No one understands the benefits of well-designed products in the home better than local designers. Whether drawing inspiration from their surroundings, collaborating with manufacturers or honing in on a gap in the market, local designers are making some of the best products around. But exactly how they came to be depends on who you ask.
Nothing unites a dining room better than a great table. Tara Wilcox and Nicola Grey run Redfox & Wilcox, an artisan-furniture brand based in Collingwood. The pair makes modernist-inspired pieces from salvaged timber, including their feature blonde-parquet dining table. “A dining table is something you use on a daily basis,” says Wilcox. “It can be the hub of a home.” Using recycled Australian hardwoods such as Victorian Ash and Tasmanian Oak, Wilcox says the sentiment of their tables is as important as function. “There’s a simple familiarity in our materials and aesthetic that reminds us of childhood.”
Inspiration is one thing, but collaboration is the key to delivering a design into the home. “Designing and prototyping new pieces is always exciting,” says Wilcox. “The first time we build and see a finished sample is always an amazing feeling, and we love learning about new materials and processes, meeting new suppliers and fabricators, and seeing our vision unfold.”
Familial roots are a common thread in small design businesses. With a porcelain range featured in showrooms around the world, mud Australia founder and designer Shelley Simpson found a niche making products she felt were missing from her own home. Or as with her slender vase range, learnt about a need for it while talking with her stepmother.
“Most of the vases I had in my life cost an absolute fortune,” recalls Simpson. “My stepmother in law, Jenny, started talking to me about a sensible vase – what it does, different heights and things. She said you don’t want to spend a fortune to fill it, you want to be able to buy a small bouquet of flowers – or just three – and put them in a particular vase. So it’s really from her life experience that our vases evolved.”
Simpson is referring to the intimacy of the design process. Before any product appears for sale, it must have first survived a long and sometimes difficult relationship with its creator.
“I have worked on pieces where you like the idea of something and you bring it to market and it falls through,” says Ross Gardam, who since 2007 has been running his own furniture and lighting design business in Melbourne. “The piece might be amazing in some ways, but [you discover] it’s too hard to package, or it’s too expensive or the material’s not durable.”
Gardam says he’s learnt to navigate a process that ensures a piece will work. “Before we start designing we might say, ‘OK we’re going to do a new light and it’s going to be a large-format light,’” he explains. “We’ll look at different ways to make it: materials, whether it needs to hit any sustainable certification, any existing products on the market and who’s going to use it. I also like if there’s any rituals involved with the use of the product.”
Gardam has recently finished that process with a new addition to the Ross Gardam lighting range – the Aura Pendant (also available as a desk lamp). Featuring a floating disk nestled below a large pendant to create an eclipse effect, the large format light is a bold, beautiful feature for a dining room – the sleek result of a complex process.
“Sometimes things are passion-led, sometimes things are not,” agrees Dale Hardiman of Dowel Jones furniture. Having fitted out the recent Broadsheet Restaurant pop-up with its Full-Hurdle chair, Hardiman supports Gardam when he says Dowel Jones designs are more than idea alone. “We knew we wanted to design a chair, and then six months before the range, distributors and agents were saying there was a gap in the market,” says Hardiman. “We wanted to design a family of furniture the same time people were asking for it, as opposed to us just having an idea for a chair and saying, ‘Let’s do it’. So it can be based around what else is happening at the time.”
Discovering a gap in the market to match an interest also informed Mr. Draper, a small business that makes linen bedclothes and tableware. The work of Alistair Birrell, Mr. Draper kicked off when Birrell’s experience in fashion combined with his frustration at not being able to find locally made linen. “Before starting Mr Draper my partner and I were trying to source locally made bedding and napery and really struggled to find anyone who was doing it at an reasonable price point,” says Birrell. “It seemed crazy to me that I couldn’t easily find someone to sew a tablecloth to size. It’s literally just hemming a piece of fabric.”
Birrell was inspired, but started simple. “I sourced a really nice 100 per cent linen fabric and ran with eight complementary and accessible colours,” he says. “White napkins and tablecloths work for some people, but I don’t think they’re practical for everyday life. Darker colours help with some of the stains and blemishes that come from everyday use and help develop the character.”
Flaunting local character and Australian identity is another way to stand out in a visual, Instagram-fueled market. Bonnie and Neil are a collaboration between real-life partners Bonnie Ashley and Neil Downie, and their bright range includes flora- and fauna-led cushions, wall tiles, timber furniture and tableware. “We were really driven to feature bright colours and the Australian landscape, because it’s a constant source of inspiration for us,” says Ashley. “A lot of our patterns are quite abstract and painterly – we like for them to have a natural and artistic look.” With all Bonnie and Neil’s designs screen-printed by hand, each piece is different and retains a strong sense of identity.
And with identity established, character blossoms. Sophie Harle is behind Shiko, a handmade pottery line out of Brunswick. Working alone to produce plates, bowls, cups and more, Harle’s work is in demand with cafes, stylists and collectors, thanks to her personal spin on Danish-Japanese design.
“You see pottery from other countries and it’s not going in the same direction that Australian pottery is going in,” says Harle. “In Australia there’s refinement and a strong sense of design, but there’s also an earthy, honest, materials-based aesthetic. It’s not that really super-glossy, perfectly formed look. These are natural materials and they’re not being hidden, they’re on display.”
A great example is Harle’s twisted-rim plate, which Harle says is about capturing a statement. “There’s a kind of perfection or control that happens on the potter’s wheel and it’s really nice to subvert that,” she says. “You can have a perfect plate. But there’s an energy within the clay that you can twist and play with, and then that one action is held for the life of the plate. It’s almost like capturing a dancer in mid flight. You’re holding a moment within the body of the plate forever.”
This article is presented by the Mercedes-Benz Design Award.