Manufacturing in Australia: rethinking the process

Adam Goodrum's 'Timber Trivet' for Normann Copenhagen

With many designers lamenting the dwindling manufacturing landscape in Australia, David Harrison speaks with designers Gary Galego, Adam Cornish and Adam Goodrum about how they are working within these shrinking parameters.  On the other side of the Tasman, Scott Bridgens, founder of New Zealand brand Resident, reveals their global approach to manufacture and distribution.

In recent years there seems to have been a definite move to ‘DIY’ furniture companies in Australia. By ‘do-it-yourself’ I don’t mean Ikea style companies producing Allen key furniture but rather companies which no longer rely on separate manufacturers – choosing instead to set up their own workshops and retail stores and to control every stage of the business. While this model seems to have worked very nicely for companies such as Pierre & Charlotte and Zuster who both have their own factories in Melbourne, not every designer has the ability or inclination to invest in this type of infrastructure. And here in lies the rub – as some companies bring everything in-house, taking control of costs and quality, other small manufacturers begin to struggle with lack of work. Designers who once relied on small batch production to get their designs to market are finding it increasingly tough to get their products made.

Gary Galego's 'Leve' chair in it's final production version in solid steam bent ash and moulded plywood.

Gary Galego’s ‘Leve’ chair in it’s final production version in solid steam bent ash and moulded plywood.

Designer Gary Galego’s experience is a case in point. His ‘Leve’ chair was originally made by Galego himself in very small numbers and sold through Anibou. After the first 50 chairs he was keen to let go of the making and find a local manufacturer that could meet his quality expectations but produce the chair in the sort of volume that could reduce the retail price to around $800. Many years and several manufacturers (from various countries) later, Galego has resigned himself to the fact that the chair is not suitable for mass production – especially not in Australia – where companies capable of making moulded plywood components are a thing of the past. After trying Latvia – a country with a rich tradition in bent wood and plywood manufacturing – and China for it’s cost effectiveness, Galego now believes he was wrong to even try to force volume production methods onto a design that started life as a precise, handmade item. He now wishes he had spent the energy and time doing things differently – designing a new chair that worked within local manufacturing capabilities.

Adam Cornish's 'Monkey Pot' planters in rotation moulded polyethylene.

Adam Cornish’s ‘Monkey Pot’ planters in rotation moulded polyethylene.

This notion that different products need different approaches to manufacturing is wholeheartedly supported by Melbourne based designer Adam Cornish. “Certain products we can make locally are more competitive with the internationally manufactured versions than others. With chairs it’s insanely difficult to create something that competes with designs that can be imported for $100. I can’t even begin to design a locally made chair that can be made for that sort of money! On the other hand, with innovative products you can be highly competitive, simply because no one else is doing them. Lighting is a lot easier to reinvent in a new and intriguing way than furniture and people will pay a higher price for that”, he says.

An early prototype of Adam Cornish's 'Foliar' - a modular acoustic wall panel design for Wovin Wall.

An early prototype of Adam Cornish’s ‘Foliar’ – a modular acoustic wall panel design for Wovin Wall.

According to Cornish a designer must be brutally honest at the start of a project’s development and submit to the reality of market forces, most crucially – what people are prepared to pay. “You need to really find out whether the design can be made in the numbers required and whether it can be sold at a given price point. If not, you have to look at a different material or method or rework the design to suit a manufacturer’s abilities and by doing so bring the price down”, says Cornish.

It’s not always a case of huge volumes however, as some products are best suited to small cottage industries. Cornish’s soon to be released ‘Stoneware’ pendant light to be distributed by Corporate Culture, is a good example. It’s hand thrown form could be moulded and slip cast in the thousands but it was the slight irregularities of making each one individually and by hand that really made the product stand out from the competition. “I had a one-off garden installation commission and I needed some stoneware planters made so I went and visited potter Jane Sawyer. Once I saw the process I became fascinated by the natural imperfections of handmade, wheel thrown objects and wanted to incorporate these into a design. I talked to Jane about the numbers she could produce and consistency of size through the firing process and quickly came to the conclusion that it was entirely possible to sell one-off’s in small commercial quantities”, says Cornish.

'Stoneware' lights by Adam Cornish. Soon to be released through Corporate Culture, these LED pendant lights are individually hand thrown by potter Jane Sawyer.

‘Stoneware’ lights by Adam Cornish. Soon to be released through Corporate Culture, these LED pendant lights are individually hand thrown by potter Jane Sawyer.

