For many coast-dwelling Australians, those first memories of catching waves on a surfboard can be thrilling and terrifying all at once. For thirteen-year-old Tom Hewitt, it was memorable for other reasons. After his first surfing experience, Hewitt discovered a new interest: designing and making surfboards – many of them, in fact – each time addressing design flaws he found in the previous.

From here, his love of hands-on design continued to grow. And with two inventive parents, a creativity-led career seemed almost inevitable.

“My mum was an artist and textile designer and my dad was an engineer. Often, I find myself torn between doing art or design, but I’ve since realised the two worlds are synergistic, in a way, to my work and my personal style,” Hewitt says.

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Having combined both areas in his furniture designs, Hewitt’s exciting work has drawn attention from the 2018 Mercedes-Benz Design Award’s judges, landing him a place among the three finalists. His O-KI Lounge Chair is made from locally sourced timber, with an interchangeable sling. He’s also designed a matching ottoman with a removable slung seat that allows the user to easily remove and replace it over time.

The finalists were determined by the mentors – Richard Munao (managing director, Cult), Adele Winteridge (founding director, Foolscap Studio), André Dutkowski (senior product manager, Mercedes-Benz), Katya Wachtel (editorial director, Broadsheet) and Tom Fereday (the 2017 Mercedes-Benz Design Award winner) – who judged the entries blind. Each entry was identified with a number, not a name, and judged on how adequately it answered the brief.

Adele Winteridge was impressed with Hewitt’s “nostalgic design aesthetic” and modern take on ‘70s tubular chairs. “The interchangeable sling indicates the designer is thinking about the shelf life of product – longevity has been considered in the initial design,” she says. “This chair could become a modern-day classic and something that is passed down as a family heirloom.”

“There has been thought and care in the sustainability of the materials chosen, such as locally grown FSC timbers and oil-based sealants.”

We talked to Hewitt about his living-room-enhancing, sustainable design.

Broadsheet: As a designer, what inspires your work?
Tom Hewitt: I am often inspired when I spot a gap or need in the market. If there is nothing available that suits the purpose or aesthetic I'm searching for, I have an impulse to try filling that gap. Once I've begun working on an idea through the development phase, the work itself becomes a kind of self-serving motivation. I love the journey of a product.

BS: What does good design mean to you?
TH: I believe both functionality and personality is vital to good design. And, by creating an emotional connection to a product during creation, design can be used to tell a story.

BS: Where do you do your work?
TH: I have a small workshop at home where I’m able to do basic fabrication. I have a very hands-on approach to design, which means my workshop comes to great use. And the living room often doubles as a great studio space.

BS: Is there anyone you attribute your design knowledge to?
TH: My dad has been a great teacher on all things engineering and fabrication from when I was young, which has been invaluable. I try to immerse myself in the product-design world and I've found that constantly being around good and current design has aided me in honing in on the aesthetic a want to pursue.

BS: Could you tell us a little about your design history?
TH: I completed a degree in industrial design at Swinburne University before working in the furniture industry for 18 months. This gave me a great appreciation for interior design and manufacture. I currently work at Rakumba Lighting as part of the design team. The design experience I’ve gained there has been invaluable.

BS: How would you explain your design for the O-KI Lounge?
TH: The O-KI is a timber and fabric lounge chair and optional ottoman. The user is able to easily remove dowels to replace the sling if required. My goal for the product is that it will be comfortable for its user, appealing and sustainable.

BS: Where did the idea for the lounge stem from?
TH: I wanted to design a chair that was visually light and elegant but still maintained the function of a lounge. Currently, I have a small living space and I can appreciate why weight and mobility should be considered in design. The slung seat helps keep the product comfortable yet simple, and the disassembly option for the user addresses the longevity of the product.

BS: How have you addressed the matter of sustainability with your lounge?
TH: I’ve approached sustainability from two angles: first, in the materials and manufacture, then in the longevity and reparation. I’ve used PEFC locally sourced blackbutt for the frame – I love the natural warmth, beauty and feel of the timber – and GECA (Good Environmental Choice Australia)-certified upholstery for the sling.

When it comes to lounges, the fabric element is the party most likely to require replacement. Rather than a full product return, a replacement may be sent out, and installed by the user. The fabric may also be removed for recycling or repurposing. The flexibility of using an upholstery fabric provides an economical but comfortable alternative.

BS: What would it mean to you to win the Mercedes-Benz Design Award?
TH: It's been a fantastic and motivating experience just to be a finalist for the Mercedes-Benz Design Award. To win would be incredible. To have a product stocked in the Cult showroom would be a great achievement.

Meet our other finalists Zachary Hanna and James Walsh. The winner of the Mercedes-Benz Design Award presented by Broadsheet will be announced at The Cult Design Showroom in Sydney on Thursday 28 February.