Coming home


The Victorian Arts Centre, 1980–1984

John returned to Melbourne several times during the Hollywood years to design the sets and costumes for the Victorian State Opera’s much acclaimed Idomineo and The Pearl Fishers. Many of his design team at the Opera were to join him later at the Arts Centre. John demanded a great deal from his creative team but ‘this was one of his great gifts,’ says Sue Nattrass, ‘inspiring and demanding that their full potential be achieved, that they not settle for less than their best.’

In 1980 at the request of his old St Martin’s Theatre friend, George Fairfax, now general manager of the Victorian Arts Centre, John agreed to take on the formidable task of designing the interior finishes for the two buildings; the Theatres building with its three theatres, multiple foyers and enormous public spaces and the Concert Hall, together with the backstage areas, rehearsal spaces restaurants, cafes and galleries that comprise the whole Centre.

John was acutely aware that people came to the theatre to see a show and that the interiors, paintings, lighting and furnishings, needed to enhance, not compete with, that experience. He delighted in using painting techniques that produced dense, sensual, many-layered textures and effects, and lighting that swam and reflected in seemingly never-ending pools from surface to surface creating spaces that were forever suggesting new possibilities.

The brilliance of John’s vision was the way in which he amplified the techniques that he had been using all his life, those of the theatre designer. ‘John generated a sense of illusion,’ says Professor Margaret Manion. ‘It was a dazzling theatrical presentation, lights, reflected surfaces…people going out on a cold Melbourne night and coming into this splendidly rich atmosphere. Roy (Grounds, the architect) talked in terms of a cathedral, of a vision of grandeur. Here it was.’


Brisbane World Expo 1988

When John accepted the invitation to become the artistic director of the Brisbane World Expo he found himself with a very little time in which to create the spectacular event that people expected. That he did succeed so well was due, in large part, to the way in which he made it a festival for the people, creating intriguing, colourful, outdoor spaces and stages and filling them with strolling performers, sculptures, street processions and the extraordinary sight of wave upon wave of choreographed, dancing flags. So while people queued to see major exhibitions like the Treasures of the Vatican there was always something fascinating to watch.