Moore's Building, Fremantle May 14 - 28, 1998 Reviewed by Robyn Taylor
8 x Tables: an Exhibition of Lighting and Furniture by Fremantle based designer Steve Tepper is an apt title for this very singular exhibition of cool nineties design. Many of us recall how we chanted the 'times tables' as children in order to 'know' for example that 8 x 7 equalled 56 without having to resort to counting on fingers, or using a calculator. The times tables were handy mnemonic exercises that were part of childhood's rote learning. Also, in the geometry class, we had drawing exercises using ruler, compass, and triangle. We learnt how to extend the square into a cube and create three dimensional forms on paper. There was a satisfying purity to all this which could be further enjoyed by filling in the shapes with colour and turning them into identifiable objects such as a box, chair, table, or a house. Or even a kaleidoscope, but this suggests a complexity which isn't a part of this story. Our early aesthetic pleasures of primary forms and colours are encouraged in childhood and tend to linger on. I suspect Tepper still enjoys such games as his work reveals a refined extension of these pleasures.
The concept of infinite repetition and precision is at the heart of the industrial process where mass production makes commodities affordable to all. It was Steve Tepper's challenge, with the help of an Australia Council grant, to design a range of functional furniture that could be mass produced and locally made. This he has admirably succeeded in doing, although the price tag takes them well beyond the pocket of the average consumer. But then, there is nothing average about Tepper's work.
The furniture on display included three tables, a dining, coffee and a side table; 'vessel' shelves constructed by stacking and arranging modular units made of aluminium with a painted lacquer finish; stools and chairs. Accompanying these were standard floor lamps, a wall or ceiling light, and table lamps which could also be positioned on specially designed wall brackets. A limited range of materials are used to construct all these pieces. Plexiglass, aluminium, steel and Tasmanian oak, with various components painted with a lacquer finish in a subtle range of colours.
While the pieces are minimalist and speak of geometry, there is another dimension of experiment and play with ellipses, curves and visual games which prevents the mind from believing it can comprehend the designs at first glance. Can you actually sit on that undulating Tolos Stool? Is it derriere-friendly, or will it throw you off? Stacked end on end they create a rhythmic pattern like ocean rollers moving under the tight skin of the sea. You also need to touch the surfaces to find out, although even then there isn't certainty, whether the material is smooth-as-silk wood or painted aluminium. But probably the latter. Then there are the chairs, such as the Minu Chair, which on closer inspection revealed the irregularity of wood grain under its painted surface. This organic intrusion into an apparent world of surface perfection reveals the inherent hands-on craftsmanship and artistry that lies behind the conceptual framework which gave rise to these objects. A framework which blends industrial finish and real or simulated organic life as a starting point for design.
The light fittings were a lot of fun. The little glowing boxes of plexiglas standing sturdily on short shiny legs have tops that look like trendy hair cuts. Their boxed shapes made them suitable for table tops, standing on wall brackets or shelving. The soft glow of light through the treated glass again made me think of an organic substance, such as Japanese rice paper.
Ideally products such as these should go with like-minded objects and in rooms where uncluttered space and light does justice to their minimalist beauty. Not your average home. However, strange as it might seem, the Moore's Building may have been more sympathetic to Tepper's work than a more formal gallery space with pristine walls and polished floors. That is, your more up-market, hardly lived in home. The interior of the Moore's building looks hand-made and is about as rough as it gets by way of converted nineteenth century warehouse exhibition venues. It has irregular surfaced limestone walls and on the upper floor where Tepper's works were displayed, broad, dark, thick uneven floorboards. In some rooms the ceiling has disappeared exposing rough beams and roof trussing. It is a no-frills functional space. But this does not detract from the exhibits. Ceiling spots highlight the modern sleekness of the furniture and give visual depth to their lacquered surfaces, while the surrounding spaces melt into the corners of the rooms where the coarse textures absorb the light. This in effect, is the informal ambience many people like to achieve in their homes when dining with friends. Tepper had such a setting for his Minu dining table with Minu stools. The regularly spaced Strelitzia or Bird-of-Paradise flowers arranged down the centre of the table provided an appropriate foil with their striking orange crowns and green plastic like stems. It was not hard to imagine dishes of elegant food being set upon the table and shining wine glasses being held up - a votre salute! But my derriere would like a cushion please.