Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Jigsaw Factory (with updates, 12 August)

The Jigsaw Factory. (Thanks to Sonia Kretschmar for finding some of the photos that appear in this post.)

In 1971, a remarkable shop/design studio/theatre space appeared on Bridge Road, Richmond, near the bridge. I think it was a converted rubber factory, though I may be wrong and I can't find anything on the net. I also can't be certain how many storeys the building had, but I think it was four. When you're a kid, things look bigger. Maybe it was only three. Last time I saw it was when I was thirteen, which is about forty years ago.

It was called The Jigsaw Factory. The bottom floor was the 'shop' part, but it was like no other toyshop you've seen. The place was like a garden of delights, where both kids and adults were encouraged to play. There was a big sunken toy pit designed in the shape of a giant called Og.

Og's playpit.

There was a big ostrich called Oliver. He appeared in many guises, including a display stand. There was definitely a bridge, but I can't remember if it was in the shape of a crocodile or something else. There were wooden cubby-houses, giant snakes and some very hip beanbags.

Oliver the ostrich.

Above the shop were craft rooms where kids could learn pottery or enameling. (I burned my finger at one of the enameling classes and it was most definitely my fault.) There was even a little theatre where kids' shows were performed, and Bruce Woodley from The Seekers would come in to sing on Sunday afternoons. Plays for kids, written by Lorna and Bill Hannan, were staged there. The Jigsaw Factory was a riot of colour, with purples, yellows and greens wherever you looked. James Button, in an article in The Age in November 2002 described it as a 'Disney-free magic kingdom for children'. I can't do any better than that.

But the best thing about The Jigsaw Factory was that you could take parts of it home with you, in the form of toys, games, books and posters, which all looked exactly like the store. The board games came in wonderful big boxes that were bright yellow, blue and green. The aforementioned giant Og had three books about his adventures. You could either read one like a normal book, or let all the pages concertina out so that you had a frieze.

Og the Giant and Oliver the Ostrich enjoy a casual moment together on The Jigsaw Factory shop floor.

There were two other books I recall. One was A Dictionary of Magic, which included a set of beautifully designed 'Jigsaw' Tarot cards, and the other was a remarkable thing called From Zoetrope to Cinemascope. This book, a potted history of moving pictures, could actually be turned into a Zoetrope, by removing the stiff cardboard wheel that was a part of the cover, then slotting into it one of eight cardboard 'reels' that you could pull out from the centre of the book. Some of these reels were brand new mini-animations created by the designers (my dad was very impressed that one demonstrated how an internal combustion engine works), others were pop art versions of the old Eadwaerd Muybridge films from the end of the nineteenth century. There were no nude people walking and boxing, but there was the famous galloping horse. The book was ingenious, but I can't find a single reference to it on-line. As for the magic book, I wonder if today's gatekeepers would allow you to sell children's books containing decks of Tarot cards?

The most expensive of the boardgames was The Gate of the Sun, a stunning thing that had two separate boards, rings and cards featuring Oracles and Magi. That one was six bucks. I still have my copy.

The game Pirates was only two bucks fifty. I also bought that one. It was a good game too, with plenty of piracy for your money. North Face was even cheaper. it was a mountaineering game and it cost two bucks. Animator Frank Hellard devised this board game, played without dice. The games were hard to resist in those beautiful big boxes, with the distinctive Jigsaw logo.

Copies of Spellbound, waiting to be boxed up.  

The cheapest items were the Og goggles. For a dollar, you could get a set of ten cardboard spectacles with multicoloured Jigsaw designs. They were a much cooler party idea than stupid cone hats with elastic. There were badges too, with gently environmental messages such as 'Don't Spend the Earth' and 'I'm 100% Bio-degradable.'

Some of the games were educational, but inventively so. An educator called Dr Dexter Dunphy designed Spellbound and Tableland, games to teach kids about words and numbers. There were over forty different toys, all brand spanking new and never seen before. Sure, the shop stocked other toys as well - good ones by local manufacturers - but the ones you really wanted were the Jigsaw ones. So where did did they all come from?

Stitt and Weatherhead.

They were generally designed and devised by two graphic artists called Bruce Weatherhead and Alexander Stitt. Educators Bill and Lorna Hannan also gave them a hand. The top floor of the Jigsaw Factory building was where the artists did their wonderful work.

