Monday, July 18, 2016

Vale Robert Foster, who played, challenged, and inspired


Obituary by Meredith Hinchliffe

ROBERT Foster, leading Australian designer, was killed last Wednesday July 13  in a tragic car accident.

The late Robert Foster with 'the jug'

Foster graduated with a BA (Visual) in Gold and Silversmithing in 1984 and completed a Post Graduate Diploma in 1986 from the Canberra School of Art, Australian National University.

In 1986 he immediately set up a workshop in Canberra and commenced work privately. His first solo exhibition – “Between Earth and Sky” – was held at Makers Mark Gallery, Melbourne that same year. He exhibited in many group shows in Australia and internationally for the next several years and held a second solo exhibition in 1991 – “Vessels” – at Studio Noko in Sydney.

Foster travelled to Europe, studying techniques, studio methods and design, returning in 1988. He undertook contract work at the Australian National Mint in Canberra for several years, and worked as a technician in the Glass Workshop and the Gold and Silver Workshop at the Canberra School of Art, adding valuable skills to his talent for design innovation.

In 1993, Foster established FINK + Co, the first product being one with which we all so familiar: “The jug, that from which to pour”, commissioned by The Republic, an edgy restaurant in Canberra. FINK was always intended to support and be part of a network or company of artists and designers.

Foster learned under the expertise of Ragnar Hansen and Johannes Kuhnen in the Gold and Silver Workshop. Here he learned the traditional skills of hollowware, and they were integral to his body of work. He had also experimented with anodised aluminium, chosen initially as an alternative to more expensive metals, such as silver. The first jug was a small edition, made using found materials and a simple press. He recognised immediately the potential for production processes for small scale production of functional objects – many of which are quirky but all of which function perfectly.

By 2013 over forty designs had been developed, some of which were produced in very small runs. Foster had collaborated with at least ten artists in developing the designs, which included diverse materials such as glass, jewellery and moulded plastic.

Robert Foster experimented continuously, always seeking another way of making or another object that could be made more easily or more efficiently, or which could be given a fillip.

All potential designs were given extensive research and development. He always had a deep knowledge of tool making and made most of his own tools, and other artists learned from his tooling practices.

Foster used his experiments and one-off designs to develop multiples – he never drew a distinction between exhibition works and production lines. Those who worked with him benefited from this knowledge and approach to making. Sean Booth, who developed a line of tableware for the Hyatt’s three restaurants at the National Museum of Australia when it opened in 2001, and manufactured at FINK, identified many lessons learnt on the studio floor, including economic use of materials and efficient time-management.

One of Foster’s first collaborators at FINK was Scott Chaseling, a highly-regarded glass artist, and they created “The Fink Large Bowl” in 1994, made from spun, powder-coated aluminium with thermo-formed acrylic. Other artists he worked with include Elizabeth Kelly, another glass artist, creating the “Fink Citrus Squeezer” in 1995 and the “FINK Shot Glasses” in 1999. FINK, in association with others, created a range of jewellery including brooches, bangles, pendants and earrings using diverse techniques.

These collaborations were highly valued by all those involved. Artists took their experiences of cross-fertilisation of skills and processes back to their individual studios, where they continued to develop and create works of art. Foster was generous with his experience and was willing to share – both through mentorships of younger craftspeople, or by inviting others to design for FINK. Artists retained copyright in their designs and their names remained associated with the product, being highlighted in advertising. They earned valuable royalties while establishing themselves and gained a professional reputation through their association with FINK. He also opened his studio and allowed others to use his equipment.

Robert Foster initially sent his products to Sydney to be anodised but there was a high attrition rate. Eventually, he set up his own anodising plant and offered this service to other industries in Canberra.

FINK went on to foster design and small production. The generosity of spirit that Foster extended to young graduates working in metal, glass and wood is a major legacy from which the Australian community will continue to benefit. They will be losers from his untimely death.

Foster began working with lights as early as 1997, when he created the “Fink Blink Lamp”, which used his fascination with magnets. Hanging lights followed in 2005, with perhaps his most recent project being the installation of two lights in the newly refurbished Members’ Lounge at the National Gallery of Australia, in the second week of July.

Foster was commissioned to create “The Journey” for the then new ActewAGL building in the city, launched in 2010 to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary. This ever-changing light sculpture is a landmark work of public art in the city of Canberra.

Gretel Harrison, Foster’s partner, joined FINK in 1997 and has been the “frontline of the business” according to Elizabeth Kelly. Her strong background in marketing and graphic design helped create a range of promotional materials. She maintained an international presence at trade fairs and gained valuable research, product development and customer feedback – a vital element of the process of product development. Her work is always clean, elegant and imaginative, and the use of artists photographed with their work gave an accessible, human touch to the objects.

The principles of ‘play, challenge, and inspire’ lay at the heart of Robert Foster’s practice. It is impossible to quantify the impact he has had on Australian, and indeed international, design over the last thirty years. He has influenced probably hundreds of artists in countless ways. He was once described as having the ‘natural inquisitiveness of an engineer with the creativity of a designer’.

Robert Foster will be missed by the visual arts community in Canberra, in Australia and around the world, and by those who appreciated his beautifully made, whimsical and functional works of art.

He is survived by his partner Gretel Harrison and their two young daughters.

Date of Birth: August 23, 1962, Kyneton, Victoria

Date of Death: July 13, 2016, Kowen, NSW
This obituary first appeared at on July 15 2016