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Derek F. Wrigley (1924-2021): furniture as functional art at the COX Gallery

Derek. F Wrigley

When you design something, it doesn’t matter how good it looks, if it doesn’t work. Appearance is not as important as functionality – the balance in good design should be 51% functionality, 49% looks.

Derek F. Wrigley, OAM (1924-2021), an English-born design champion, left an enduring legacy in Australia. A polymath and problem solver, he embraced opportunities to challenge assumptions. While initially trained as an architect, he gravitated towards industrial design and was also a builder, inventor, sculptor, environmentalist, solar architectural researcher, disability advocate and educator, who firmly believed in the transformative power of good design.

In 1957, Wrigley settled in Canberra, joining the pioneering Australian National University (ANU) Design Unit as Assistant University Designer, under the leadership of Fred Ward. This move aligned with Canberra’s mid-20th-century atmosphere of bravery and experimentation. Wrigley seamlessly integrated into the ANU Design Unit’s philosophy and advanced its goals as University Designer and Architect. He refined the concept of ‘total design’, combining building, landscape, furniture, and graphics into a unified whole.

Derek. F Wrigley

… I like to think that my style developed from a rational need, based on available materials and machining techniques and, of course economy and lack of redundancy and ornament

Selections from the C. Nikolakopoulos collection provide insight into Wrigley’s furniture design process. Examples span his career, from a simple home side table to designs for the academic learning environment and bespoke pieces for private patrons. While rooted in tradition, Wrigley’s designs elevate functionality with sweeping lines, floating tops, and meticulous joint detailing.

Wrigley’s interest in furniture stemmed from his architectural pursuits. He believed that furniture, as connectors between human activities and buildings, played a fundamental role in making spaces functional.

Wrigley’s retirement from ANU in 1977 allowed him to explore his interests in solar and passive heating design. He authored publications on retrofitting homes, Fred Ward his friend and mentor, and the ANU Design Unit. Wrigley’s achievements included an Order of Australia, Life Fellowship of the Design Institute of Australia, and Fellowship of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA). His legacy lives on through the annual AIA ACT Chapter Derek Wrigley Award for Sustainable Architecture.

Images courtesy of C. Nikolakopoulos and

You can find out more about Derek Wrigley in his own words through his comprehensive online archive:

Derek F. Wrigley (1924-2021) furniture as functional art will be shown at COX Gallery

When: 30 Oct-1 Dec 2023, with the gallery open Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm
Where: The COX Gallery is located at 1/19 Eastlake Parade, Kingston, ACT

Lisa DeSantis