A house is not a home until there’s something (or someone) extraordinary there to cover it. Just ask Dionne Warwick, or the Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who believed the tiles encasing his design for the Sydney Opera House “were a major item in the building” that would not only define his legacy, but go on to become the home of contemporary Australian culture.
“It is important that such a large, white sculpture in the harbour setting catches and mirrors the sky,” Utzon wrote in his Design Principles, published in 2002, “with all its varied lights dawn to dusk, day to day, throughout the year.”
Utzon famously wanted the shells of his iconic sails to not only contrast with the deep blue hues surrounding the venue, but to reflect the light in a way that also reduced glare. He found a solution in the subtle, coarse textures of Japanese bowls, and charged the manufacturer Höganäs of Sweden with emulating the granular effect achieved in traditional ceramic practices. After three years of work, Höganäs produced what became known as the Sydney Tile, which at 120mm square is made from white clay rendered tactile through the addition of a small percentage of crushed stone. In total, there are 1,056,006 tiles on the roof of the Opera House, and each one was produced in a factory set up under the Monumental Steps before being placed face down in one of 26 chevron-shaped beds, each with a base shaped to match the curve of the roof.
That is just one of the many stories that inspired members of Sheridan’s in-house design team, who last year immersed themselves in the history of the World Heritage-listed design icon as part of a newly-released collaboration with the Sydney Opera House. Joanna Ross, General Manager of Design at Sheridan, said that her studio was “more lateral with how we were influenced” by elements of the Opera House’s own design story, steering clear of more literal interpretations toward gestural designs and expressive textiles befitting the centrality of art to the venue. One standout design in particular, Arc – a sculptural, three-dimensional Matelassé weave in soft cotton – underscores that structural influence. “The story about the tiles, the creation of them and the placement of them – all those elements really captivated the [design studio] and these external parts became key in the design [process],” says Ross.
Sheridan and the Sydney Opera House, it turns out, were natural bedfellows. Claudio Alcorso, founder of Sheridan, also became the founding Chairperson of Opera Australia in 1971, and was responsible for bringing the first opera singers to Australia from Italy to perform on the venue’s stages. The design team toured those same stages and the liminal spaces in between, both inside and out, to source inspiration for their work: from the rehearsal rooms, theatres, halls and behind-the-scenes spaces to those that surround the building, as well as from the natural beauty of Bennelong Point. The result is a varied collection of eight pieces – three bed designs, three artworks and two cushions – that are testament not only to the building’s multi-faceted versatility, but to its centrality as the nexus of modern Australian culture.
Höganäs no longer make the Sydney Opera House tile. There are enough in storage to cover a third of the building, reserves which should last some time if a replacement rate of five tiles per year continues unabated. After that runs out? Well, Ross could always make a case for Matelassé cotton instead.
Tile and cover image: Georges Antoni