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Lismore cabinetmaker extraordinaire made Honorary Fellow


Zoe Satherley
19 September 2009
A fascination with making things – that started with bits of wood on his parents’ farm – has taken Lismore cabinetmaker extraordinaire, Geoff Hannah, all the way to international fame as one of the finest cabinet-makers in the world.

And on Saturday, at Southern Cross University, Geoff was bestowed the title Honorary Fellow to add to his many accolades.

Geoff received his new title at one of the two graduation ceremonies held on Saturday at the Lismore campus to celebrate the achievements of 839 graduates representing all schools and colleges at the University.

Geoff, a Churchill fellow, also had the honour of giving graduates from the School of Arts and Social Sciences the Occasional Address – a task more daunting for Geoff than building one of his trademark million-dollar museum piece cabinets.

The second occasional speaker was Mr Patrick Grier, a director of several corporate boards and a member of several health care sector advisory committees.

“I am still in shock at being given such an honour,” said Geoff, who left Lismore High School aged 14, to take up a cabinetmaking apprenticeship.

“I just can’t believe it. I really can’t. I am very touched. It’s pretty damned special!”

Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Lee, attending his first graduation ceremony since taking up his role, paid tribute to Mr Hannah as a ‘master woodcraftsman’ who had a commitment to passing on his knowledge to his fellow Australians.

Geoff teaches cabinetmaking in Lismore and has also taught at places such as the Australian National University, Canberra, the University of Tasmania, Launceston, the University of Queensland and many Australian arts associations.

In 1988, during Australia’s bicentenary, Geoff made what was the first of his four famous ‘cabinets’ which was displayed at the Sydney Opera House. That year he was also awarded the Silver Medallion for the Arts, as part of Lismore’s Bicentennial Australia Day Awards.

In August this year the ‘Hannah cabinet’ – the fourth and most majestic of his iconic cabinets and named for his family – was unveiled by the Governor of NSW, Marie Bashir AC CVO at Southern Cross University. The cabinet is on display for the next four weeks at the Lismore Regional Art Gallery in Molesworth Street.

The predominant timber used in the construction of this masterpiece is Brazilian mahogany, with solid ebony columns and 23-carat gold gilding. There are 34 different types of timber used in the cabinet, as well as various other bits and pieces that Geoff has been collecting over the years, such as tortoise, abalone, and mother-of-pearl shells, jasper, agate, tiger eye, malachite, lapis lazuli and ruby.

An astonishing 5,000 hours went into making the Hannah Cabinet, which is valued well in excess of $1 million.

Geoff said his interest in woodwork started on the family farm near Casino, where he grew up. He still remembers with fondness the fun and challenge of making things out of the old pine fridge crates his father would bring home for him as a lad.

“Dad worked at the sawmill down the road and he was always bringing home bits of timber and off-cuts for me to work with,” Geoff said.

“I wasn’t very academic and all I wanted to do was work with timber, so I got an apprenticeship with Brown and Jolly in Lismore, staying there for nearly 10 years before opening my own furniture-making business in Lismore in 1973.

“In 1980 I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research fine furniture made in Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Spending time in the workshops of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, and the Palace of Versailles were real highlights. I also got the opportunity to spend time after-hours at the Louvre, in Paris, studying examples of fine furniture.

“By 1986 I had my first solo exhibition and as I was winning furniture-making awards, I decided to stop making commissioned pieces and just concentrate on building the things I wanted to build for myself, which gave me more artistic freedom … but then of course I had to find a market for them.”

Finding that market has not been a problem for this master craftsman. One of Geoff’s cabinets resides in the private entrance hall in the Governor-General’s residence in Yarraluma, Canberra; another, the ‘Australiana Cabinet’ was sold to a private collector in Antwerp, Belgium.

As Vice Chancellor Peter Lee said: “Geoff Hannah is a great Australian who has made a significant contribution to craftsmanship and the creation of works of art in Australia, while continuing to be a marvellous ambassador to Lismore and indeed Australia, making him a very worth recipient of the award of Honorary Fellow of the University.”

Photo: Geoff Hannah with his wife, Rhonda, and grandchildren (left to right), Sonny Hannah, 6, Adam Murray, 10, Daisy Hannah, 7, and Hannah-May Murray, 8.