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Studying landscape architecture might not be the obvious choice for someone who is now the Swayn Senior Fellow in Australian Design at the National Museum of Australia, but Adrienne Erickson did just that.

After working as a landscape architect for five years in Queensland and then in Beijing, China, Ms Erickson went on to study Art and Design at UNSW (previously COFA) – while living in Beijing – attaining a Masters in Cross Disciplinary Art and Design.

The Swayn Centre for Australian Design is a new endeavour at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. It was named for prominent architect Alistair Swayn, who died from a brain tumour in 2016. Originally hailing from Scotland, Mr Swayn was a highly respected and dynamic architect, who was heavily involved in the design and development of the Australian Capital. In his will, he left money for a design foundation, and his former colleagues and associates set up the Swayn Centre for Australian Design, to promote Australian design, its prominence and its enjoyment.

Ms Erickson will head up the Centre and develop it over the next two years. She will create a program of exhibitions, events and special projects that look at design, relatable to “how design affects our daily lives,” she says.

“Something that everyone can see, feel and be interested in; with a program that draws a wide audience. We want to showcase and reveal the interesting and innovative work in all design disciplines across Australia,” Ms Erickson says.

She says the important thing about the Centre is that it's a national endeavour; looking at what's happening across Australia, and “hopefully find the commonalities, the contrasts, the nuances of design from different parts of Australia”.

adrienne erickson.jpg

UNSW Art & Design alumna Adrienne Erickson.

Ms Erickson says looking at design holistically could “create a really interesting perspective”.

She says the National Museum of Australia has reformed its curatorial approach, developing different curatorial centres.

“The Swayn Centre for Australian Design will become a new curatorial centre at the Museum. The Centre is fairly fluid, it doesn't have a physical space, it will align with programming at the National Museum, and delve into the massive National Historical Collection, while also looking at contemporary issues to create a really interesting program of Australian design.”

On completing a Graduate Diploma in Landscape Architecture at QUT, Ms Erickson worked in the Brisbane office of EDAW[i], a global landscape architecture, urban and environmental design firm. EDAW was a global design firm very influential in the development of landscape architecture. The firm merged with AECOM in 2005

EDAW was very involved in Olympic Games across the world, and when the Beijing Olympics rolled around, Ms Erickson moved with her young family to take up opportunities at EDAW in Beijing, which was only a small office at the time.

After working on the Beijing Olympics Ms Erickson had an opportunity to teach design at the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Beijing, on a joint program with the Glasgow School of Art (GSA).

“It was very interesting lecturing in all facets of design. I had a fairly primary knowledge that had to rapidly grow across all disciplines such as fashion, jewellery design and industrial design,” Ms Erickson says.

“The collaboration with GSA was very exciting, and it was great teaching and working with Chinese students on such a ground-breaking program.”

Teaching at CAFA encouraged Ms Erickson to further her studies and the online Masters of Cross Disciplinary Art and Design at UNSW. The flexibility of the course allowed the young mother to remain in Beijing with her family.

A particular highlight of the course was an opportunity to go to the Venice Biennale. The tour was guided by Felicity Fenner (Associate Professor, Art & Design).

“There were about 20 students, and it was great to meet fellow students, and be guided through the Biennale with expert tutorial from UNSW lecturers. To go around Venice and see these extraordinary exhibits, installations, and have those sorts of discussions about art, face-to-face and hear other people's views and opinions. That was superb. And that helped me to engage more deeply in the online study,” Ms Erickson says.

“It was perfect for me to be able to do a degree at a distance (from Beijing) and still connect back into Australian education. I was at the point in my life where I was really thinking about the future and where my genuine interest lay. And it was in a more multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary approach to my career. So, it was a fantastic opportunity.

“When I did the Venice Biennale tour it was the year that Felicity was the curator of the Australian Pavilion. And there were a couple of students in the group who had also been working there as volunteers. They had been helping to develop the exhibits over a few months before the Biennale opened. So they were like an advance party who had made connections which helped all of us to branch out, talk to people, engage with people.

“And like Felicity, they also had a lot of background knowledge about what happened behind the scenes and what happened when people did different things, and why something was successful,” she says.

Her advice to future Art & Design students at UNSW is to take advantage of the opportunities the University offers to travel abroad on various study trips and volunteering exercises.

“UNSW has a lot of opportunities to travel and get involved in different projects around the world. To work with other cultures, with other international students; developing ideas that go beyond their own expectations or their own thinking,” she says.

“For example, Ian McArthur (UNSW Associate Professor, Design) who hosts Mad Lab at UNSW, brings Art & Design students to Beijing Design Week to participate.

“Ian’s been doing these workshops in Chongqing[ii] for quite a few years and taking students there. And the students are working with local students to develop ideas for the urban design of Chongqing with their work being exhibited in Beijing.

“It's these kinds of programs that UNSW offers, exposing students to international influences and giving them experience of collaborating in teams that are so beneficial.”

[i] EDAW was an international landscape architecture, urban and environmental design firm that operated from 1939 until 2009. At its peak it had 32 offices worldwide and was the most commercially successful and well-known landscape architecture and urbanism firm in the world. It ceased to operate as a sole entity after being purchased by AECOM in 2005 and then merged into that company’s existing business in 2009.

[ii] Chongqing is a major city in southwest China with a population of more than 30 million. Administratively, it is one of the four municipalities under the direct administration of central government of the People's Republic of China (the other three are Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin), and the only such municipality located far away from the coast.