Reinventing the Souvenir Store at the Sydney Opera House
“I’ll take this souvenir store and reinvent this lowly form as something environmentally friendly that commissions great Australian designs made in Australia,” is what I think every time I walk past the big souvenir store on the lower concourse of the Sydney Opera House. Souvenir stores and fast food joints blight Sydney’s CBD. I’d fix fast food after I get through with souvenirs.
the view from my imagined souvenir store
A SECOND OUT OF SYNC
I’m motivated a little by irony. I lived in America and wrote on architecture, design and technology for nearly sixteen years, from New York and Los Angeles. Since moving to Sydney in 2007 it’s been impossible to pitch stories to international magazines from Australia. Australia isn’t rendered internationally in any granular detail, just as a set of icons: the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, a koala, a kangaroo. If it’s the symbols that are known, I’ll write about the symbols.
Australia is a secondary market for technology. Products and services trickle through months after they’ve been released everywhere else, usually just at the moment they’re about to be put aside for the next new thing. “Oh, that iPad, forget it, I have an iPhone 4!” In a media market obsessed with product launches and rollouts and beta I have nothing to offer. I could write a coda to Michael Lewis’s book, The New New Thing, a study of the development of the Netscape browser, as the The Old New Thing.
In the David Tennant era of Doctor Who, when planets and the TARDIS needed to be rendered invisible they were placed a second out of sync. That’s the Australian market, a second out of sync. But paying attention to technology in Australia shows up its limitations and disappointments in a way that doesn’t happen when writers skip from launch to launch. We have a crumbling communications infrastructure, a crying need for communications services for rural areas, and the small market shows up the byzantine ways that digital rights issues and incompatible upgrades choke culture.
Mark Pesce is writing the first draft of these stories. He makes available online the transcripts of speeches he makes, and reports on his research in the development of software systems and interfaces and protocols, encouraging readers to take his thoughts and build upon them. The story of technology in Australia is in reporting around those reports, from many angles, cultural, social, political, financial, environmental, but at human scale, from street level, as city desk reporting. I think about how Charles Dickens or Edith Wharton or Jane Austen might have mused about how computers and consumer electronics impact upon Australian culture. They ARE NOT good models for me to emulate when I’m trying to sell a snappy pitch to an international finance magazine.
MADE IN AUSTRALIA
There are, obviously, already some excellent books and DVD’s on Jorn Utzon and the architecture of the Sydney Opera House. So I’d commission the design of a model of the Sydney Opera House that people would want to keep on their desks in a way that model Eiffel Towers and Statues of Liberty are.
Sometime last year it appeared that the owership of the big souvenir store on the concourse at the Sydney Opera House had changed hands. It used to sell some homewares designed by Jorn Utzon’s son, Jan, who oversaw the renovation of the Western Foyers that was completed last year. I’d bring those back, and expand upon the Utzon archive. Tonight I saw some greeting cards that were charming, from drawings made by Jorn Utzon in Majorca, where he’d lived since the 1970′s. He died in 2008.
Greeting card with a 1998 drawing by Jorn Utzon
I’d elevate the architecture and design. Up until last year the souvenir store I covet was a hybrid high design store: I didn’t often go in there. My memory is fuzzy. I’d let my reporting skills go to seed: I’ve started keeping a notebook again, writing everything down, aiming for precise observations. There might have been some excellent Droog products — snappy and witty light fixtures, I think — but mostly I remember deadpan haute kitsch, plywood elk’s antlers, messenger bags made made from recycled tyres on one side of the store and on the other pointe shoes worn by dancers from the Australian Ballet who’d signed them, CD’s of operas, and generic diaries made from handmade Italian paper with marbled detailing, that I think customers are supposed to read as “very operatic”. And in atolls of tubs throughout the store, keychains and posters and rulers and coffee mugs with likenesses of the Sydney Opera House.
