Helen Abson, who trained as an architect, is an Australian designer. She pursued architecture for five years; founded ZAB Design, designing fabrics that exhibited a preoccupation for texture achieved through pattern and colour. Helen and Ken Abson started Zab Design in 1972 when they released their first line of printed cotton upholstery fabric in bright colours.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Zab’s bold, vibrant textiles offered an inexpensive alternative to the iconic Finnish products of Marimekko, and Zab prospered, exporting to the United States and attracting international press coverage.
Helen Abson was born in Melbourne in 1942, and the University of Melbourne gave her a degree in architecture in 1965.
She went to Japan, then came back home and worked for five years in the office of architects Eggleston, McDonald, and Secomb. Abson went on to travel in Europe, the UK (where she worked for the London firm Austin-Smith/Salmon/Lord), Scandinavia, and South-East Asia. It was in Asia that she became interested in designing and making textiles. Like Robin Versluys’s Bolda fabrics, which were started a little later, Zab’s “orange lamps” and “lime green laminate” were influenced by the time they were made.
Arabia and Finel enamel homeware in bright, primary colours and bold fabrics like Finlandia and Finland’s amazingly bright and bold Marimekko, which everyone loved. Marimekko was very expensive in Australia, but Zab was able to make similar fabrics at prices that were competitive. These fabrics did well as curtains, blinds, bedspreads, pillows, wall hangings, and clothes.
In 1973, Zab Design started making a wide range of flat-pack furniture that people could put together at home. The supports were built into the structure of the chair, and the backs and seats were made of rubber-backed canvas that was held in place with rods that could slide in and out.
Jenny de Nijs, who used to teach design at RMIT, says that by the 1980s, Zab Design had become known around the world and was sending fabrics to the USA (New York, Boston, and San Francisco). In 1985, American architect Robert A. Stern put together the International Design Yearbook 1985/1986, which included several examples from the company’s “Shimmer Collection.” These examples were printed on Japanese cotton that had been imported and dyed in Japan.
Thames and Hudson. (1985). The International Design Yearbook 1985/1986.
RMIT Design Archives Journal. (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://www.rmit.edu.au/content/dam/rmit/documents/about/design-archives-journal/rmit-design-archive-journal-vol-2-no-1-2012.pdf
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