Last year, Tom Fereday entered the Mercedes-Benz Design Award – and won. Last week, he launched his SIA chair, an elegant, imaginative new product that may not have existed had it not been awarded the top prize in 2017.

For Fereday, the award provided him with a platform to radically expand the scope of his career. “With other industries, like architecture and interior design, Australia is quite well understood and appreciated. With furniture, it’s just less well known,” he says. “My product’s been exhibited and shown not just in Australia but overseas. For anyone in Australia, that’s a really strong benefit and a priority. It’s a really cool opportunity.”

Beyond some appealing prizes (like an extended loan of a Mercedes-Benz for the duration of 2019) what the 2018 iteration of the Mercedes-Benz Design Award does best is offer a leg-up. It couples young designers to old hands in the industry, who not only offer their hard-won wisdom, but provide invaluable connections to the rest of the design world.

The Art of Connection

Perhaps the single most important attribute of the award is its mentorship program. Whoever wins will develop their product alongside four industry leaders, who’ll not only help refine its design but steward it through the manufacturing and retail process. Katya Wachtel, Broadsheet’s editorial director, is effusive about the effect of mentorship on her own career.

“I was lucky to have mentors come in and out of my life through either school or professional opportunities. But not everyone has that,” she says. “The more mentors you have, the better. Everyone brings their own wisdom, and their own experiences. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, or how driven you are, having someone who’s been there before and can give you pieces of wisdom is only going to make you better, faster.”

Adele Winteridge, director of the acclaimed architectural design firm Foolscap Studio, likens the mentorship process to being able to have a conversation with your future self. “It’s about someone older, someone who has the information, who has gone through those mistakes themselves, and can pass that wisdom on,” she says. “It’s a passing down of information that you don’t usually get access to.”

“It’s that knowledge that can really change the way you approach different things as someone just starting out.”

Cracking the International Market

The pattern for many Australian careers is to become a designer-maker, someone who makes small amounts of product independently, simply because it’s difficult to find institutional support. But the sheer size of markets in Asia, American and Europe can enable a designer to become more ambitious.

Richard Munao, founder of Cult Design and the man who’ll manufacture and sell the winning product, is enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by the Mercedes-Benz Design Award. “A lot of people are designer-makers, because there isn’t that investment, which is that light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “From my perspective, I’m not just giving them mentorship from an Australian perspective, but I’m quite connected internationally.”

In the four years since its inception, Wachtel has seen the international standing of the award grow into something truly significant. For instance, Fereday, who took out the prize last year, was given a channel through which to sell his work in both Germany and the USA. “This is an award that isn’t intended to be just local, it’s to showcase the winner, and to showcase Australian design,” she says. “Technology has been incredible in breaking down borders – so it doesn’t matter if you’re from Australia or if you’re from Milan. But in design especially, seeing something online is not the same as seeing it in real life.”

“Going overseas, showing your work and having that acclaimed by Europe, showing we’re on par with Germany, or Scandanavia, or Italy, it’s so exciting.”

Making Something Beautiful

For most designers – in fact, for most creative people – the true goal is in the creation of something beautiful, something with integrity, something that will stand the test of time. The Mercedes-Benz Design Award is engineered to help you do that. “Excellent design is something that’s new, something that’s not been done before. But also in its execution, it has to be the best possible solution,” says Fereday.

The ambition of this year’s mentors is to help develop a piece that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also genuinely sustainable – in every sense of the word. “I’m always looking for longevity, both in the design but also in the quality of the particular product,” says Munao. “The old slogan of ‘Buy Well, Buy Once’ is more sustainable than buying a product that’s made out of sustainable materials but is only going to last you two years. My view is that you need to design things that can be handed down from generation to generation rather than being put out on the side of the street.”

For her part, Winteridge is optimistic about the potential for design to help solve the problems of climate change. “Sustainability comes in a lot of forms and there’s massive cultural change that needs to happen. But design, and design thinking, can form a huge part of that,” she says. “Just thinking about how those objects are produced can massively change the waste to landfill that that object will have further down the track.”

Wachtel believes that while material selection, energy use and manufacturing processes are all an important part of being sustainable, the ability to create an item that people truly value – on an emotional level – is key to changing our culture. “I think that design can impact climate change in ways that are enormous and far-reaching,” she says. “If you create something people use, and love using, then it stays in circulation.”

Fereday completely agrees. “If you create something that really is well-made and considered, not only in terms of its environmental impact but also for its longevity, then you counter the culture of throwaway items,” he says. “You can make something aesthetically functional and valuable, then people will really cherish it and just have one of those things in their lives. That would go a long way to helping a lot of the world’s problems.

The winner of the Mercedes-Benz Design Award will receive:

• Your design prototyped, manufactured and sold by Cult Design.
• Mentorship from Richard Munao from Cult Design; Mercedes-Benz product manager André Dutkowski; Katya Wachtel, editorial director of Broadsheet; Foolscap Studio director Adele Winteridge; and 2017 Mercedes-Benz Design Award winner Tom Fereday.
• An extended loan of a new Mercedes-Benz car to drive in 2019.

To enter this year’s Mercedes-Benz Design Award, all you need is a great idea. For more information - and to submit your entry - simply visit mercedesbenzdesignaward.com.au.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Mercedes-Benz. Learn more about the Mercedes-Benz Design Award and the latest Mercedes-Benz designs.