Nancy Ji was a little over a year out of architecture school when she came across the Mercedes-Benz Design Award on Broadsheet.

“I guess at that time I hadn’t really designed or made any furniture,” she says now. “But it was something I was always interested in. [The award] sounded pretty open if you had an idea – it didn’t really say you had to be a professional designer of any sort.”

So Ji drew up a design – and won. Her Lily Table is a two-in-one steel and aluminium unit that detaches at the top to become a portable tray. Inspired by lily pads, the tray lets you mix drinks in the kitchen and set them down on the table outside.

Looking back, Ji she says she’s grateful for the opportunity. “I feel a lot of the time you really have to be an established designer for companies to work with you. It was quite unique in that this award was for anyone.”

As a part of her prize, Ji was mentored by award partner Tait, a Melbourne-based outdoor furniture studio that helped bring her design to market.

“I had this image of what I wanted, but for a lot of junior designers there’s a lot to learn in [terms of] process,” she says. “I had a rough idea but I didn’t know the detail of it, like how things connected, how things welded – the specifics. There’s a whole economic factor, which is just as important as the design. So being able to actually go to the factory and talk to Gordon and Susan [Tait] was a fruitful process.”

Since winning the award, Ji launched the design collaboration Mina Mina with her partner, architect Mitchell Eaton. She won the 2017 Melbourne Fringe Furniture Festival Emerging Designer and 2018 Denfair Front/Centre awards for the Archie Table, a detachable terrazzo table unit with thematic links to the Lily Table.

And she recently left her job at Melbourne architecture firm Bates Smart and moved to Tokyo, where she’s completing a research project, sponsored by the Japanese government, exploring rural and urban design and architecture.

Ji says Japan is very different to Australia in its approach to aesthetics. “In Japan there’s such a long history and culture of really talented craftsmanship . . . but there’s also cutting-edge technology,” she says. “It’s a very minimalist, wide-ranging design aesthetic.”

In Australia, Ji says, architecture doesn’t feel “as rooted in tradition” as it does in Japan. (Ji was born in China and raised in New Zealand.) “In that sense it’s still a very free place to be in terms of design. There are lots of designers from all different kinds of backgrounds, including me.”

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership Mercedes-Benz.