Fostering Design: Drawing on a Pool of Raw Talent

That jug. You recognise it immediately. You probably know it is made in Australia. You might know it is designed by Robert Foster for F!NK and Co. You find it in restaurants around the world from the Australian National Museum in Canberra to MoMA in New York. Gallery shops love it; the Powerhouse Museum has collected it.

But where did this Australian design icon come from’

The F!NK Water Jug was originally a commission for a Canberra restaurant in 1993. It was a small edition made with a simple press, old pieces of steel and wood from a fence post, typical of the designer known for his physical strength and determination.

Foster had experimented with anodised aluminium while still studying with hollow-ware master, and first major influence, Ragnar Hansen. While Foster’s one-off works are idiosyncratic, his ‘technical facility’, it was noted, ‘remains deeply within hollow-ware traditions’.1 Aluminium offered an alternative to the expensive metals, such as silver, with which he was making curvaceous and quirky teapots. The jug owes its highly resolved form to these hand beaten vessels, a side of Foster’s practice for which he is equally well-known and which continues to feed into the F!NK production range. ‘I don’t draw an ideological line between my one-off works and F!NK’, he states. ‘I have learned to see them as notions of operation, that dwell on a sliding scale between objects only made possible via handmaking, through to the objects only made possible by manufacturing technology.’2

Foster immediately saw the aluminium’s potential for production processes. The aluminium tubing from which the Water Jug is formed, he realised, already contains the volume: minimising the work traditionally needed for hollow-ware vessels. After further development, the Water Jug became the first F!NK product, and is still the mainstay of the company. It encapsulates the qualities of F!NK and Co. that have distinguished it since it was established in 1994: distinctive design, rethinking function and technical innovation.

The F!NK range resurrected the use of anodised aluminium for quality designer tableware. After a brief moment of glory in the 1950s, the material was put to more utilitarian use in building and industry. Foster, who calls aluminium a ‘harlequin of metals’,3 has exploited its unique properties, shaping the raw material through pressing and folding, and developing innovations in forming. For example, the Blast Vase , 1999, was formed using high explosives and produced in collaboration with pyrotechnician Zeljko Markov, and the Antipasto Set, 2001, designed by sculptor Rachel Bowak, is made through hydroforming.

His colleagues admire the way Foster works on the verge of what is possible with industry, pushing manufacturers to their limits. Reliable anodising was also difficult to source. For many years, inconsistent quality led to high attrition rates. F!NK has now set up its own anodising facility, and in fact provides precision work for scientific equipment and satellite components. Foster is amused that ‘the same degree of precision is required for tableware as space exploration’.

From the outset, F!NK and Co., as the name suggests, was intended to support a network of people: other Australian designers, as well as providers of outsourced work, graphic designers, photographers, printers, and interested students.

Sean Booth first worked with F!NK on a contract to make tableware for the Hyatt’s 5 restaurants at the National Museum of Australia when it opened in 2001. Students from the art school were brought in to cope with the increased workload. ‘We’ve all been grunts’, says Booth with a laugh, referring to the group gathered to discuss their experiences with F!NK, but highly specialised skills are required of all those who work at F!NK. The connection was continued through an Australia Council Mentorship Grant in 2003, when ‘there was a direct dialogue between us about my work.’ A Craft ACT exhibition celebrated the mentorship, and Booth has since designed a candelabra for the F!NK range. Like flatware designer/maker Oliver Smith, another graduate of the workshop who has worked for F!NK, he valued Foster’s experience with industry and his approach to tooling for production. Tooling takes up a large percentage of Foster’s time, as he remains closely connected to this part of the process to ‘maintain the sensitivity and integrity of the design’ . The eye, he believes, is more sophisticated than machines. By keeping his hand in the making of the tools, more personality and humanness’the subtle design characteristics’are retained in the multiple.

Foster realised that hesitations about production processes ‘were really issues about integrity’ . He does not in fact draw a distinction between his one-off exhibition works and the production lines. This is a model from which emerging designers can draw inspiration: one that finds a way for craft and design to meet in a way that does not deny either tradition. The training they all had in craft has given them a ‘hands-on material understanding that informs the design of the tooling’.

