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The Designing Woman

By Anna Robb

Kerri Ainsworth is a Production Designer and Creative Director with over 25 years’ experience working in the film, television and events industries. The scope of her practice includes designing and project managing the fabrication and installation of large-scale artworks and environments for Special Events and Public Spaces.

Kerri has a Masters Degree in Design from the University of NSW, specialising in Public Art Installation, Event Design and Sustainable Practice. A regular lecturer at several Sydney educational institutes,
 Kerri is also often featured as a guest speaker at industry events including the Australian events industry’s largest trade show, Sydney’s Event Showcase.

Kerri shares her TheatreArtLife with us.

With regards to your career, what’s your story? Where do you come from? How did you end up being a designer? What choices did you make in your life that took you in this direction?

THE BEGINNING

The best place to start would be art school in the early 1970s, in a time when artists were still bohemian creatures and the schools they attended were more relaxed than the educational institutes of today. I attended art schools in Canberra and Melbourne, focusing on drawing and painting.

After a few false starts in the world of full-time employment, I decided to leap into the unknown and freelance. This involved putting together a portfolio of work and traipsing around the publishing companies, magazines and advertising agencies. My first art studio was a converted bedroom in a historic home in Redfern which I shared with my then-boyfriend (and later, husband). From there, I created illustrations and cartoons for magazines, children’s books and advertising storyboards. Later I moved into a big art studio in North Sydney full of other professional creatives.

I worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for about 5 years, quite successfully, under the business name “The Designing Woman.” Most of my income came from advertising storyboards. Remembering this was the pre-computer era, where everything was done by hand and often involved dreadful “all-nighters!”

My proficiency as a storyboard artist caught the attention of a film director who one day turned up at my studio and asked me to storyboard his film. This coincided with a period of restlessness. Being tied to a drawing board day and night didn’t suit my adventurous and very curious temperament. Adding to that, I dreamed of travelling to off-the-beaten-track places constantly.

The irony of my career path is that it has been influenced by a desire to lead a free-wheeling life and escape daily routine, the desk and office. And while I’ve succeeded for short periods to escape, with the invention of the home computer, I seem to be again facing the same challenges that I faced 25 years ago.

FROM ILLUSTRATOR TO SET DESIGNER

This was for me a painful transition. It was a very uneasy, anxious period in my life and involved a lot of soul-searching and loads of research. At the end of which I decided to be a Production Designer and work in the film and television industries. Having no contacts or any type of connections to this field, the road was tough. With the help and advice of a now famous writer/journalist, I adopted her modus operandi and eventually got that first exciting break. It was my drawing skills that opened doors. I began my career in film, as an artist, storyboarding and painting images of film sets for the author Morris West’s company Melaleuca Productions and on the film, Les Patterson Saves the World.

For about 16 years I worked on feature films, television series, documentaries, dramas, television commercials, corporate videos and rock clips as a set designer and art director. I loved my work, it was full of interesting and creative challenges and I’d managed to escape the drawing board and studio.

Soon I was looking around for new challenges and thought it would be fun to try theatre.  Designing sets for the theatre would be a more sculptural experience, with a new set of challenges. Around the mid-1990s, a new industry called “Business Theatre” was emerging and the producers in this field started contacting theatre and film designers to help them create spectacular productions.

EVENT DESIGNER

For the next 10 years I designed, art directed and produced installations and experiential spaces for clients such as Telstra, IBM, QANTAS, Kellogg’s, Westpac, AMP, Sydney Water, Visa, Panasonic, McDonald’s, Unilever and SOCOG.  Some of my projects included the Telstra Swimming Awards, BAT Conference in Vietnam and art directing the “Deep Sea Dreaming” segment for the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games.

INSTALLATION ARTIST & MASTERS DEGREE

In 2009, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) commissioned me to produce a series of art installations using sustainable practice as a showcase for its conference, “Meeting the Challenge of Sustainable Development Through Events.”

My work took a different turn and I started to explore the synthesis of sustainable technologies and recycled materials.

During my career as film and event designer, I had been invited to lecture on both topics at various universities and film schools. A combination of this and a new interest in creating art installations using sustainable practice lead me to do a Masters Degree in Design by research at the University of NSW. My thesis was titled “Sustainability by Design: Creative Collaborations and Sustainable Practice.” I graduated with an M.Des (Hons) in 2011.

The next few years were a mix of designing events, the odd TV commercial, and corporate video and art installations as well as some lecturing and teaching. The scope of my practice includes designing and project managing the fabrication and installation of large-scale artworks and environments for special events and public spaces.