Cornish thinks that designers should learn more about how manufacturers  actually do things so as to capitalise on their specific abilities and avoid potential problems. “It’s a more natural way of working. Rather than forcing a design down a pre-determined path and having to scour the world for someone who can make it, allowing the design to develop by way of what manufacturing is available to you, at the right price is a whole lot smarter. This is the way products like Konstantin Grcic’s ‘Chair One’ came about. Magis wanted to utilise a die cast aluminium manufacturer that existed near to them and Grcic designed the chair to fit this material and process”, says Cornish.

Many Australian designers have over the years followed the dream and pitched their designs to international brands for which, if successful, they receive a royalty that is usually in the realm of 3-5% of the wholesale price. Getting a successful design over the line with a major company can be a time consuming exercise however, as Adam Cornish can attest. He has been working on prototypes for a fruit bowl design for high-end Italian home wares manufacturer Alessi, for nearly two years. He concedes he’s very close to getting it accepted but it has definitely been a labour of love.

“Both ways of getting your work out there to the world at large have their pros and cons. One method gets your design internationally distributed and is very good for your personal ‘brand’ but is generally a highly removed process with everything at arms length – no daily updates and mostly done through emails. Alternatively you can do it yourself or work with a smaller local manufacturer where actual visits to the factory allow you to become totally involved in the prototyping and manufacturing process”, says Cornish.

Adam Goodrum's multi-coloured 'Stitch' chair for Cappellini from 2008 is made from aluminium and folds totally flat.

Adam Goodrum’s multi-coloured ‘Stitch’ chair for Cappellini from 2008 is made from aluminium and folds totally flat.

Adam Goodrum, a seasoned veteran of the Australian design scene agrees. He is happy with the slow trickle of royalties his ‘Stitch’ chair for Cappellini (2008) generates as it continues to sell around 1200 units a year, but concedes that while there is a glamour attached to working for a big international brand, local collaborations can be intensely satisfying – like the one he has with Melbourne outdoor furniture company, Tait. “I have worked with a number of international brands; Cappellini, When Objects Work and more recently Normann Copenhagen, and it does give you a special sense of excitement to be working for a famous brand, but it is just as rewarding to be working with wonderful newer companies that exist in our own backyard”, says Goodrum.

Alex Lotersztain 'Cubo' storage from One/third

Alex Lotersztain ‘Cubo’ storage from One/third

Yet another model that seems to be gaining traction of late involves collaboration between designers and the manufacturer to produce a range as a partnership under a new brand name. The process can be very direct with the designers having greater control over their work and how it’s presented and marketed. New Tasmanian brand, One/third, is a highly collaborative venture between Queensland based designer Alex Lotersztain as creative director, a group of Australian designers; Helen Kontouris, Adam Goodrum, Jon Goulding and Matthew Prince and family run Tasmanian furniture manufacturer, Designs in Wood.

Adam Goodrum's 'Tub' chair for One / third. The same basic materials found in the base also make a matching coffee table.

Adam Goodrum’s ‘Tub’ chair for One / third. The same basic materials found in the base also make a matching coffee table.

“There are plenty of manufacturers here in Australia”, says Goodrum, “but what is lacking is an openness to risk taking. Working with design-orientated products isn’t on many manufacturers radar. Mostly they wait to be approached, rather than becoming an active participant in the design, development and manufacture process”.

Designs in Wood are a family run business that has been manufacturing furniture for over fifty years. The decline in demand for Australian made product as imports have taken market share meant that Lotersztain’s collaboration proposal was a wonderful chance to reinvigorate and re-position the company.

“Alex is a clever guy” says Goodrum, “beyond being a designer who has a proven track record with his Derlot products for Stylecraft, he is very media savvy. Choosing five designers from five states of Australia maximised the media exposure and the brand received a large amount of interest from all over the country”.

Alex Lotersztain's 'Solid' stools in their three heights for One / third

Alex Lotersztain’s ‘Solid’ stools in their three heights for One / third

Lotersztain’s experience and business acumen meant that he was aware of the need to present a first collection with a wide range of products but with a strong family look. Far too often individual designers work is delivered piece-meal over months and years, making it hard for distributors to take the products to market.

“We approached the brand’s first collection as a true collaboration with each designer selecting a different type of product so that we could offer storage, two very different armchairs, a dining table, coffee table, and a few styles of stool” says Goodrum.

'Studio' chair by Jason Whiteley for Resident. The chair is an easy to assemble flat pack product.