Booth wrote that the discussions with Foster during the mentorship about ‘motivation and discipline of a full-time practice’ were the most valuable. For Smith, whose F!NK Flatware (2005) has recently joined the F!NK range, the development period was the most exciting. He remembers ‘the explosion of ideas, all the fun of playing and pulling these things together into making a product’, adding, ‘the discipline of making multiples means that you have to design a consistent production system’a system which is built on solid research into functional and aesthetic questions, combined with an understanding of the commercial market.’

Foster too enjoys the cross-fertilisation. He is generous with his experience and willing to share, whether it is in formal mentorships , collaborations or by inviting others to design for F!NK. The experience benefits everyone, he says with satisfaction, it ‘gives emerging designers credibility and some income from royalties’ while it allows ‘a meeting of my production and commercial experience with different ways of seeing things’ . For instance, Foster invited Adelaide-based Bronwen Riddiford to F!NK. She saw the new rotation moulded plastic bowls (2002) designed by Foster with Remi Verchot, and immediately saw its potential for an ice bucket (2003). A new product was born.

Elizabeth Kelly collaborated with Foster on the Citrus Squeezer (F!NK’s second product launched in 1994) while she was researching coloured glass and lecturing at the Sydney College of the Arts. Kelly credits Foster with initiating an interest in the largely forgotten method of hand-pressed glass. ‘Working with Rob initially brought toolmaking into my thinking, and through further collaboration with Michael Wilson it has entered my practice’, she acknowledges.

The shot glass set was the first of Kelly’s designs successfully generated and marketed as part of the F!NK range. It took four years of material research (1995-98) and technical support to resolve the product and can be directly credited to Kelly’s collaborative research with Wilson, a toolmaker and design engineer/glassmaker currently living in New Zealand.

Particular attention was given by Kelly and Wilson to the form of the shot glasses, so that the colour deepened through the continual curve of the base and was highlighted through the lip, with an edge that is crisp yet tactile the on the lips. Through her research into coloured glass she has been able to offer an exclusive range of colours for the F!NK designs. ‘The colours I have used are specially for those products to compliment an anodised surface colour. They share a chromatic density; both surfaces are about refracting light,’ she explains.

The commercial production of the shot glasses commenced in Adelaide, where she was head of the glass studio at the JamFactory Craft and Design Centre . This production was concurrent with further research and development into industrially designed processes of pressed, centrifuged and direct cast objects.

Unlike other F!NK products, the pressed and blow-moulded glass is made by Kelly and a team of skilled assistants in her Studio Tangerine. Kelly later developed a glass version of Foster’s Blast Vase (2004).

For his part Foster has sought mentors amongst his international colleagues. In 2000 he produced a prototype teapot for Italian design giant Alessi. In that year he also spent three months in the studio of Munich-based lighting designer Ingo Maurer. Maurer had expressed interest in Foster’s lighting designs and invited him to work with his 12-strong design team. Foster’s lights were ironically too similar to one of Maurer’s designs already in development to be taken up , but he revelled in the company of designers and engineers who worked with Maurer. The studio takes on large installations such as the 2005 UNICEF snowflake in New York. Despite Maurer’s frenetic pace, Foster was able to spend some time with him, and forged a professional friendship. Foster values his frank and perceptive feedback on his work, and assisted Maurer with the installation of his exhibition in the 2005 Milan Furniture Fair.

One can detect the influence of this European design studio model in how F!NK engages with other designers. They retain copyright on their designs and their name remains associated with the product (all advertising actually highlights the designer’s name). They continue to receive royalties on their designs. There is an on-going connection with the company, so that while their designs are distinct from their own individual practice, Booth, Smith and Kelly all agreed that they are very conscious that their professional reputation is attached to the F!NK product. As Smith also noted, ‘what is justifiable in a one-off piece may need to be taken to another level of resolution as a multiple’in this sense design makes you lift you game’ .

Ideally F!NK supports Foster as an artist. ‘The business allows him to concentrate on commission work, product development, and tooling while giving him time to make his own one-off pieces’, explains partner Gretel Harrison, who joined F!NK in 1997. Her background in marketing has built a strong visual identity for the company, one that sends the right message about F!NK: quality, Australian made and designed, innovative, about people and with a sense of quirkiness.

