In a former apple-packing shed built in 1911, nestled in a private precinct just north of Hobart’s CBD, is where McCusker works on her eponymous furniture business, which was founded in Sydney nearly 30 years ago.
Inside her large workshop are several projects in various stages of completion. A five-metre-long Tasmanian oak kitchen bench is soon to be shipped to its forever home in Sydney, while a striking black timber dining table (turned this colour thanks to the application of oxide triggering the tannins within the wood) is destined for a local family.
Twenty years ago, she and her young family knew they needed a change from living in Sydney. They were considering regional options when a friend asked if they’d thought about the island state. They came for a long weekend in April 2003. “It rained all weekend and was really cold. We thought it was the most beautiful place we’d ever seen, so we figured if we loved it in the cold then that’s it!”
They moved eight months later with not much of a plan. McCusker worked at a local shipyard doing a boat fit-out, before returning to university. By the time she finished her degree, her furniture business was getting busier and the juggle didn’t make sense, so she jumped into full-time creating. “Being an artist in Tassie is much more accessible. Historically, to sell pieces I would have had to put my work in a gallery or retail space, so there’s a huge mark-up. Down here most of my sales are people coming directly to me.”
Laura’s timber of choice is generally Tasmanian oak – a misleading term for wood that is, in fact, not oak. “Tasmanian oak” is actually an umbrella term for several species of gum. McCusker likens it to butchers selling pork belly, lamb saddle and chicken tenderloins simply as “protein”. For her purposes, she predominantly uses Eucalyptus obliqua, regnans or delegatensis for her creations.
Her deep respect for timber is clear. “If the tree’s taken nearly a hundred years to grow, the furniture needs to give you at least that. If not two or three [hundred years],” she says. She aims to share this respect with her clients who increasingly want to know the maker and the provenance of the timber. “There’s a love and intention that comes with that, and things last longer when they’re built from that standpoint.” Like the appeal of farmgate markets and cellar doors, where people can get an understanding of where their food comes from, consumers are savvier about what they want, and it’s often quality and authenticity. Waitlist aside, clients can expect to receive their handmade furniture, often delivered by McCusker herself, within four to six weeks. “I like to deliver a piece that looks beautiful on day one, and exceptional five years later.”
McCusker has worked on a plethora of iconic Tasmanian projects, including the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and Spring Bay Mill. She was engaged by Hobart’s Mona before it opened, to help the gallery decide on its furniture. McCusker created several commissions for the Mona hotel rooms, as well as dining tables and outdoor dining pieces for the Source restaurant. One of her largest works was a 60-metre table for Mona owner David Walsh and Kirsha Kaechele’s wedding. Walsh said of the result, “Laura has made me the most amazing table in the world. No question.” A good business card line if ever there was one. This table has gone on to be used for countless events at Mona.
“We moved to Tassie to simplify our lives and make the most of what was important. It never occurred to me that I’d be working for someone like David and Mona. It’s like a fever dream really.”
McCusker’s social connections are vital, particularly as the Off Season approaches. “Winter’s a time where you power down and get a bit more introverted, so the social interactions keep you sane.” Often, it’s around food or a fire (or both) where these connections take place. She explains how you can forgive yourself for the tempo shift, because you’ll make up for it during the long summer months. “It took me a few years to get my head around the seasonal aspect of living down here. But all the highlights of the year are tied into the seasonal nature and the environment. It’s about embracing the cyclical aspect of things, and winter is something I get very excited about. It’s so easy to put your head down, start work, and then in the next moment a decade has passed.”
“I think the beauty of Tasmania is the peaceful simplicity, and I try to make pieces that don’t compete with that. I’m trying to be sympathetic to what’s around and let the timber speak for itself.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism Tasmania. Explore more wild, weird and wonderful experiences during Tasmania’s Off Season. McCusker’s work can been seen by appointment in her workshop.