Praise for joins: behind Henry Wilson’s A-Joint

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When we talk of contemporary design, we commonly speak of a finished object. An Eames lounge. An Alvar Aalto stool. However, as we know, it is often the object’s parts and the construction of the object that make it unique, beautiful and indeed functional. It’s how it works, fits together, how it actually stands on four legs so to speak, that gives it its distinctive quality.

This is certainly true when you think of furniture. “Good joinery is the kind that you don’t really notice,” said Dr Paul Donnelly, the Powerhouse Museum’s Curator of Design and Society. Much Dutch and Scandinavian mid-twentieth Century furniture is revered for its beautiful joinery and how the pieces fit together almost seamlessly or even as though it is not joined at all. “For instance, Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair looks like it defies logic,” said Donnelly. Meanwhile Rietveld’s Zig Zag Chair, appears to stand effortlessly despite it not having any legs.

In a nod to what is often overlooked by award presenters and praise givers, it was the join itself including the choice of material that was recognized at this year’s 2011 Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Award. The honour was given to Sydney-based designer, Henry Wilson, for his ‘A-Joint’. According to Wilson, the A-joint is a sand-cast, strong, multi-use joinery system that makes it possible to unite standardised, multi-sized, pre-dimensional timber in up to four different configurations.

JH: Why are you interested in imitation and originality and how does this impact your design?

HW: I think this question refers to my work for the ‘Workshopped’ exhibition in August 2011. I repurposed a found, council clean up chair. It was a ‘replica’ of the famous Wassily chair so frequently copied and pumped into foyers and hotels around the world. The debate surrounding Matt Blatt was (and still is) in full swing and I wanted to comment on the situation by making something not just talking about it. I was trying to suggest that when you go and apply time, energy, skills and material into the refurbishment of a ‘fake’ what are you saying about the process of design and perceived value of this knock-off? I wanted to see if I could elevate something that was destined for the landfill and by doing so give it a playful, new Australian identity. Hence the dull blue from the ‘down-pipe guttering’ ‘wattle’ colour card, the saddle leather and the relaxed slung seating.

JH: You’re a graduate with first class honors from the Australian National University and hold a Masters in Man and Humanity from the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven in The Netherlands. How has your education influenced or determined your design philosophy?

HW: At the ANU I learnt how to make. It is a Bauhaus based education focused around the studio practice of a discipline, this then leads to a natural design inquiry. I was lucky enough to be guided through these formative years (both as a young man and as a designer) by such a skilled and thoughtful man as Dr Rodney Hayward. He and the school slowed me down and made me think about the act of how things go together. I have found that the sensitivity needed to work a medium as challenging as wood is valuable; it translates well to other materials.

After this I went to study in the Netherlands where I was forced into a much higher pace of work, things had to be done quickly and the concept was paramount. It was a battle against my tutors, which is exactly what makes Dutch design so interesting. It’s the questions and angles people choose to resolve problems, which makes it such a leading society in design.

I like to think these two quite different educations, have combined in away to give me an understanding both of the industrial nature of design, whilst also capturing some of those hidden, social, gritty bits that bring the layers and hopefully a bit of poetry to the final object.

JH: What makes the A-Joint unique?

HW: I’m not sure the A-joint is quite that unique, it is an A-frame, which is as old as the hills. Where it differs is in the choice of materials and the dimensions it has been governed by. The A-joint will fit a variety of pre-dimensioned timber and hold it in a very strong way for long or short periods of time. It will not rust or deform under normal working conditions (timber will break before anything) and it can be recycled or repurposed endlessly.

I chose sand-casting because of its suitably to the form and its low-tech industrial process. I think that sand-cast objects hold a certain value, which is hard to pinpoint, I tend to feel humbled by their presence and inquisitive of their function. Basically I could never throw one out, which is exactly my intention when designing the A-Joint.

JH: You’ve described the A-Joint as a ‘celebration of standardisation’. What do you mean by this?

HW: It’s about making do with what we have. There is so much worldwide infrastructure going into making timber in certain standard dimensions. It’s usually made from cheap, strong, sustainably grown pine and used in construction. It tends to be forgotten that it is wood. Natural timber in any format is a beautiful resource; it is a challenge to get people to rethink its role in domestic furniture.

JH: How did you come up with the design? What was your design process? Did you research existing joints?

HW: I am pretty well always researching things, I have a very inquisitive mind and I am constantly drawing form my surroundings. I didn’t research joints in particular but I did get a lot of clues from the industrial sectors. I really like the way military and industry shape objects, it is always so honest and I take a lot from that.

JH: Is the A-Joint being manufactured?

HW: Yes they are being made in either bronze or aluminium just south of Sydney by a family run foundry.

JH: How would you describe the current state of the design field in Australia? How does it compare internationally?

HW: It’s a very difficult comparison to make; Australia is not a country of fabricators like so much of Europe, Japan or even the USA. Making is often where interesting ideas are resolved. I think this is why we follow the trends of the world so closely. In my opinion design should reflect the identity of the society it was born to service. We are a country full of tinkerers and innovators and our furniture or object designs often don’t communicate that.

JH: How would you describe your design aesthetic?

I try not to have a fixed aesthetic I am more guided by what is honest. I take this philosophy from designers such as Achille Castiligioni and the Bouroullec brothers. Their most complex and seemingly ornate designs are almost always resolved without tricks.

JH: If you were to drill down to what is most important to you as a designer, what would it be?

HW: Really reflecting on what it is I am making and bringing into this world. There is that story of the IDEO founder going on holiday in the Bahamas and seeing a beach full of his tooth brushes, freaking out, going home, and totally restructuring his business and way of thinking about design. Now they are one of the most progressive companies in design.

JH: You have teamed up with Trent Jansen with your Pop-Up shop at The Rocks in Sydney. How did the public respond?

HW: They are still responding. Funny place the Rocks, we are very lucky to have access to the space and it’s a great platform to display and sell our work. I don’t think many Sydney siders make use of the area its our ‘old town’ in any other country it would be prime time.

JH: Have you designed with Trent Jansen? What does the future hold for Trent & Henry? How did this collaboration come to be?

HW: Trent and I have never actually designed anything together. We share a common point of view on sustainability and we feed off each other’s energy. Whether this will build into anything more I cannot say. Hopefully we get the chance to do something on a larger scale one day, a fit-out or something would be good to collaborate on.

JH: Can designing new furniture ever be sustainable or ethical?

HW: Yes. Absolutely. We just have to adjust a little bit to make a large impact, for instance stop buying throwaway furniture. Large chains like IKEA actually encourage the consumer to buy new instead of hiring movers to shift the stuff!

At the festival of dangerous ideas, Jonathan Safran Foer talked about his friend being a vegan before 5pm. Foer thought this was one worthwhile step in the right direction for sustainable eating, perhaps a similar concept can be adopted for consuming material goods.

‎”Decisions have always been revealed as a series of steps, too small for their significance to be apparent at the time. It’s only in retrospect that one realizes one has taken a stand.” – Evgenia Citkowitz

JH: Who are your design idols?

HW: Barber /Osgerby, Achille Castiglione, Bouroullec brothers, Dick Van Hoff, Aldo Bakker

JH: Who or what has influenced you?

HW: People and society, that’s what shapes my design solutions and me. I am just trying to make sense of things for myself. It is clear people don’t know what they want, it has always been the designers job to deliver solutions and value add to materials, this can either be thoughtfully done or lacking in consideration.

JH: What are your design aspirations for the future?

HW: I would like to continue and grow my studio practice in Australia and abroad, work on more collaborative projects with local companies in the Australasia region. I am also interested in design education.