Some 16 years ago, Alison Page, an Aboriginal design expert and Wadi Wadi and Walbanga woman of the Yuin nation, began a conversation at a wedding with a man who turned out to be the design and innovation director of Breville, one of Australia’s oldest appliance brands. Page challenged him to think about incorporating Aboriginal heritage into the brand, and he accepted the challenge—eventually.
It took a few years for the timing to feel right, Page says, and even longer to get the process right. Now an adjunct associate professor in design at the University of Technology Sydney and founder of the National Aboriginal Design Agency, Page knew she wanted to use work by original members of the Pintupi Nine, a tribe living in their traditional ways in remote Western Australia. They only came into contact with other Australians in 1984, but their astonishing paintings were gaining attention in the art world and beyond. (Jay-Z bought one by Yukultji (Nolia) Napangati for Beyoncé.) “I wanted to celebrate the traditional origins,” Page says, “but, also, these are some of the best contemporary artists in the world.”
As that world inched closer to recognizing the richness of Aboriginal visual culture, Page worked with Breville on strategies to embody the vision without exploiting its makers. “It made my brain hurt so much trying to figure out how to do this,” she says. Initial concepts of wrapping appliances with existing paintings felt inauthentic. “In terms of how Aboriginal people view objects,” she says, “when we’re making something, the maker is a channel through which the ancestors speak. And so, in a way, we could only do one thing: have the artists paint directly onto the objects. Painting on canvas is a newer concept for Aboriginal people. When we painted our stories, our Dreaming, they were always put on objects, on a cave wall, our bodies, in the sand, or on objects. This was much more natural.”
And stunning: Napangati’s piece, in which dots form lines that travel the expanse of a coffee machine, connect the morning rituals of ancestral women at campsites in Marrapinti with the global wake-up ritual of coffee-making. Yalti Napangati’s kettle makes an even more direct connection, with swirls of lines and dots illustrating women drinking tea made from Piruwa flowers at Kiwirrkurra, her country’s women’s site. Toasters and toaster ovens—the former designed by Gaawaa Miyay founder, textile designer, and Yuwaalaraay woman Lucy Simpson—map the travels of grains and seeds, traces of which have been found on Aboriginal stone tools dating back some 65,000 years, as they make their way to today’s breakfast table.
If you take design seriously, Page says, “objects are talking to you all the time—they’re often saying something boring. But you turn on a coffee machine every day, and while you’re waiting, there’s this opportunity to have a dialogue with something bigger.” That dialogue leans on mutual respect—to that end, Page worked with Indigenous intellectual property attorney Terri Janke to ensure the artists maintained authorship of their work. She convinced Breville to develop a process of scanning the marks the artists made on their objects and transforming them into 3-D printed decals that were hand-applied to each appliance.
Most importantly, Breville will return every cent of its profits to Aboriginal communities, funding initiatives by the National Indigenous Culinary Institute and the Moriarty Foundation’s childhood nutrition-focused Indi-Kindi program—and, crucially, helping Page establish a new school for Aboriginal design within the University of Technology Sydney. It took almost a decade to get the details settled, but the opportunity for these artists to further their storytelling was more than worth the wait.