Australian Design Prize Ros and John Moriarty
Feature by Freya Lombardo
This year, Good Design Australia has honoured the dynamic duo of Ros and John Moriarty – founders of Balarinji – with the prestigious Australian Design Prize.
This special accolade was established to recognise individual designers who are making or have made, a significant impact in Australian design over the course of their careers. Few designers have made such an enormous contribution to Australian design as Ros and John Moriarty.
Since 1983, their Aboriginal-owned and founded design and strategy agency Balarinji has honoured culture, community and Country with its award-winning design products, projects and campaigns.
From their Qantas Flying Art Aircraft series to the Townsville Jezzine Barracks Redevelopment, The Burwood Brickwoods public art installation to the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games uniforms, their iconic work speaks with an authentic voice, resonates with power and passion, and is designed to deepen understanding and respect for Aboriginal Australia and Indigenous design.
According to CEO of Good Design Australia Dr Brandon Gien, “Ros and John are national design treasures and I am deeply honoured that we are able to recognise their life’s work with the Australian Design Prize. It was a highlight of my career to share this news with them. Looking at their vast body of work over the years makes me even more proud to call myself an Australian designer.”
In this conversation with co-founder and Managing Director of Balarinji, Ros Moriarty shares powerful insights destined to inspire the design community, enterprise and governments to lean in, learn and participate.
Ros and John’s unwavering commitment to rich cross-cultural exchange enlivens an ongoing dialogue that fosters deeper understanding and appreciation of Indigenous history, culture, community and Country.
There is no doubt that Ros and John are in a unique position to reflect on what shapes an Australian design identity – one suffused with 60,000+ years of continuous history that reaches toward a mutually inclusive future.
“Balarinji’s engagement with Aboriginal people, culture, art, stories and identity through design is their legacy, and we hope this lives on for centuries to come,” says Dr. Gien.
GDA: Ros, huge congratulations to you, John and the Balarinji team for this richly deserved Award.
You’ve mentioned Balarinji’s story begins with John’s birth to a Yanyuwa mother and Irish father in Borroloola in the remote Gulf of Carpentaria, NT and, because his skin was paler than his mother’s he was taken from her at the age of four under the infamous assimilationist policies we know as the Stolen Generations.
How has this initial traumatic displacement, the subsequent reunion then separation, and John later being reunited with his family, culture and Country informed his ethos and resilience?
RM: John’s early history was a driver of his fight for Aboriginal rights, pushing for citizenship for Aboriginal Australians in the 1967 Referendum and taking up a career in the Public Service in the 1970s to impact an Aboriginal voice to government.
He held several executive positions in Federal and State Departments of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide, with a focus on advocacy for Aboriginal equality, reconciliation and cultural engagement. His ethos has been around transformational change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
His early displacement also heightened his desire to keep our family connected to culture and Country. And from there, to look outwards to foster an environment of respect and collaboration where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can work together towards a new statement about Australian identity.
GDA: What brought you two together?
RM: I was a researcher and John was a senior bureaucrat when we met in Canberra in the late 70s at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. John was from the far north of the NT, I was from Tasmania. We found each other midway between the two.
GDA: And when did you know that you wanted to start a design practice together? What was important to you at that time?
RM: In early 1983, when Melbourne was home, John created long neck turtle images which I screen-printed onto a doona cover for our first son, Tim Bundyan. We wanted him to feel close to our Yanyuwa family in the Gulf of Carpentaria more than 4,000 kilometers away. From this simple expression – eventually – came our design studio, Balarinji – it’s the Yanyuwa skin name of our sons Tim and James Djawarralwarral.
The vision was to celebrate the heritage and identity of our sons and our daughter Julia Marrayelu. We began to realise over time that our family’s personal identity journey could resonate with Australia’s broader search for a unique belonging in the world.
Early on, opportunities for Indigenous design were non-existent. We started by creating a range of printed cotton, silk and wool fabrics which were launched at a glamorous event by The Australian Wool Corporation in 1983. I hope Balarinji influenced the future wave of Aboriginal textile artists who would follow.
GDA: You established your practice under the skin name of your sons, Balarinji, which denotes an orientation to land, relationships and belonging. How is this relationship with culture and Country expressed through your work, and how can it be shared with those who don’t have insights or innate understanding?