The point is that the design pieces were placeless: international gift shop chic. They didn’t relate to the Sydney Opera House, or Sydney, or Australia. I’d change that. The Sydney Opera House is a fantastic place to think about sustainability. I don’t have the figures for how many visitors there are each day, they’re legion, and many of them want a talisman, something small and more-or-less functional to show they’ve been there. It’s a fascinating thought experiment, trying to imagine how to produce a few objects in volume, that might actually be useful.
What if souvenirs were a serious design problem? What if they really represented something about the country? I’m guided here by the Conflict Kitchen , in Pittsburgh, a take-away food stand featuring cuisines from countries America is in conflict with. Currently it’s Iran. Next is Afghanistan. The food wrappers have stories about the people from these cultures. It’s a conceptually profound project but the graphic design is also sharp. Australia’s Green Pages published a report about a pair of gumboots that collect and store energy as people are walking around in them: they’re targeted towards people at rock festivals who can use them to charge their mobile phones. I’m thinking along the same lines: forget the ugly mass-produced ceramic coffee cup with a silk screened image, and solve some problems with a coffee mug, or water pitcher, or fruit bowl. And on the surface, somewhere, it would indicate that this concept was generated and made in Australia. What if a table full of souvenirs from a world trip told a story about ingenuity, worldwide, and enriched your life once you got home?
Dan Hill from Arup’s Sydney office has been developing concepts for small-scale artisanal factories to exist within residential areas. The souvenirs I’m envisaging could all be produced in this way. And it would be possible to manage inventory by aligning production schedules with tourist seasons.
BEYOND PLUSH ANIMAL TOYS TOWARDS A NEW ERA OF FINE ART ANIMAL PORTRAITS
The first Europeans to visit Australia were bamboozled by the strangeness of the fauna and their heads spun trying to relate our animals to creatures they already knew. Joseph Banks compared a kangaroo to a greyhound. The surveyor William Govett, in the Blue Mountains at roughly the same time Charles Darwin was there having an encounter with a platypus that may have been the spark that ignited the Theory of Evolution in his mind, drew a koala as a hybrid small European brown bear and monkey. The painter John Skinner Prout, roughly thirty years later, painted kangaroos with faces that are half rat / half fox.
Many sculptural representations of indigenous Australian animals — either as plush toys or ‘classier’ objet d’art — look as though they could have been designed by confused explorers or conceptual artists. There are bizarre representations: Jeff Koonseque ceramics, bands of Swarovski like crystal koalas playing drums and saxophones, nordic blonde wood wombats and koalas that look more like polar bears, and creepy feline looking kangaroos and koalas that have yellow cat’s eyes and look as if they’re made from the pelts of feral cats.
There are two ways to re-invent souvenir animals. Taking the art route, inspired by Menagerie, the collection of animal sculptures by indigenous Australian artists that was hosted by the Object Gallery and Australian Museum in Sydney, and working with the artists to see if it’s possible to produce high-end manufactured pieces.
artwork by Danie Mellor
And commission Chris O’Doherty aka Reg Mombassa to make many things: he already has experience designing shirts and plates and lifestyle paraphenalia for Mambo, and his representations of animals restore their ornery charm and dignity, and reflect upon how the animals are used as marketing. His animal art pieces are a social commentary on Australian animals.
painting by Reg Mombassa
And for the plush toy market. I’d work with researchers, not only those studying the animals and their habitats, many of which are threatened. But I’d like an Oliver Sacks-ish perspective on how and why we relate to plush animals, what they mean to children, and create plush toys that are meaningful in every sense of the word.
I’d have an extensive collection of Tasmanian Devil pieces. The plight of the Tasmanian Devil touches me deeply. It represents some dividing line in our attitude towards biodiversity and the land. The sense that it could be extinct in twenty or fifty years is heartbreaking, it’s like watching the fantastic diversity of the world slip through our fingers. But the Tasmanian Devil is also an interesting creature because it resists a fluffy and cuddly makeover for the tourist market. There are considerably less Tasmanian Devil souvenirs on the Australian mainland (in Tasmania it’s naturally different) than other animals.