Messrs Stitt and Weatherhead at work.

Sadly, Bruce Weatherhead passed away in January, 2011. Mr Stitt is overseas, and I'm hoping that when he returns he'll be able to correct the mistakes I've made in this post, and help me remember more about The Jigsaw Factory. Weatherhead and Stitt joined their considerable forces in 1964, then dissolved the partnership ten years later. The Jigsaw Factory also came to an end. It was around for less than three years. It was too good to last. (Update 12 August: Alex and wife Paddy have since returned and been in contact. They have both compiled a lavish book called Stitt Autobiographics that covers fifty years of Alex's graphic design work. It's about three hundred pages long, published by Hardie Grant, and it's due for release in early September. The Jigsaw Factory features. The Factory was a wonderful but possibly over-optimistic project, even though there were many devoted fans. Alex sadly reports: 'When everyone lost enough money, we stopped.' Until very recently, the games Tableland and Spellbound were still being sold. Alex and Paddy were kind enough to contact me to do an informal launch of the book after the official one, presided over by Mr Philip Adams. But I had to declkine when I was discourteous enough to have a stroked. It too me three sessions of speech therapy just to be able to pronounce 'Al-ex-and-er Stitt.' The unofficial launch at Red Hill went very well, I'm told. And the book is a thing of great beauty. I'm including some page caps at the end of this blog, but for heaven's sake, buy the book. It's big, it's funny, it's shiny, insightful and even a bit educational - just like the old Jigsaw Factory itself.


Bruce Weatherhead restarted the Melbourne Advertising and Design Club in 1983 and had huge success as a graphic designer. He was also a TV presenter in the USA for a short while. You can find out more about him here. Alex Stitt also continued his design career, inventing the famous 'Norm' character for Life: Be In It and Sid the Seagull for the Slip Slap Slop campaign. Based on the John Gardner novel, Grendel Grendel Grendel was an animated film scripted, designed, directed and produced by Stitt in 1981. It was years ahead of its time. So was his graphic novel, Person, Nipples and Fizzy O'Therapy. Journalist/critic/advertising guru Phillip Adams describes Stitt as 'a genius, the most under-recognised bloke in the country'. (Mr Adams will be launching Stitt Autobiographics at RMIT's Storey Hall, where he will no doubt say even more nice things.) 

Stitt started to produce a second animated movie in 1983. This one was called Abra Cadabra. Unfortunately, it was never finished. The film was an Adams/Packer production. According to Russell Bevers, Program Director at The School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, when Kerry Packer sold the Nine Network to Alan Bond, all completed work to date was shipped off to the new owner and never seen again. (Not quite. The film Abra Cadabra reappeared. Paddy Stitt thinks that the Bond organisation must have released it for telecasting in the United States at some stage, and there's a 35mm master in The National Film and Television archive in Canberra. The Australian Centre for The Moving Image in Melbourne also screened it four times in October 2008, as part of a special Kids' Flicks presentation. Until a nice remastered DVD of the movie appears, you can watch a copy of it here, posted by a fan. The picture and audio aren't great, but you get a taste.)

Some of the characters from the movie Abra Cadabra, which featured the voices of Jackie Weaver, John Farnham, Hayes Gordon, Gary Files and Hamish Hughes. Those last two actors provided some of the voices in Colin South's and my series Dogstar. For Dogstar, Gary played wayward genius, Ramon Ridley and got nominated for an AFI for his efforts - but enough about us.

Stitt's other achievements were about a hundred animated ads for The Christian Television Foundation, and a spectacularly cheeky party political animation that was commissioned by the Democratic Labor Party and duly aired, several times. Little did the DLP know that there was an ingenious visual joke in the cartoon that turned the whole thing on its head.

From The Swinburne Newsletter, 1980. Alex Stitt with graduate animation student Stephen French, who also went on to work for the Dogstar juggernaut.