RM: Our work is an authentic response to Place and Country that is informed by local Aboriginal knowledge holders, storytellers and creative practitioners. Design is a powerful visual language that can reveal universal understandings that spark curiosity and bridge cultural divides.
Australia’s foundational Aboriginal narrative offers an original frame of thinking that has largely been missing from Australian design, particularly in terms of our public places. It comes from a different worldview that is layered, complex and holistic. Aboriginal society, sustainability and ways of connecting with Country are a distinctive and rich heritage that all of us can acknowledge, and be inspired by, as Australians.
There is much for everyone to learn from the deep, interconnected relationship Aboriginal people have with the physical and spiritual elements of Country. It is about belonging, where language, culture, knowledge, Dreaming, Law, and Ceremony are interdependent and one with Country.
GDA: A pivotal moment for Balarinji came with the partnership with Qantas, painting a fleet of their jumbo jets with paintings by Aboriginal artists, making these the world’s largest pieces of moveable Aboriginal art. How did this watershed project come about? And what did it take to get Qantas interested in the proposition?
RM: I dreamt of painting a Qantas aircraft with Aboriginal art – quite literally. I woke up at 2am one morning in 1993 with the idea. John and I wanted Aboriginal culture to matter to one of Australia’s biggest brands on the global stage. Because we thought it would then matter to Australians and to the world.
However, turning the idea into reality wasn’t easy. It took 18 months of lobbying and an impromptu pitch to then CEO, James Strong, when we found ourselves in a lift at a hotel with him, to literally get the project off the ground and launch Wunala Dreaming in 1994.
Wunala was intended to be a three-month promotion, but the joy and recognition the aircraft inspired kept her in the sky, including a repaint, for 17 years. It was euphoric for us to see her fly. Our nation that had taken John away from his family as a Stolen Generations child when he was four years old, was now heralding his culture all around the country and the globe in an indelibly visible and public way.
GDA: How has the project been sustained over more than twenty years? How has it evolved?
RM: Wunala Dreaming was followed by four other Qantas-Balarinji Flying Art aircraft – Nalanji Dreaming (1995), Yananyi Dreaming (2002) with the art of Rene Kulitja, Mendoowoorrji (2013) with Paddy Bedford, and Emily Kame Kngwarreye (2018), named for the artist. Balarinji also designed the textile of Qantas’ longest-running uniform. Called ‘Wirriyarra’, it means ‘My Spirit Home’ in Yanyuwa.
The aircraft are also a statement of Qantas’ commitment to reconciliation, it is one of the first corporations in Australia to contribute to reconciliation and is a founding member of the national procurement agency Supply Nation. Balarinji assisted Qantas in launching its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in 2007 and also assisted in designing its 2015-2018 RAP.
GDA: What does it represent in terms of visibility of Indigenous culture to all Australians and on the world stage?
RM: The Qantas-Balarinji Art Aircraft have become a powerful acknowledgment and celebration of Australian identity on the global stage. They are a great example of how Indigenous design can influence how we think about ourselves as Australians and how we can draw from the strength, integrity and beauty of Aboriginal culture.
Is there a symmetry between representations of Country made by artists who often envision Country from a birds-eye / spiritual perspective and having those artistic expressions flown in the sky? Tell me what that means to you.
We have always felt a beautiful lyricism in representing Aboriginal art on a flying canvas. It responds to the way so many Aboriginal artists depict a bird’s eye view of Country. It encapsulates an astonishing originality in how Aboriginal people see and depict their world. It is fundamentally different to a Western world view. And incredibly, the spiritual beauty of Aboriginal traditions have nurtured the place that we now share as contemporary Australians, for tens of thousands of years before us.
When did Balarinji evolve from a design practice to a design agency? And what shift did that require of you both as directors?
Balarinji has evolved significantly over its almost 40-year history. From starting in textiles, fashion, and homewares, then adding graphic design, public art and landmark projects for large government and private organisations nationally and internationally, we have had to reinvent ourselves many times.
