Iron Designer – Lifting the lid on design feats

July 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, The Arts, July 17, 2009.


Inspired by its Japanese cooking counterpart, Iron Designer II pitches Melbourne’s finest design talent against one another in no holds barred a battle for bragging rights. Dan Rule reports.

While it would be a stretch to suggest that Jeremy Wortsman recalls it with pride, he does have lucid memories of last year’s Iron Designer event at Trades Hall. Regurgitating sticky dots onstage in front of hundreds of your peers isn’t something that you forget so easily.

“It didn’t look good and it didn’t sound good,” says the co-founder of Fitzroy graphic design studio Chase & Galley, who along with director Stuart Geddes and Jessie Fearweather of The Foundry, prevailed in last year’s inaugural Iron Designer event as part of the State of Design Festival. “In fact,” he admits, “it was kind of stupid.”

Inspired by the cult Japanese series Iron Chef, in which respected chefs compete against each other for the honour of challenging a master (or Iron) chef, the format of last year’s Iron Designer allowed each competing design or architecture studio a verb and a ‘key ingredient’ as way of a brief, before giving them a mere 20 minutes to realise a winning project onstage.

“We were given the verb ‘choke’ and Jessie was given ‘poke’ and our key ingredient was those little sticky dots,” recalls Wortsman, whose studio clients have included the Melbourne Design Guide, Rooftop Cinema, Meanjin and Tourism Victoria. “What we ended up doing is making a little salad of the sticky dots and then Stuart fed them to me and I kind of choked on them, before Jessie poked me with this big stick and I regurgitated them back over the table.”

Although it could hardly be accredited with producing appealing design outcomes, Iron Designer – which this year will run as the State of Design Festival’s marquee closing event at BMW Edge, Federation Square – certainly brings the usually closeted worlds of design and architectural practice out into the open. While State of Design bills itself in terms of increasing “awareness of the value of design” in Victoria, Iron Designer offers something of a more playful take on the idiom.

“This is really about the process, and the terror of having to come up with an idea,” laughs Laura Cornhill, one third of Richmond graphic design company Studio Binocular, Iron Designer’s founders and organisers.

Hosted by author and media personality Tony Wilson, the event will pitch seven of Melbourne’s leading design studios (Cromwell Design, Maddison Architects, Wooden Toy Quarterly, PHOOEY Architects, Six Degrees, 21-19 and ERD Communications) and one student group from Monash University into battle for the honour of facing off against 2008’s reigning Iron Designers. Each of the teams will be supplied a palette of basic materials – pens and pencils, scissors, sticky tape, paper and cardboard – a ‘key ingredient’ and a brief comprising three words pulled randomly from a hat.

“The festival’s theme is ‘Sampling the Future’,” explains Cornhill. “So there’ll be a futuristic element to the words that people have to respond to. We’re thinking hovercrafts and jetpacks and those sorts of things.”

Suffice to say, the competition is shaping up to be fierce, and as Cornhill giggles, dirty tricks and sabotage are “welcome”.

“We’re stabbing each other in the back when we’re in our own studios – why not do it with each other in front of a crowd?” cackles challenger Peter Ho of PHOOEY Architects, who recently came runner-up to Sir Norman Foster’s Washington Smithsonian Institute at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona for their children’s activity centre built from shipping containers and recycled building materials in South Melbourne.

“I think designers pride themselves on their ability to think on the run,” he says. “This is what we train for.”

While all should be frivolous enough, the event does offer a rare insight into the nuts and bolts of design. “I think there’s an intrigue to design process,” offers another challenger Peter Maddison of Maddison Architects, whose projects include Transport at Federation Square and the fit out of the Eureka Skydeck. “A lot of people get really nervous when confronted with design. I think to watch a collaborative process with a roving microphone will really demystify it.”

Cornhill agrees. “People usually think of design in terms of a finished product, whereas Iron Designer really helps to show off the actual design process.”

The event will, however, present some dangers. “We’re going to have to have a first aid consultant on board for any paper cuts that come to light,” assures Cornhill.

“The biggest danger, of course, is bruised egos.”

Iron Designer II will close the State of Design Festival on Friday, July 24 at BMW Edge, Federation Square. Visit: for details


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