The suite of promotional material is supervised by Harrison working with long-time associates graphic designer Louise Ragless and photographer Damian McDonald. The impact of their work can be seen on the F!NK website; graphically strong product shots, with people holding or using the product that gives scale and personality to the site. The design is carried through all the branding: packaging, advertising, brochures, and point of sale signage.

‘Gretel is the front line of the business’, Kelly notes. It is Harrison who deals with clients and retailers, and who attends international trade fairs such as the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York each May. ‘Maintaining a presence at the international fairs is an investment, particularly for the US market ‘, Harrison stresses, ‘as it builds commercial confidence. Buyers are not interested unless they know you are in it for the long term.’

She uses her contact with buyers for market research, product development and customer feedback, which is a vital part of the process that gives F!NK a competitive advantage in the marketplace. She identifies gaps in the market, so that innovative products can be placed to greatest effect. For example, the Candelabra (2005) brief was given to Booth and a Cream and Sugar Set (2001) was designed by Foster.

About 30% of F!NK’s business is export. Client MoMA, who run the biggest giftware mail order catalogue in the US, need to be able to take the item off the shelf and post it anywhere, and would only consider stocking F!NK if sturdily packaged. Harrison turned this to an advantage, cross selling by including information about the F!NK range with every product. The packaging also signals that the product is valuable. Harrison has determined that many are in fact given as gifts.

In 2005 F!NK and Co. won the Small to Medium Manufacturer Award in the ACT Chief Minister’s Export Awards and became finalists in the 2005 Austrade Australian Export Awards. They hope this valuable exposure will encourage potential investment capital to the company. The F!NK product range is carefully expanding, each new addition requiring expensive research and development. F!NK’s commitment to innovation drives the growth of the company and underwrites this costly investment in research. The unique profile they have established for F!NK sets them apart from other manufacturers: design of the highest calibre and technical bravura.

In the ten years since F!NK and Co. was established it has realized Foster’s vision of being truly a company of designers.

This article was first published in Object magazine, issue 49. Object magazine is published bi-annually by Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design.

Fink Design
Fink in the Powerhouse Museum
Robert Foster in the Powerhouse Museum
Sean Booth
Rachel Bowak

Judith O’Callaghan, The Eloquent Vessel, exhibition catalogue, Museum for Angewandt Kunst, Germany, 1992, p7
Vast Terrain: Design and Aluminium, exhibition catalogue, FORM Gallery, Perth, 2005,
Foster has been partnered in two Australia Council/Craft ACT Mentorships to date: with Aidan McDonald, 1997-98; Sean Booth, 2003.
Foster op. cit.
Elizabeth Kelly in conversation with author, 18 January 2006
Elizabeth Kelly was Head of the JamFactory Glass Studio 1997-2000
Studio Tangerine, est. 2004 at ANCA Studios at Mitchell, ACT. Sean Booth and Oliver Smith share another studio in this complex, and it was where Robert Foster started F!NK. ANCA (Australian National Capital Artists) studios are artist-run, purpose-built studios in Canberra, established through an innovative ACT government and arts community initiative. Two complexes (in Dickson and Mitchell) provide tenancy for over 40 artists. These studios encourage artists to stay in Canberra, a city without the vacant factories or shops that are the traditional sources of low rent studio space.
Readers may remember Visions Combined, Foster’s solo exhibition of lighting prototypes at Object Gallery in 1998. The designs featured innovative ball-bearing joints and magnetic switches.
Ingo Maurer’s designers were developing magnetic switch and ball joints in lighting designs at the same time. Foster made a group of prototypes, Dinky Di I, II and III, while working in the studio.
The 17-foot structure, which replaces a 19 year-old snowflake, contains 462 LED and strobe fittings and 12,000 faceted prismatic Baccarat crystals
Smith, op.cit.
Sean Booth in conversation with author, 18 January 2006
A new mark, Craft ACT, Canberra, 23 April-30 May, 2004
Robert Foster in conversation with author, 29 December 2005
Sean Booth and Oliver Smith in conversation with author, 18 January 2006
Sean Booth, Craft ACT report, Articles, 22 February 2005