Leigh Johnson and Aaron Zorzo are the stylish couple behind furniture and lighting collection Catapult Design. Working out of a showroom in Darlinghurst, they design their own products and also act as agents for a carefully chosen portfolio of Australian designers including BARBERA, Mr & Mrs White and The Broadsheet Restaurant’s furniture-makers of choice, Dowel Jones.
The business is only two years old and before the couple moved into their showroom last year, they operated from a tree house at their home on Dangar Island: an example of the creativity and resourcefulness that has underpinned their relationship. Catapult – so called due to Johnson’s knack for throwing himself headfirst into projects – is the natural culmination of a life together spent making and collaborating out of necessity and passion.
“We’ve always known we work well together,” says Johnson. “In fact we met at work, when we were 19 and working in the same bar on Oxford Street.”
“I was acting at the time and I thought that being gay would hurt my career,” Zorzo remembers. “So I was pretending that I was straight and working in a gay bar, as you do. And Leigh was moonlighting from the navy – he’d joined the navy at 16 to try to get out of Tasmania.”
“I said, ‘Who’s that guy behind the bar? He’s really hot’, and they went, ‘Oh don’t worry about him, he’s straight’,” Johnson laughs. The pretence didn’t last long after that, as Zorzo recalls; “He, this sexy thing, arrived in the bar as the glassie and I went home with him that night.”
“We didn’t work the first time, or the second time – this is actually our third time together and we’re 14 years strong now,” says Johnson.
The couple live on Dangar Island with their mother-and-daughter dogs, Tipi and Pelican. Because Johnson is a self-confessed country boy, and Zorzo prefers city life, the island – just an hour from Sydney – acts as the perfect compromise, and came with the opportunity to restore a beautiful old house to its former glory.
Their DIY approach can be traced back to a time spent living in Tasmania, where they cobbled together their own home and sold handmade pieces at markets. “Leigh’s mum had a property in Scamander on the east coast and we basically scrounged together building materials, reclaimed wood and second-hand bits and bobs,” Zorzo says. “For just over $2000 we built this little house on the side of a hill. We’d make furniture – side tables, coffee tables, planter pots – out of old fence palings and take it to the market and sell it. I’d also grind bowls out of river rocks to sell.”
Later they moved to Erskineville. “We didn’t have very much money but we’ve got a kombi and we used to go round and pick stuff up from the side of the road, sand it down and give it a lick of paint,” says Zorzo. “We’d then have garage sales and sell it off. Well, they were more like parties than garage sales. I swear we used to sell the same furniture back to the people down the street who’d got rid of it!”
The pair decided to pursue their passion for furniture professionally in 2002. Johnson worked in furniture rental and moved into property styling while Zorzo – also a trained horticulturalist – styled windows at Mitchell Road Antique & Design Centre and eventually worked at the same company as Johnson.
The idea to launch their own, self-funded company came from the desire to work for themselves, and the concept for Catapult was developed over a weekend. “We knew it would mean no money for a while so the renovations would have to stop and that we’d be living on a very intermittent, non-reliable wage,” says Johnson. But, as Zorzo says laughing, they knew they’d manage, “as long as we had wine!”
The company launched at the Sydney Indesign event in 2013 with the self-designed Hunter chair and GEO tables and has thrived ever since. The couple’s ambitions for the company include representing their designers at the Milan Furniture Fair for Catapult’s fifth anniversary, and later down the track, opening a destination showroom with a lifestyle concept.
“We knew that we could grow exponentially because of the talent and the amount of people who aren’t supported or represented,” says Johnson. “It’s scary as shit – I’ve never been so scared in my life, but I love it and could never work for anyone else again.”