“Good design has the ability to solve problems,” says Melbourne-based architect Nancy Ji. “It has the ability to stop you for a moment in your busy life and make you look twice, to enjoy and to contemplate – much like a piece of art.”

Ji is one of four finalists in the 2016 Mercedes-Benz Design Award by Broadsheet. This year the brief called for entries that enhance the outdoor-dining experience. The winner will work with renowned outdoor furniture designer Tait to develop their design from the prototype stage through to production. The finished product will then be added to the Tait range and offered for sale nationwide.

Ji was shortlisted for her nature-inspired design, the two-in-one Lily table and tray.

Gordon and Susan Tait – the founders and company directors of Tait and co-judges of this year’s awards – say Ji’s Lily table and tray stood out among the many impressive submissions received this year.

“Nancy’s Lily table and tray is a particularly strong entry,” says Gordon. “It really captures our passion for enhancing outdoor living by exceptional design. Nancy is able to fuse practicality with a sophisticated aesthetic, and her knowledge and incorporation of stainless-steel and timber is admirable”.

We spoke to Ji about how a childhood filled with creative pursuits led to a love of design as an adult.

Broadsheet: Tell us about your background and earliest experiences with design.

Nancy Ji: My parents were very supportive of creative activities and took me to drawing, dance and music lessons from a young age. I then went to architecture school for five years, studying in New Zealand, Australia, the US and the Netherlands. My first real-world experience was as a student, making models by hand for Atelier Bow-Wow, an architecture firm in Tokyo.

BS: What role does design play in your career today?

NJ: I graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Master of Architecture and have been working at Bates Smart Architects in Melbourne. Outside of work, I love collaborating with friends on projects, especially with my partner Mitch who is also an architect. We design and make a range of items including furniture, clothing and Christmas cards.

BS: What does your workspace look like?

NJ: During the day, my workplace is at ICI house (the Orica building) designed by Bates Smart in the 1950s. When it was built it was the tallest building in Australia – the country’s first skyscraper. It’s a great place to work, with generous natural light and city views . My home in Carlton is also my workspace, where the dining table is also my model-making bench and sewing station.

BS: Explain your design for the Lily table and tray.

NJ: It’s a simple but functional two-in-one piece combining a tray stacked on a table. It features a detachable serving tray and a shelf ideal for storing items like wine bottles and ice buckets. It’s a trusty companion for long summer nights.

BS: Where did the idea for the Lily come from?

NJ: It was inspired by an image of a lilypad floating on water. I wanted to take natural forms and translate them into functional details, like the V-shaped lip, which allows water to drain out.

BS: How does the Lily improve the outdoor-dining experience? What makes it particularly suitable for the outdoors?

NJ: Lily caters to our casual dining habits. It’s an alternative to the full formal outdoor dining set; all you need is a spot for your snacks and drinks. Its lightness makes it easy to move around and the robust material withstands outdoor weather. It can also be used indoors as a coffee table or side table.

BS: Which materials have you used in your design?

NJ: The tabletop is made from thin sheet-steel with tubular steel legs. The tray can also be made from steel or a treated timber, such as lacquered ash.

BS: Which designers do you most admire?

NJ: Jørn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, once said a good designer has an “understanding of walking, standing, sitting and lying comfortably, of enjoying the sun, the shade, the water on our bodies, the earth and all the less easily defined sensations.” I also admire many designers, artists, architects and fashion labels here in Australia.

BS: What would you say are the defining qualities of Australian design?

NJ: Australia is such a multicultural country, which means we are not bound by a single style. We can freely explore our own individual design language. Rather than having defining qualities, I think we share an underlying attitude – a ‘can-do’ approach where we make things work with what we have.

BS: What would winning the award mean to you?

NJ: It would give me an invaluable insight into the production and manufacturing side of a product, as well as how a successful local business like Tait operates. Learning to turn an idea into a reality would be the most exciting part for me – and hopefully equip me with the skills to create more of my own pieces in the future.

Meet our other finalists Joshua Flowers, Marcus Piper and Adele Winteridge. The winner of the Mercedes-Benz Design Award presented by Broadsheet will be announced at a ceremony in Melbourne on Thursday December 1.