Og the Giant and Oliver the Ostrich, the two Jigsaw Factory mascots, had their own comic strip in The Age newspaper, commencing in 1972 and ending in 1974. The stories for the strip were devised by Bill and Lorna Hannan and illustrated by Alex. They were unique in that each strip was like a frieze. There were no frames, as in most comic strips. I collected every single one. (According to Stitt Autobiographics, the only other person who appears to have done this is composer Bruce Smeaton.) The extraordinary thing about these strips was that, though they were supposed to be for kids and very few adults would have read them, they were deeply satirical. When the strip started, Australia had a Liberal government, and a Prime Minister called William McMahon. The government had been in power for more than twenty years. A charismatic opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, led the Labor Party to victory in December 1972. The whole campaign was paralleled neatly in the Og's daily cartoon strip - and hardly any adults noticed. Writers Bill and Lorna Hannan foretold the outcome of the 1972 federal election. The comic strip's story would have been ruined if Whitlam hadn't come to power. (South Park did the same thing years later, with a special Obama episode. Creators Parker and Stone conceded that if Obama hadn't won, they wouldn't have had an episode.)

Amazingly, Weatherhead and Stitt, and the estimable publisher John Curtain who later joined Penguin Australia, gave me a break when I was twelve. I kept sending them pictures and stories I'd written. I must have been one of the most annoying kids in the world. At the time I was living in Traralgon in the Latrobe Valley, so I was understandably attracted to a place that was so colourful and bright. The Jigsaw Factory people published my stuff in a monthly lift-out for kids that was published in The Age. My modest achievement has been suitably spun to suggest that I 'had my own monthly column in The Age when I was twelve'. I didn't really. I had a column within The Jigsaw Factory lift-out in The Age. Here's the third one, which I ended up using in my first book, Hippopotabus:

One of my columns from 1972.

The Jigsaw Factory people were a generous crowd who took the time to listen to newcomers with ideas.  They also gave a break to graphic artist Grant Gittus, who designed my website. Grant, like me, was published in the same monthly lift-out at twelve. After my first visit to The Jigsaw Factory's engine room, Alex did a picture of me playing a board game with Og the Giant. It's a game I invented, called Hang Fire. The Jigsaw Factory people were nice enough to sit down with me and play the game. The prototype could never have been produced, but they were kind to take the trouble.

I'm writing this because I hope there are others who remember the amazing place on Bridge Road. (Thanks to those who got back to me, including Alex, Paddy and graphic designer Ian James, who now works from Bruce Weatherhead's desk, and corrected me where I got things wrong.) It seems extraordinary that such creativity and talent doesn't appear to have been recorded that well. But graphic artist and animator Peter Viska, who was also a trailblazer with his regular Sunday Observer liftout, told me that Alexander Stitt will be releasing a book later in the year, featuring his work. (Paddy Stitt agreed that there wasn't much information available about Weatherhead and Stitt, The Jigsaw Factory, and a golden age of graphic design in Australia. Stitt Autobiographics addresses this, so we need not rely upon the cloudy memories of bloggers like me.)

I was a brat when I first entered The Jigsaw Factory's workroom on the third floor, desperate to be a part of this wonderful place. Bruce Weatherhead, Alexander Stitt and John Curtain (also sadly passed on) were generous, inspirational and deserve special points for not kicking me into Bridge Road. I write more about Alex here because he was the one who seemed to have the job of contacting me when I was writing stuff for Og's liftout in The Age. Most of the monthly liftout was written by the Hannans again, as well as writer Barry Breen, whose story in the first issue, The Bad Deeds Gang,  is way ahead of its time. Australian children's authors like Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths would later write stories that revelled in childhood naughtiness. Actually, I wrote one or two myself. Bruce and John were every bit as friendly and welcoming as Alex, and their determination to create inventive books, posters, toys and 'funny surprises' for kids (as the TV ads promised) was very real. I'm sorry that The Jigsaw Factory came at personal cost to Alex and Bruce. It doesn't take away from the fact that, for a short while at least, there was a magical place on Bridge Road that really did impress and inspire a lot of kids and adults.

In the book, The Artist Craftsman in Australia, Alex and Bruce interview each other about The Jigsaw Factory and the philosophy that gave birth to it:

Until the book comes out (and you'll be amazed by how much of Alex's work has become a part of Australian culture) you'll find more information here
And here be a sneak preview of the book itself, in particular the Jigsaw material reprinted without permission, sorry Alex and Paddy. I'll take it down if you'd prefer. But I bet there are some grown-up kids out there like me with fond Jigsaw memories that were tickled by these pages:


  And here's the website, with plenty more fine pages, not necessarily jigsaw-related.