Prize-winning designer hits out at Council signs U-turn

The fallout from Broken Hill City Council’s decision to replace the recently installed Welcome to Broken Hill signs with a local artist’s work continue to reverberate, with the winning designer of the current signs hitting out at Council for backtracking on the choice after only three years.

The designer who won the original competition – Joe Scerri – says he is “very bitterly disappointed” at Council’s u-turn.

“For me, it’s very saddening because I did win the competition,” he told the Barrier Truth.

“It was national. I am a designer of 30 years, I’ve worked with many signage components in architecture, so I really know what I’m doing,” Mr Scerri said.

He is also scathing of the way the u-turn came about and also at the replacements designed by Broken Hill local Deanna Spicer who along with other locals petitioned the Council to change its mind and choose her designs instead.

When councillor Tom Kennedy became Mayor in the most recent local government election he had enough votes in council to overturn the original prize-winning designs and opt instead for Ms Spicer’s designs. Mr Scerri says it was the wrong move.

“When I looked at [Deanna’s] designs, I thought they were absolutely horrendous,” says Mr Scerri. They looked like they were designed by a primary school student, they’re very amateur, they’re outdated… so I don’t really see anything genius about it, I don’t see any creativity in there.

“I think she’s downloaded some ClipArt images and just thrown them together like a pizza with the works. There’s no sense of cohesion.

“There’s such an imbalance of weight on such skinny legs and it’s very top-heavy. I don’t know if it’s going to topple over but I wanted to create something that was very solid and firm. I hope they can cut them okay, because there’s a lot of laser cutting that needs to be done.”

In November 2017, Council launched a national competition for people to design new gateway signs to be placed at the five main entry points leading into town.

The competition was open for two months, with the winning entry selected by a judging panel made up of then-current Mayor Darriea Turley, Broken Hill Heritage Advisor Paul Davies, Vice-Chair ‘Our Economy’ Key Direction Working Group Jim Nolan, Kathy Graham from West Darling Arts, and Anthony Hayward of Amanya Mitha Indigenous Art Gallery.

Two of Deanna Spicer’s set of five varied designs capturing the different aspects of the regional centre.

Some 73 entries submitted, with the five-person judging panel settling on Melbourne-based designer Mr Scerri as the winner of the competition.

Construction on the gateway signs based on his designs began in mid-2019 before the first sign on the Barrier Highway was unveiled in November of that year.

But no matter the competition result, some locals believed the winning entry should have come from someone who calls Broken Hill home, with many pointing towards Deanna Spicer’s set of five varied designs capturing the different aspects of the regional centre.

Ms Spicer’s designs resemble the Silverton sign, though, in 2019, Council commented it wanted a similar looking sign, but “didn’t want to simply copy their style outright”.

In the years following Council choosing Mr Scerri’s designs and the signs being erected, Ms Spicer – along with vocal members of the community – staged a campaign on social media and on the ground which included a petition gathering over 1000 signatures, alongside advertisements in the Barrier Truth that pushed her design over Mr Scerri’s.

A Gateway Signage Advisory Group Project Steering Group was also established, “to provide guidance and advice on the removal and replacement of the gateway signage, with a sign chosen by Deanna Spicer from her designs”.

When Tom Kennedy – who was a Broken Hill City councillor at the time of the gateway sign competition – announced his running for Mayor, one of his election promises was, “the gateway signs to be revisited with the view to replace with signs that represent the city’s rich history and culture and to facilitate tourism promotion”. Mayor Kennedy was elected to the role in December 2021.

One year into Cllr Kennedy’s tenure as Mayor, his promise looks to be fulfilled – at least with regards to one sign so far.

As confirmed at last month’s ordinary meeting, Council elected to replace the current Scerri-designed sign on Wentworth Road with one of Ms Spicer’s designs, with discussion around replacing the remaining four signs later.

In 2018, Council originally budgeted $150,000 for the existing set of signs.

