Waiting for owner Nick Garnham out in Jardan’s showroom space in Glen Waverley (Melbourne), it’s clear that the brand has its signature sorted. Taking its cues from mid-century modernists – Scandinavian and American alike – but with a happier, fresher style that’s just as optimistic about the future, Jardan is one of Australia’s last remaining furniture manufacturers in the game. After 15 years in business, the company is about to open its showroom doors to the public in Melbourne and Sydney – spaces that were once reserved exclusively for the industry, interior designers and architects.
The suburban showroom space itself is not what you expect from its dowdy industrial estate exterior. The building is open, airy and a ceiling fan the size of a helicopter rotor hangs above. These fixed fittings are in primary pop colours and add to the overall view that Jardan version 2013 knows what it is doing. But it wasn’t always that way.
It’s fair to say that Jardan has always made decent furniture, but it languished in no man’s land for years, with little in the way of a discernible style or design language. Truth be told, the Australian, family-owned furniture business (which had been in operation since 1987) was a little bland. It seemed like cubic, brown and beige sofas were as far as the imagination stretched.
Garnham had been working as a furniture maker at Jardan for several years. “There was this guy who was just running it into the ground,” he says of the previous owner, who brought the company to bankruptcy. So in 1997, when “the time was right”, Garham took over the company with his brother Michael and father Barry, who had no experience in furniture or carpentry, but saw it as a business opportunity with potential for growth. Jardan is barely recognisable from when they took the reigns 15 years ago with a meagre staff of eight (they now employ over 100).
When Garnham walks from his office, he has a relaxed, roughed swagger (it comes as no surprise that he’s a surfer) and as we walk through the large showroom space, he has a buoyancy and confidence that his is the right path. The 43-year-old’s company is a kind of extension of his lifestyle. He wants to make things that have meaning and purpose. “We have great designers here and [Australia is fast] becoming the place to look to for the future…in more than just [design], plus if [the internationals] can sell here, surely we have a market,” he continues as we settle at a dinner table set-up.
“It can’t just be a cottage industry,” he continues, looking about the showroom and hinting at what’s behind the wall to my left. “Being small is fine, but there are limitations: time, production, efficiency. “We love well-made things, but that doesn’t mean they have to be slow…we have an economy of scale. We can maintain quality but we can also handle quantity.”
The world opens up when you offer quantity; everything from timber and steel used for frames, to fabrics and textiles, falls into place at a better cost, yet Garnham still insists that everything can be tailored to suit. Production scale and technique haven’t made individualism obsolete. You want sky blue wool upholstery, moving through the spectrum to French navy, via tomato red? Done. There are practically infinite options to be had with any of their pieces. Or you could simply take it as it is, off the new public showroom floor.
We walk into the design studio. The small team of designers are working on a timber lampshade for the upcoming Sydney Indesign trade show. The mock-ups show several grain options, techniques and methods, suggesting both an expansion of the range and progress in design and development.
Aside from its development and growth, what is most impressive about Jardan is the company’s recognition of the environment and the credentials that have been bestowed upon it. It’s one thing to be a small business of eight, but when you grow big, your operation has to adjust and not just ecologically either. Garnham explains that when you change one thing, it tends to have a snowball effect: your work environment becomes safer, you insist on better conditions for employees, your interests widen, while your product becomes more focused. All because one change made you think differently about how you approached your work.
So the Garnham brothers went about making Jardan a poster boy for the green set, with hemp cloth and raw timber, sleeve-worn environmentalism, but smart and logical that doesn’t sacrifice any of the form or function that they worked so hard for in the first place. “We use water-based glues and stains,” explains Garnham. “We imported these from France,” he says, gesturing to a gluing rig, “CFC-free foams, timber sourced through regulated, renewable forests and fabrics and textiles from manufacturers with environmental certification.”
Currently, every single piece in the range has the highest possible rating, a Level A from Good Environmental Choice Australia or GECA. And like ethical design legends Vitsoe, planned obsolescence isn’t part of the program. Being green isn’t just what goes on in the beginning but what happens during and at the end of its life too. Being local means re-upholstery or maintenance if necessary, plus it’s easy on the miles and pieces can be recycled under the product stewardship program at the end of their life and turned back into new sofas, padding and frames.
But despite its importance, this is secondary to making a great sofa, dinner table or bookshelf you’ll want in your living room, study or bedroom. Indeed, despite being around for 25 years, it has been in the last 10 that Jardan has finally established a design language of its own. It’s a mid-century, jazzy feel that has Scandinavian leanings but is fun without being novel; taking design seriously, but knowing that at the end of the day you just want a good sofa that doesn’t come flat-packed in a box, now that you’ve grown up a bit.
Opening to the public will be a chance for the company to connect firsthand with the client and show off the world the way Jardan sees it. There’ll be a multitude of products that encapsulate the brand and how it will fit in someone’s life and living room, from furniture to ceramics and homewares. There’ll be pieces that inspire or have inspired and collaborative work with designers and artists (in the past Jardan has worked with creative studio Foolscap on chairs and stools for restaurants and cafes, has participated in the Design Files Open House and worked with the design team at South by South West on Jardan’s online platform).
What Jardan has done is no small feat. It has recognised its place in the market, grown to suit and fit, and at the same time pushed and excelled in both design and work practices – all the while staying true to itself and coolly Australian without the Australiana.
“Australia is in a (fortunate) position right now to invest in our local production, Garnham says. “We know we couldn’t do what we do if we outsourced it offshore.”
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