We now focus our efforts on significant brand and identity campaigns, and deeply embedded responses to the built environment and major infrastructure. The Aboriginal narrative is largely missing from Australia’s public places and buildings. It is still more common to see Aboriginal elements integrated into precincts of art installations or in Aboriginal-influenced landscape design than in built form.
Sometimes moving the studio forward has been about responding to changes in the market. Sometimes we have helped drive those market changes in line with the evolution of our design vision and engagement methodologies. One way we have driven change is through developing a co-design framework of Aboriginal engagement local to Place. The process brings together local Aboriginal creative practitioners and communities for authentic storytelling, interpretation, and legacy. Balarinji’s team of envisioners, designers, project managers and business developers work with urban planners, architects and landscape architects to activate the Aboriginal voice in significant projects.
As directors, we have had to be comfortable with risk, particularly financial risk in staying the distance to break through the barriers of blazing a trail when we often felt very far ahead of our time. Not necessarily being ahead in a self-congratulatory way, more around the insecurity of building new paradigms that challenged the deeply ingrained status quo that was very difficult to shift. We began as a philosophy, staying with the joy of the vision has guided us through.
At the heart of your business is a philosophy of ‘the spirituality behind the design’. As John says, ‘This is something that all Australians … can relate to, so they can understand this country and feel more part of it’. How have you seen this play out in practice?
The positive reactions our teams receive to our work never cease to humble and inspire us, whether the project is about a country, a city, a community or even a building. The connectedness to Place that drives our work provides a richness and grounds our practice in a uniquely Australian place in the world.
Many people feel a special connection with Wunala Dreaming as the first of our aircraft, as they do with our latest, which depicts the superb artistic mastery of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. It’s the same with many of our public art and infrastructure projects.
As a nation we’ve only just started to realise the richness and beauty of Aboriginal culture. It’s early days in seeing Aboriginal stories in public view. We have hardly touched the tip of the iceberg. Imagery, story, philosophy, intellectual framing, language – the incredible sources of inspiration are both an opportunity and a responsibility. The responsibility lies in bringing Aboriginal people who are local to Place to the centre of the co-design process.
There must be so many stories that need to be told – and made all the more powerful through your advocacy and visual communication. How do you determine which projects to pursue?
Our number one rule is shared values. Our team is keenly aware of the ethical obligation to respect the power of Aboriginal content and participation. We seek out projects where clients have a commitment to be authentic and aware. We are also interested in social and cultural impact, we are a studio for purpose. And we always chase excellence – aesthetically, process-wise and in the commercial and community relationships we build. Ensuring market-rate returns to all the Aboriginal participants in our projects is central to our model.
Can you share your topline methodology?
For Balarinji, our goal is to build a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and deepen the understanding of Aboriginal Australia through national and international projects. We really want to see more Australian organisations embrace and celebrate our foundational Indigenous narrative.
The methodology our team delivers helps shift the way Indigenous artists and knowledge holders are engaged. Balarinji is the vanguard of a co-design methodology that is based on deeper collaboration with Indigenous stakeholders and community-endorsed creative practitioners local to Place. It allows us to activate authentic voices to draw out knowledge, protocols, history, culture and the contemporary stories of Aboriginal communities, for co-designed interpretation from the beginning to the end of projects.
This is a co-design process with Aboriginal stakeholders as well as knowledge holders, artists and other creative practitioners. This is not a case of the client’s design team interpreting Indigenous knowledge. Rather, it is about the design team working with Balarinji and the artists and knowledge holders to activate the authentic Indigenous narrative, protocols and principles to inform the design process from project inception to final delivery for a particular site. The outcomes are immeasurably richer for everyone.
Much of our success comes from the studio’s structure. It is not only a question of design, but also the quality of our project managers, community coordinators, historians, researchers, business relationship leaders, writers, HR and PR specialists, as well as a commitment to hiring and developing in-house Aboriginal staff. The passion for change runs through our entire team.
Beyond the Qantas partnership, of which 3-5 projects are you most proud? And why?
1- The Australian uniforms for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, this was the first Olympic team to wear Aboriginal-themed uniforms. Working with the athletes, Balarinji created a design that expressed energy and strength through the power of diversity. Seeing our textile design beamed up onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House at the moment the athletes were entering the stadium in Rio fulfilled a career-long dream to adorn THOSE sails.
2 – Our work with Transport for NSW (TfNSW) – we’ve worked on several major projects with TfNSW, mostly recently Sydney’s new M12 motorway which has been one of our first major infrastructure projects to embed the local Indigenous narrative throughout the entire design process. Other TfNSW projects include the Pacific Highway upgrade, Redfern Station redevelopment and the design of TfNSW’s RAP. These large long-lead infrastructure projects demonstrate how skilled our team is, how connected and committed to Aboriginal community benefits, and what compelling design outcomes are possible when the local Aboriginal community is brought to the table in true co-design.
3 – Our work with the Moriarty Foundation which enables Aboriginal families and communities to unlock the potential of their children. Our design-led thinking underpins our two interrelated initiatives that are helping redress Indigenous social disparity. John Moriarty Football (JMF), Australia’s longest-running and most successful Indigenous football program for 2-18 year olds. JMF’s transformational skills program uses football for talent and positive change and has a track record of improving school attendance and achieving resilient, healthier outcomes for some of Australia’s most remote Indigenous communities.
4 – Indi Kindi, a ground-breaking early years solution for children under five in remote Aboriginal communities, integrating health, wellbeing, education and development to give children the best start in life.
5 – The Burwood Brickworks ceiling mural by Wurundjeri, Dja Dja wurrung and Ngurai illum wurrung artist, Mandy Nicholson, which won a 2020 Australian Good Design Award. This was a special project that was deeply embedded to Place and reflected the local Wurundjeri culture. This project is a stunning example of how Aboriginal culture can exist in an urban context in a way that is dynamic and alive. The client, Frasers Property Australia, was on board from the onset to bring bold visibility to Mandy’s art and Wurundjeri culture.
What do you love about linking art, design and place? Why should that resonate with Australians and visitors to our shores?
Working in visual imagery is inspiring, uplifting and energising. Art, design and Place are three parts of a satisfying creative whole. It is another level to underpin it all with the deep, interconnected relationships Aboriginal people have with the physical and spiritual elements of Country. It is about belonging, where language, culture, knowledge, Dreaming, Law, and Ceremony are interdependent and one with Country.
This worldview can be interpreted for placemaking and design to create meaningful, authentic and restorative spaces that celebrate a truly Australian identity that embraces its rich 60,000+ year-old Aboriginal heritage. It offers respite and mindfulness in the present moment. These principles are central in Aboriginal culture and have been for millennia.
If you could do anything again, or differently, what would it be?
I’d probably find a way to earn a salary earlier. It was impossible to draw any money to pay ourselves for the first eight years. I might also try to teleport us forward a couple of decades at the start, to even out the commercial troughs that came from so little awareness or interest from the market in our early days.
What probably also slowed our progress, but something I wouldn’t change, is all the years travelling the length and breadth of the country to take our kids back to family in the Gulf, for their birthright, and to continually replenish the well of our design inspiration and intent.
What does winning the Australian Design Prize mean to you and how can it elevate understanding of the rich Indigenous culture?
We are immensely honoured. We could never have imagined when we started out nearly 40 years ago, that our desire to celebrate our children’s belonging to John’s Yanyuwa people as well as to mainstream contemporary Australia, would grow to resonate so strongly as a contribution to our nation’s design identity.
The light the Australian Design Prize will shine on our teams and our projects can amplify an understanding of the infinite potential of Indigenous co-design and its capacity to inspire new dimensions in Australian design.
You’re in a unique place to share a perspective on what defines Australian design. Can you share your thoughts on that and how you’ve experienced the reactions/understanding from others, especially those from other countries/cultures?
The most powerful design reflects a designer’s unique place in the world – sometimes physical, or metaphorical, emotional, psychological. In Australia, there’s a freedom, an informality, a sense of experimentation and individualism. At their best, Australian designers show an openness, a lack of self-consciousness, a willingness to experiment and take creative risks.
As a Sydney-based studio, how could we be conservative with the example of Utzon’s Opera House inspiring us every day to absorb and reflect on our special, astonishingly beautiful place in the world?
Balarinji’s approach to design blends all these elements – the recognition of a contemporary Australia, but one that is becoming increasingly open to its original cultural and spiritual lifeblood.