Inspired by the lack of decent gifts available for Melburnians to impart on foreigners, graphic designer, artist and writer Maree Coote began photographing the city.
“I was standing on Swanston Street years ago when I was starting to do the book, and I thought, who’s Swanston? Why don’t I know this? I think it’s incredible that we can trundle along and not know who the main street of the city is named for.”
That was ten years ago and now she’s publishing the fourth edition. The Melbourne Book: A History of Now tells the tales of Swanston, Bourke and Myer, the characters that inhabit street signs and buildings. . From Charles La Trobe marking out areas for parks, to surveyor Robert Hoddle insisting streets were made 99 feet wide – enough room for a full six bullocks and a cart to do a U-turn, Coote wants to integrate the ever-evolving history of Melbourne into one book. In the case of Melbourne, that means documenting a city that’s only as old as the life span of two nannas, as Coote describes it, in order to acknowledge the people who put so much into the city.
“We’re called liveable now because of all the people who came before us,” says Coote. “I think if you don’t understand history, it’s really easy to bugger it up.”
Included in the latest edition – with over 700 photographs – are updates on Melbourne-born and (now) American-owned Vegemite, biographies on Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries, as well as Dame Edna, and features on Coote’s choice of the ultimate Melburnians: Sidney Myer and William Buckley.
In Coote’s gallery-cum-shop, aptly named Melbournestyle, an eclectic mix of Melburnian paraphernalia fills the shopfront – from scarves and knickknacks to jewellery and cups. She opened it back in 1994 with her husband Lex. Upstairs is a gallery, the walls lined with Coote’s Ned Kelly prints and newer images from her latest children’s book, Alphabet City Melbourne.
Filled with letters that hide in everyday parts of the city, from the vibrant, yellow ‘A’ of Ron Robertson-Swann’s Yellow Peril, to the columns that go up Southern Cross station and branch out into giant ‘Y’s. Complete with an app that encourages people to photograph letters from their own cities, this book is designed to instil graphic memories of Melbourne from childhood.
“Hopefully children will look around the city and recognise these things from babies' books that they remember, that become part of their memories as they grow up, giving them that sense of place.”
The Melbourne Book: A History of Now (Melbournestyle $55) is out now. Alphabet City Melbourne (Melbournestyle $19.95) is out Nov 1.