular hues of the Regency period, further positioning the works as a response to this specific historical context.

As a collection derived from the architectural, interior and social conditions of the Regency era, Kaleidoscope-orama draws on the narrative histories of design. By embodying contemporary ideals such as equality, accessibility and the importance of education, Wood encourages audiences to actively connect with the stories that can be read through objects, fostering a broader understanding of the knowledge that is communicated by our surroundings. Through the fusion of traditional and modern production methods, Kaleidoscopeo- rama illustrates the potential of contemporary design to preserve skill and champion craftsmanship while advancing material culture.

Bethan Laura Wood’s Kaleidoscope-o-rama, carpet, 2023, and Kaleidoscope-o-rama, bookcase, 2023, have been commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The commission of these works is made possible through the MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission. The NGV warmly thanks MECCA for supporting the acquisition of these works.

GEMMA SAVIO is a Curator, Contemporary Design and Architecture, National Gallery of Victoria.