THE SOUVENIR BOOKLET
I’d have a tightly curated selection of essential books that tell deep, nuanced stories about Australia. Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters is on the top of my list. And I’d forage far and wide for advice and suggestions. And print up an annotated list of the books I don’t have the room for: lest this concept take over the whole store, as it could, and direct people to bookstores around the city to acquire the titles I don’t stock.
But what about the dumb, dull souvenir book of outdated Wikipedia-like exposition and even duller stock photography of important “scenes”: Harbour Bridge, check. Sydney Centrepoint Tower, check. Uluru at sunset, check. Does anyone ever look at these? What if there were a number of these books, more modestly produced, well written, with great photography and art, that were condensed. Just a few pointers. And they would change every few months. The older editions would be online, but the souvenir book would capture icons in a way that related to the time of your trip. They would be ‘aides memoir’, the painting of the Sydney Opera House could remind you of a performance you saw there. But it would also be an excellent gift, the kind of summing up, the “this is what I did on my holidays”, gesture that these books represent.
THE PERFORMING ARTS BOOKSTORE
Whenever I see a show that sparks my imagination, I want more. Sidi Larbi Cherkoaui’s Sutra is one of these shows. The show sparked in his mind from the time he spent in a Shaolin Buddhist monastery in China, and the monks are performing with him. It made me want to re-read Pankaj Mishra’s An End To Suffering: The Buddha in the World, about his quest to discover what he could about the life of the person, Shakyamuni. It’s also a meditation on the way Buddhism died out in India but spread to other places, China among them, where it took on its own character, influenced by the cultures it moved into, and remains strong. Pankaj Mishra’s introduction to Buddhism was through the works of Western writers, Herman Hesse’s novel Siddharta, for instance. I also want to re-read Richard Bernstein’s Ultimate Journey. He was a China correspondent for the New York Times, and in the middle of his life, uncertain about what path to take for himself, he retraced the journey of the Chinese monk Husan Tsang, who, In 629, made a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in India.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s dance pieces often reflect his eastern background viewed from his life in the west back towards the east, but through those mirrors that make infinite reflections back and forth. His works also cohere with those of the dancer Akram Khan, who he collaborated with on Zero Degrees, which played at the Sydney Festival in 2007, and the Anglo Indian musician, Nitin Sawhney, who provided the music for Zero Degrees, and has created a score for a production of the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, staged by Sadlers Wells, and a score for an Indian silent movie (from the 1920’s) that covers a fragment of the Bhaghavad Gita, itself a fragment of The Mahabharata.
I’d team with Foruli, in the UK, which does special editions of musical works with books and packaged in extraordinary vessels — this concept is amazing — to create special editions of works by performers appearing at the Opera House.
Foruli music and book packaging concept
But I’d also have a collection of works from the Australian companies that use the Sydney Opera House as a home base.
STORE DESIGN AS MINIMALIST NARRATIVE
Even high end souvenir stores have poor layout. The merchandise is visually noisy and disparate, there’s no coherent design philosophy. There’s nothing sadder, to me, than a pile of plush koala toys nose down in a bargain bin. The store design I worship is the original Comme des Garcons store on Wooster Street in Soho in New York. A massive acreage of raw concrete, with a low, rectangular display table on the top floor, and a thrilling absence of merchandise on display. My tastes run to the exceptionally minimal: I was amused to read in a profile of John Pawson last week, that a group of monks who asked him to design a monastery for them after seeing photographs of stores he did for Calvin Klein, worried that his style might be too austere for them!
I want to raise the visual signal-to-noise ratio of souvenirs with some kind of minimalist display that allows the souvenirs to create a kind of narrative. People in the store will instantly be able to work out what kind of memento they want to take home: visual icon, storybook, useful item produced in the country.
And perhaps there’s a system where high volume merchandise is artfully displayed on carts that can be wheeled out and moved around the store at peak times: when an Opera House tour concludes perhaps. I was inspired by the way that Anthony Gormley’s simple wooden boxes were moved around the stage during Sutra.
Lighting, music, ambient sound, display cards: the exciting thing about having a souvenir store at the Sydney Opera House would be to bring set design into the equation.