More recently, I have designed and project managed the Australia Day Spectacular, a giant, mechanical installation on Darling Harbour (2014) and an interactive art installation for the Commonwealth Bank’s annual Wired For Wonder conference, which reflects the theme; Technology, Life, Business, Arts, Science and Awe.

What do you do now?

About 9 months ago, I was inspired by my passion for art and travel to design creative adventures for people, like myself, looking for a more authentic and immersive travel experience.  So, I created Art Travel Adventures, a boutique art and travel company, which combines immersive cultural experiences with art workshops in exotic locations.

Who are the most inspiring people you have met in your life and why?

I’m inspired more by things I see and experience, rather than by people. A new technology, material or stage play can inspire my work. I visit art galleries, go to the cinema and plays, experience events and festivals and travel. All these things inspire my work. No one person stands out but most recently I was inspired to collaborate with a young Biomedical Engineer called Dr Jordan Nguyen who has developed a wheelchair for people with a high-level physical disability that provides the user with autonomous guidance using Brainwave (BCI) Technology. Together we have developed an idea which is part event, part art installation, called Musical MindArt, which a government body has recently agreed to fund.

Have you ever faced discrimination in the workplace? If so, how did you deal with it?

When I began my career in the film industry, there were very few women heads of departments. The industry was very much dominated by men. I rose quickly to the top position (Production Designer) of the art department and as a young woman, experienced a lot of painful discrimination and humiliating treatment. Like a lot of women, who found themselves in this situation, I dealt with it with dignity and professionalism. Thankfully there were always allies, both men and women, who stood by me.

I believe with the talent and drive that I had, if I had been a man, I would have been more successful. I also believe, still to this day, men are regarded and paid more highly than women.

It is a common belief that working in the arts is a lifestyle and not a job. Would you agree and if so, how has working in the arts defined other aspects of your life?

Yes, I agree. Working in the arts is a lifestyle decision rather than a job. I was never interested in a 9 to 5 existence and was creative. So I wrote a list of all the things I wanted from life and chose a profession within the arts industry that satisfied these needs. They included leading an interesting life with variety, challenge, teamwork, research, travel and of course, creativity.

What was the last show/event/concert you saw? How was it?

In the last week, I have been going to art exhibitions and small, intimate jazz concerts. The Margaret Olley exhibition at the S.H. Ervine gallery and the Max Dupain and Olive Cotton photographic exhibition at the Hazelhurst Gallery. Before that, it was the Sydney Festival.

If you could give advice to aspiring designers, what would you say?

To immerse themselves in all forms of the arts.

Go to the theatre, film, art exhibitions, music, events, trade fair shows. Be aware of new technologies and materials. All these things become an important part of your palette as a creative person.

You now travel a lot with ArtTravel Adventures. Do you have a favourite destination and if so, why?

Mexico and Morocco because they are vibrant and colourful. As a designer, I love their use of colour in their architecture and interiors. My home has been inspired by the art and design of these countries.

Is there anything in your career or life that you regret not doing?

Living overseas. But there’s still time.

What is your favourite thing to cook?

Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake)

Describe for me your ideal day?

I have many ideal days and they are all so different, so I’ll describe one. A few years ago, three friends and I went on a kayaking trip around the Elafiti islands in Croatia. Every day on that trip was a perfect day. At dawn I walked along the waterfront enjoying the morning; a big old labrador that had slept outside my door during the night, followed me slowly. It was so quiet and still and the water was calm and silvery in the morning light. Later, the guide, my friends and I went out in our kayaks and paddled all morning to another island. There at a rustic restaurant by the sea, they BBQed fresh fish for our lunch. We swam and kayaked back to our island in the afternoon and in the evening, we wandered to a high point on the island to a local’s home where they cooked us dinner and we ate outside under the stars, looking out across the ocean with the moonlight flickering on the waves.

How many languages do you speak?

English & Spanish

Over your career, what is the project/design that you enjoyed the most?

The mechanical Waratah on Sydney Harbour I designed for Australia Day 2014. The interactive art installation for the Commonwealth Bank. Mission Impossible, the TV series. A feature film called “How Wonderful.”

If you could go back and design something over again, is there a project you would like another shot at?

To be honest, I’ve never thought about that, so would have to say no.

Are there any comments you would like to say about the arts industry in Australia?

The old story. They desperately need more funding and tax concessions to attract more investment. In the 1980s the film and TV industry had all that and more. Small countries like Australia need to protect and support their arts industries.

Click on the below links to connect further with Kerri’s work:

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