‘Studio’ chair by Jason Whiteley for Resident. The chair is an easy to assemble flat pack product.

Over in New Zealand, another young company, Resident, formed in 2011 is showing many old hands how it should be done. Their first collection was launched last year at MOST, a collaborative venue for numerous brands organised by Tom Dixon and held within the Museum of Arts and Sciences during Milan’s annual design week. The brands co-founder and managing director, Scott Bridgens worked for Tom Dixon between 2007 and 2011 and so really understands how to source manufacturers and control distribution. For Bridgens and his business partner Simon James the brand had to hit the ground running with everything in place from manufacturing to marketing.

“I like to think of our development as a front-loaded strategy – we defined our target market first and worked towards that rather than designing products on a whim and trying to get them made and sold. Being from a country like New Zealand with a small population, we realised we needed to be an export brand and we saw a country like the UK as the perfect market for what we had in mind”, says Bridgens.

'Tangerine' stacking chair by Simon James for Resident

‘Tangerine’ stacking chair by Simon James for Resident

Working to bring their products to market as efficiently as possible, Bridgens and James have chosen which products to release very carefully, ensuring they could be made at the right price and transported quickly and cheaply. As a consequence many of the brand’s products have ended up as flat pack designs but with a quality that is the equal to fully assembled furniture. With manufacturers in Europe and New Zealand and a distribution hub in the UK, Resident are able to supply customers extremely quickly. To make all this possible they chose to release a very edited range for the initial launch period, enabling them to hold most of the range in stock. With the companies manufacturing and distribution systems working well over the last 12 months the decision was made to expand the range and 11 new products are slated for release at this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan.

'Studio' chair by Jason Whiteley for Resident. The chair is an easy to assemble flat pack product.

‘Studio’ chair by Jason Whiteley for Resident. The chair is an easy to assemble flat pack product.

“We make all our wooden products in eastern Europe because we have a good manufacturer there and because they are the products with the greatest physical volume we don’t want them to travel too far. Europe is our biggest market so it would be counter productive to make everything in New Zealand and ship it all to the other side of the world” says Bridgens.

'Oud' table lamp in brass and marble by Nat Cheshire for Resident. Launched last year at Milan's Salone del Mobile.

‘Oud’ table lamp in brass and marble by Nat Cheshire for Resident. Launched last year at Milan’s Salone del Mobile.

That’s not to say that Resident are opting out of local manufacturing. The more technical products, lighting in particular, is being made in NZ. With plenty of highly competent manufacturers on their doorstep, Bridgens feels it makes total sense to use them wherever possible. Accepting that locally made products will inevitably cost more, Bridgens is convinced that if they are unique enough they won’t have to compete directly against high volume, mass-produced items and can be sold at appropriately higher prices. “It’s horses for courses – you need to put the right manufacturing model in place for each type of product. Half of the battle is about getting the right manufacturer. Designers have to dig deep and be prepared to get on a plane and visit factories and find the right people. I genuinely believe that there are the right people for the job everywhere  – whether it’s in Asia, Australasia or in Europe”.

'Spar' floor lamp by Jamie McLellan, 'Hawke' table and 'Felix' chair by Simon James.

‘Spar’ floor lamp by Jamie McLellan, ‘Hawke’ table and ‘Felix’ chair by Simon James.

Bridgens also feels that understanding the capabilities of each manufacturer is the key to an intelligent operation. The type of planning and feedback received early on can help to reduce development costs and ultimately enable a product to be produced for less. The consumers experience is paramount to Resident and they are keen for this to encompass everything from the look and feel of the product to the short waiting times and ease of assembly.

According to Bridgens, “Working down here in New Zealand is like a breathe of fresh air. People are generally up for anything and will try really hard to make things possible. I almost don’t want to tell too many people about how good it is, as at the moment we have this great advantage!”

Happily, it seems that the future is bright both in New Zealand and Australia as all those interviewed felt that despite a contraction in small manufacturers, right now was an exciting time to be a designer, or establishing a new brand with the benefits of globalisation outweighing the negatives – you just need to rethink the process.

Adam Cornish’s ‘Foliar’ modular acoustic wall panel for Wovin Wall will be launched at the Milan Furniture Fair April 9-14.
Adam Goodrum is showing new work as part of the Broached East exhibition opening March 6 in Melbourne.
Resident will be showing their second collection of products as part of MOST at the Milan Furniture Fair April 9-14.