David Burnett, Curator of International Art, QAGOMA

Be comfortable with uncertainty and look forward to every day ...

California – that golden paradise where the good times roll as smoothly as the sports cars. The state may be famous for its everlasting sunshine, laid-back vibe and perfect waves, but it’s the album covers, Clipper caravans and Eames chairs that have caught David Burnett’s eye. As the curator of international art at QAGOMA, David has had a hand in collaborating with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to prepare and install a highly anticipated exhibition of industrial, architectural, commercial, fashion and craft design from the US state. California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way will launch at the Queensland Art Gallery on November 2, inviting visitors to gaze and gawk at the creations that grew from pre- and post-war developments when new materials such as shaped plywood and fibreglass became readily available. The Weekend Edition pulled David from his work to talk modern design and weekend rituals.

What’s a typical day like for you?
Most days consist of lists, meetings, planning, thinking ahead, research, consultation, writing, at least two walks between buildings (QAG and GOMA), discussions with colleagues, dealing with the very occasional crisis – and two coffees.

What role have you played in the upcoming California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way exhibition?
I’ve worked closely with my colleague and head of department Miranda Wallace and with the exhibition and design teams to present the exhibition in the Queensland Art Gallery. I’ve been involved in organising labels and wall texts, the layout of the show, preparing and presenting lectures, and talks and media interviews. In April this year, I also met with the LACMA curatorial team while on a vacation visit to California and conducted an interview with them.

If you only had five minutes to race through the exhibition, which piece would you devote your time to?
I think I would linger at the 1936 Clipper Airstream trailer and the 1964 Studebaker Avanti at the very beginning of the exhibition, and then some wonderful graphic design book covers by Alvin Lustig and the collection of 1950s record covers by designers such as William Claxton, Robert Guidi and Saul Bass.

Which key objects in the exhibition epitomise the Californian design aesthetic?
The furniture and objects by Charles and Ray Eames are quintessentially Californian, an outdoor lounge by Hendrik Van Keppel and, of course, Greg Noll’s gorgeous Malibu surfboard and the Esther Williams-endorsed gold lamé swimsuit produced to promote the 1952 film, Million Dollar Mermaid.

Brisbane and California have close ties with many local creatives working or exhibiting between the two cities. Do you see connections between the design works created in the two sunshine-filled lands?
There are both historical and contemporary links between the two Pacific Coast countries. There are certainly architectural echoes in the Californian bungalow style found in both Australia and California. Our designers also generally tend to eschew elaborate detailing and decorative flourish in preference for simplicity and functionality – qualities which tend to typify Californian design practice.

What design items are you coveting at the moment?
Easy – it’s gold, fast and has a black leather interior … The Raymond Loewy-designed Studebaker Avanti.

How do you like to start your weekend?
By taking our westie Ziggy to get fresh croissants, bread and the weekend newspapers before settling down for coffee at home.

What’s your favourite thing to do on a Saturday morning?
Enjoy a relaxed breakfast and then see how the day pans out – not having a plan, I guess.

How do you like to unwind?
By getting up the coast to our beach shack, playing music, going for a bike ride, mooching about with friends, walking with my partner and our dog.

What are your essentials for a well-spent weekend?
Achieving something – no matter how minor – and at least one bottle of good wine.

What’s your favourite thing to do on a Sunday evening?
Letting the evening pass slowly and quietly over a good meal.

What inspires you?
Tasmanian twilight, good ideas, creative people and words.

What are you reading at the moment?
A book on the writer William S. Burroughs and various texts on California.

What was your childhood dream?
To be free to play and dream.

What are your words of wisdom?
Be comfortable with uncertainty, look forward to every day and let the past, the present and the future live together.

Only a local would know that … Someone born and raised in Tasmania will never be ‘a local’.

Perk up …
 Outside on a bike.
Relax … At home, in the garden or on the couch.
Dine …  At home – my partner is a great cook.
Indulge … I’m not a very indulgent person, but a couple of hours in a record or guitar shop always feels satisfying.
Shop … I don’t shop much, except if I go to New York.
Catch-up … A gallery opening or anywhere with good coffee.
Be inspired … Anywhere near the sea … or the couch.


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