Deindustrialisation and offshoring

Technological and economic shifts from the 1980s gradually brought an end to the widespread industry cooperation between designers and local industrial makers in Australia. Today, Australia has naturalised the notion that manufacturing trades decline is ‘inevitable’, and many assume that manufacturing now must be undertaken on a large-scale, through offshored, cheap global supply chains.

Consequently, local designers now tend to have less exposure to the material and technological realities of production, compared to their twentieth century predecessors. Much of their communication with makers now occurs online. This is a significant change, and it impacts upon skills, jobs and design quality.

Local manufacturing continues

Working in manufacturing, design, industrial craft and technical education between the 1970s to the early 2000s has not been a stable path. With the decline of local manufacturing in Australia, many craftspeople, tradespeople and small business owners had to make careful decisions to ensure their survival, including undertaking retraining in completely different industries. Added to this, workers and businesses faced rapidly developing digital technologies and the unrelenting pressure of the globalised capitalist market (particularly from the 1980s onwards).

Despite the challenges, some designers, makers and manufacturers continue to produce locally, and this project also seeks their stories. This is not just a story of loss, but also of survival, regeneration, resourcefulness and creativity, despite a general lack of political and economic support over the past four decades or so. Running a manufacturing business in Australia was never easy, but this is especially the case in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Those who commit to local production generally have a deep dedication to making high quality items locally and responsibly.

Intersections between design and industrial craft

The prevailing historical accounts of Australian design and manufacturing tell us little about how, in the recent past, designers’ and tradespeople’s occupational pathways overlapped and intersected in the workplace, in creative endeavours, and in education. Put simply, we do not know how designers and manufacturing tradespeople engaged in a relational dynamic, how they interacted, how they worked together to solve design and production problems, and how class was implicated in this relationship. Without an understanding of this relational history, we cannot properly assess the recent shifts taking place in manufacturing, in design, nor in apprenticeships and employment patterns. These issues are at the core of this project’s inquiry.

While the project is only in its early stages, it is already possible to say that Australian manufacturing and creative practice are deeply interconnected: craftspeople and technicians have moved back and forth between design, art, education and industrial production. Local production and technical education has benefited greatly from these industry connections, and from the skills and experiences that tradespeople and technicians possess. All this is at risk of disappearing in the future – with the ongoing devaluation of trade skills and technical education, and without strong, ongoing support for local manufacturing in Australia.