Now, the first sign to be installed, based on Ms Spicer’s design, will cost in the region of $21,384, according to the Council, with any additional structural engineering and sign removal costs assessed on a cost-by-cost basis.

The other four signs are to be replaced using funds raised by the gateway sign committee.

“When I got that call… I was over the moon that my design was chosen,” Mr Scerri told us.

“It was the first thing I’d ever won, and I don’t really enter very many competitions but that one I did and I’m still over the moon that my work is still there.

“It wasn’t a really big money prize, but I think it was more the opportunity to just have work built on that kind of scale in multiple locations was mind-blowing for me, especially in that beautiful landscape.

“You can really approach a design for an entry gate in many different ways but if you’re driving past it, in my eyes, what I want to see very clear wording, very large wording ‘Welcome to Broken Hill’. We often go on lots of roadtrips and we pass towns and you just need a glimpse of the entry sign.”

Mr Scerri said, in his opinion, Ms Spicer’s designs have too much going on.

“She doesn’t need to put absolutely every literal thing in the sign. When people get to the town they’re going to notice that.

“There’s two of the signs in particular that I think are abysmal, in my opinion they’re so trashy and cheap and she hasn’t really composed it in a way where it fits together, it’s held together very loosely by little lines of steel just to hold the picture together.

“I showed this to a few architect friends of mine and they went ‘you’re kidding me, this is going to get built?’”

In his opinion, the signs may not last.

“I’m not sure if it will stand the test of time because there’s a lot of top-heavy elements and there just seems to be a massive imbalance, there’s no focal point… it doesn’t really show her sense of clear thinking.”

He says recognising the Indigenous people of the land, the Wilyakali people, was an important piece of his design – and formed part of the original brief of the competition.

Mr Scerri says he spoke with Indigenous artists in the community, asking what needed to be highlighted. They responded with a mountain range – the Pinnacles – which he included.

Mr Scerri sees the Indigenous element as an afterthought in Ms Spicer’s designs.

“I wanted to approach it from a more simplistic point of view where simplicity is much greater than so much detail and so much information. I know Broken Hill is a town famous for many different industries and of course it’s mining but for me, I think the most important thing to outline was the fact that the land does belong to the Indigenous owners. That’s the direction that I was coming from. I didn’t want to throw mining there because we all know Broken Hill is all about mining, and do we need that to repeat itself? No,” he says.

“The acknowledgement of the Indigenous local people was paramount in my design. I put them forward before the industry because above digging the Earth for rocks and minerals, it is Indigenous land after all, so I was a coming from more of a spiritual point of view rather than acknowledging money.”

Mr Scerri said he had not been contacted by Council about his signs being taken down.

“Absolutely, of course I would’ve [liked Council to reach out]. I did have really good communication with the Council and everything they needed I delivered on time. I spent quite a lot of time getting drawings together for the footings and I produced all of the architectural plans and measurements myself and I spoke with a local engineer about the weight of the object, the thickness of the metal, the size, the height, so I worked out what the average eye level is when someone gets out of a car and walks around it, they can obviously see the wording at eye level. There was a lot of involvement and I think they appreciated that. And I guess it just comes from my experience of working with architectural firms and signage solutions.”

Mr Scerri said Ms Spicer’s approach resembled the behaviour of a “sore loser”.

“I think it’s a sad waste of steel and money and possibly everyone’s time. I followed this very closely and I’m pretty disgusted with the way that she’s pretty much stamped her feet up and down, going ‘I want my designs at the front’ and I mean, she’s got what she wanted in the end so I guess she’s proud of herself.

“She did propose her design, but they didn’t choose it, because they didn’t think it was substantial enough. Now, she couldn’t accept that.

“I’ve hired hundreds of designers over the years across Europe and across Australia and I’ve never seen such an approach push its way to the front, it’s pretty sickening.

“I guess, in my mind, I won the competition, and my works were produced so that’s the most important thing for me.”

It’s unclear at the moment where the first of Mr Scerri’s signs will end up, though Council suggest it could be placed at the Line of Lode miner’s memorial or the visitor centre.

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