Portrait

Talking change with Semi Permanent’s Murray Bell. By Fiona McGregor.

Sydney designer Murray Bell

At the bottom of the Block in Redfern is a cluster of warehouses that could be the engine room of the area’s biggest change in decades. Tucked behind a terrace, invisible from the train line, they are easy to miss. The brick walls are neat and clean; surveillance cameras peer down. Hipsters on smoko are checking their phones. A delivery of expensive victuals into a bay completes the facelift. The affluence is startling to me, who has lived near or walked through the Block on and off for more than 30 years, a fraction of the era it was home to Australia’s biggest urban Aboriginal community. Around the corner is still Tony Mundine’s gym, where locals trained for decades, including his son, former world champion boxer Anthony Mundine.

I enter one of the warehouses and am taken through high-ceilinged rooms to meet Murray Bell, whose company Semi Permanent moved in nine months ago. He is tall, bearded, casually dressed; casually expressed with an Aussie upper inflection. A Sydney archetype forged in the surf of the northern beaches, given gravitas by greying hair. Friendly yet cautious, he uses the words like and transition a lot, which turn out to be apposite. His informality bespeaks Californian business acumen. He is considering studying at Harvard.

When I meet Bell, Semi Permanent is gearing up for its biggest event of the year, at nearby Carriageworks. He was only 21 when he co-founded the company in 2001, and has ridden the wave of technological change to become a key player in the morphing world of design. In its third year, the event hopes to surpass last year’s attendance of 10,000. Three days of talks, exhibitions, innovation labs, film screenings and parties – “a big gathering of creative people”.

Design is now more invention in the Renaissance sense than the separate disciplines characteristic when Bell began, himself scarcely trained. Graphic, sound, industrial, website: the best, as with Bell’s favourite, Elon Musk, move across media. Musk made $3 billion from PayPal and now runs Tesla Motors, whose latest range of electric cars had 180,000 pre-ordered, without advertising.

“I think labels are bullshit. People these days transition. Design is communication, it’s architecture, it’s conscious decisions in the pursuit of artistry. There are individuals who paved the way, like Jony Ive from Apple, all founded on creative design,” he says.

“Advertising is also going through a big transition … Even, like, designers, when they come out of college … I think, like, less are going to advertising agencies and they’re being scooped up by, like, tech companies, or banks, or whatever? … People are probably a little bit unhappy just being sold to all the time?”

Disavowal of materialism makes a market of intangibles. “Like Airbnb is a good example. That’s just two guys and a website … It’s more, like, ‘If our service is awesome you’ll, like, you’ll use it.’ ”

Semi Permanent publishes stories on its website, some seemingly from another planet. “Like one story we’ve just released which is another example of design is Dav Rauch, a good friend of ours, who’s currently rebranding the Jewish religion: it’s pretty wild. He used to run a special effects company. He’s now a futurist, so he thinks about these kind of systems and design and whatnot … it’s a bit of a secret but Steven Spielberg is basically pumping millions into it. Dav is also rebranding Death. With the owner of Cirque du Soleil.”

Rauch’s rebrands will comprise an episode of a TV series in development. “For us to become an authentic pillar we need to do these live events throughout the year but, like, producing content all year round is important, in a variety of mediums.”

Like the Cube, made by Google for last year’s event. Each face shows a film, the viewer determining narratives by turning the object in their hands. It follows the Seven Stories tradition, down to the use of only one female protagonist.

Of the 20 men Bell asked to speak at Semi Permanent this year, 18 said yes; of the 40 or so women, only 10 did. “I think it leads back, like … like, this is not something I can back up with evidence or whatever but … we have a really big, like, female attendance but at a certain stage they they they disconnect from the industry, like there’s a … they all sort of step away and go and do, like, other things?”

Do you think they’re discouraged?

“I’m not sure, but it leaves this gap so when you do look at the top of, like, tech companies and things like that … like, there is absolutely no shortage of young aspiring creative designing women. But then there’s something that happens in that little bracket at the top.”

Bell is excited about the work of Judith Neilson, owner of this cluster of warehouses, White Rabbit Gallery, and developments all through Chippendale.

“She’s single-handedly raising the value of the area, buying up properties, converting them, making them amazing.”

“Have you seen her house?” enthuses Andrew, Murray’s PR man. “A concrete monolith … just incredible. She’s just reinvented Chippendale.”

“And Redfern,” adds Bell. “The whole thing. It’s kinda nice because there was so much pressure on Surry Hills to be the cool part of Sydney.”

It’s nice to have a monopoly, I offer.

“Yeah,” they laugh.

Bell offers me a ticket to Semi Permanent. We shake hands, and I leave the whitewashed warehouse, walking home through what used to be the Block. The sun is shining way too hard for May. Everything has changed. Sort of.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Design principals". Subscribe here.

Fiona McGregor
is the author of five books.