Daniel To and Emma Aiston, a design duo from Adelaide, have a totally unified approach to their work. So much so that it’s an easy mistake to think that Daniel Emma is just one person. From modest beginnings the designers have forged a secure future through a series of awards, commissions and collaborations with International companies.
Seven years ago the two young graduates from Adelaide took their first designs (the ‘Shapes’ collection, which consisted of a four-piece dinner set, a radio and an electric fan) to London’s 100% Design hopeful that they might have one or two products picked up for manufacture by a major brand, but of course the reality was quite different.
“When we left Adelaide in 2008 we were very naive about how the whole design process works. We really just turned up in London with a few prototypes and thought that companies would come along and ask to manufacture them for us. Instead we had no enquiries of that sort but we did have a lot of people either wanting to buy the products or distribute them in other countries so we remained confident that we had something unique to offer and went home and worked on producing them ourselves”, says To.
In the intervening years the duo has been lauded by the Australian design community, winning numerous awards including being selected by the NGV as finalists in the newly renamed Rigg Design Prize 2015. They have manufactured and sold a large number of their designs under the Daniel Emma brand. They have also had several of their one-off edition pieces put into production by both local and international companies such as Australian metal furniture specialist Tait, Danish brand Wrong for Hay and French label, Petite Friture. Daniel Emma have twice been selected to contribute to Wallpaper* Handmade, a prestigious international exhibition held during Salone del Mobile in Milan by the global design magazine Wallpaper*. This last honour puts them on par with some of the world’s top designers and studios, such as Michael Anastassiades, Sebastian Herkner and Neri & Hu.
“To be exhibited alongside designers who you admire after just a couple of years of starting a studio is a pretty humbling experience” says To. “We’ve had a great relationship with Wallpaper* since the very beginning. After our first exhibition in London they listed us in their 2009 directory of design graduates to watch”.
The 2012 edition of Wallpaper* Handmade saw Daniel Emma teamed up with Guerlain, the famous French perfume and cosmetics company and two years later the duo designed a cleaning set called ‘Squeaky Clean’ for Wallpaper* Handmade 2014. While the pair were humbled by the experience of being included in these carefully curated exhibitions, on both occasions they chose to remain in Adelaide rather than join the razzle dazzle of the opening party in Milan. Adelaide may seem like an odd place to base an increasingly well-known design studio but To argues that it is precisely the distance from world design centres that keeps the Daniel Emma look unique and fresh. “Both Emma and I were born in Adelaide and feel very much attached to it. For us to give a genuine and unique point of view. It is important that we are based where we grew up and not to live in a city with a design scene that will influence us. We are fortunate to have grown up in an era when the internet allows us to do a large part of our work virtually while enjoying the great lifestyle Adelaide has to offer. We don’t feel that we miss out on much – we still travel, we are just able remain true to ourselves and our approach” says To.
While their work relies heavily on the use of elemental geometric shapes, bright colours and opposing materials, the pair are quite earnest when they say that they simply try to make their objects look ’nice’. But behind this overtly simple approach, Daniel Emma have a strong concept of what works and what fits with the studio’s idiosyncratic style.
“At the very beginning we just designed products that interested us. Emma and I have never really been furniture people – we are far more into objects. In 2009 hardly anyone was doing stationary, so I guess we stood out from the crowd. It wasn’t a conscious decision to find a niche, it was purely accidental. These days we design objects that we think we can put our own stamp on. We try to create iconic shapes – silhouettes really, where each part is a different colour or material. We like to differentiate the elements of our designs in this way”, says To.
The duo’s mutual love of stationary started when they were children. For many years before they met at university, they were both collectors of a range of Japanese erasers modelled on foods such as cakes and ice creams that were made in multiple parts – each in a different colour – that could be pulled apart and put back together. Although an unusual starting point for a design aesthetic, these quirky but functional objects may well have instigated To and Aiston’s fascination in exploded views and interlocking shapes that eventually led both of them to study design.
“My parents are from Hong Kong and Emma has an uncle who lives in Japan, so both of us have spent a lot of time in Asia”, says To. “We cringe a little bit when people reference what we do as being part of some sort of Memphis revival. We’ve been designing in our particular style a long time before the Memphis revival became popular and we have never really thought of our work as linked to the post modern movement. The colours and material combinations we use and forms that we design, all come from our exposure to Asia. If you walk around Hong Kong (or cities in Japan) you are confronted by how colourful it is and by the often quite bizarre juxtaposition of materials. This is what we grew up seeing and what has inspired us to design the way we do”.
Daniel Emma’s ‘Home’ installation continues as part of the Rigg Design Prize 2015 exhibition at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre.