The working life of the independent designer can often be more of a series of events rather than a carefully planned career path. One project leads to another, studio costs generally determine where you work and with whom and often there is little headspace for a designer to sit back and contemplate the “what if” possibilities. This is where the Tandem Project comes in. The brainchild of two Sydney designers ChristelH (Christel Hadiwibawa) and Laura Lay (curator, He Made She Made gallery), Tandem project gave a group of young designers who already have their own studios, the opportunity to re-evaluate their process and the way they go about designing. The resulting showcase was staged at The Rocks Pop-Up for a month from the 30 October. This and the related talk and online updates have given a larger group of students and designers the opportunity to learn from the experiences of those involved.
The project began to take shape in January 2014 when Christel approached Laura with the idea for a project where a number of designers would be chosen and required to each select another designer (or design studio) to collaborate with. In the end this became six designers and their collaborators, making a total of 13 designers (one of the collaborators being Savage Design – a design duo). While this was an unwieldy number of people to guide through the potentially difficult process of collaboration, the variety of work was very exciting to Christel and Laura. “We all know that the world is getting much more closely connected” says Christel, ”but when I moved back to Sydney having studied in Canberra I felt quite isolated and separated from other designers. You would see them at events and exhibitions but there was no real working involvement”. According to Laura, a graduate of UTS this wasn’t because Christel had studied in Canberra and was out of the Sydney design loop. “When I was studying we were encouraged to collaborate and work outside our specific discipline but after university it doesn’t tend to happen. You end up designing in isolation – even in a studio setting”.
It was precisely this lack of cross-pollination that the Tandem Project seeks to address. The aim is to provide the necessary tools for designers to know how to approach a collaboration to get the most out of it and importantly to know when it isn’t working. Like the tandem bike that coined the project’s title however, working in one common direction with another person can sometimes be more difficult than it might at first seem. Designers have egos and a strong sense of what is right and wrong in design, so getting two of them to agree on a common idea and method of implementation was going to be challenging. “Immediately Christel started explaining her concept to me I was sold. I’d been thinking of doing a collaboration-based project for some time, so it was a weirdly serendipitous moment. My own idea for a collaboration project was more about designers giving a concept to another designer to finish but ultimately I recognized that Christel’s approach would be far more achievable”, says Laura. “My version could have ended very badly with a bunch of designers squabbling over intellectual property rights”.
With the basic concept for the project nailed down it was up to Christel to select the six core designers and get them thinking about their collaborative partners while Laura chased sponsors and media partners, organized promotional material and secured an exhibition space. Laura’s degree in interior design and her past experience in exhibition design meant that she was the natural choice to curate the exhibition. Christel put herself forward to be one of the six designers and selected Sydney design studio, Savage Design as her collaborative partner. Experiencing the uncertainty associated with collaboration first hand enabled her to empathize with the other designers and understand their concerns as the process went forward. The others chosen were Dennis Abalos, Carlie Ballard, Tom Fereday, Henry Pilcher and Coco Reynolds. All run their own small studios and have been operational for at least a couple of years. “I met with each of the designers that I had chosen and gave them a simple brief: to exhibit an individual piece – either existing or new – designed to showcase their current work, along with a collaborative piece that had to be done especially for the Tandem Project, says Christel. “It was up to them to initiate the collaboration with whomever they thought would provide the best outcome. The design discipline was irrelevant”.
While the brief was incredibly open, hinged as it was on the act of collaboration, there were a couple of additional requirements: the objects had to take up no more than one square metre of floor space and the collaborative piece should be able to be serially produced – not just a one off.
One final parameter was more of a suggestion than an absolute. It was recommended that the designers should attempt to collaborate with someone who they already had some sort of relationship with. “We had no problem with the designers collaborating with someone they didn’t know per se but we were aware that it would take some time to develop the rapport that would be required for the collaboration to run smoothly”, says Laura.
With an exhibition date of late October locked in it was necessary for Christel to constantly check on the progress the collaborations were making and to keep everyone on track. With the designers having their own commercial projects and the associated deadlines to deal with along with the fact that several of them were travelling internationally on regular intervals, keeping the project going was no easy task.
According to Christel and Laura it was probably Coco Reynolds who stepped out of her comfort zone the most and who was most concerned about how things were going during the collaboration. She had chosen to work with Kenny Yong-soo Son, of Studiokyss who specializes in small homewares and jewellery design. Their collaborative design was a cast bronze and stone jewellery stand. “All of the designers had their challenges but Coco had one after another…….parts didn’t arrive on time, things didn’t go according to plan – that sort of thing. Ultimately though she made a big effort to ensure that the piece was ready for the show. They overcame all the problems and while they still want to make small tweaks to their design, they both acknowledge how much the collaborative process has taught them as designers”. Dennis Abalos was another who was working in totally new territory, collaborating as he did with fashion designer Haryono Setiadi on a pendant lighting design called ‘Ombre’. “Dennis did seven prototypes – actually the one on show was the eighth – so he pushed right up to the opening night to perfect his and Haryono’s lighting design”, says Christel.
With other collaborations such as that between fashion designer Carlie Ballard and jewellery designer Linda Tahija exploring handprinted textiles there was a general interest from the group in working across disciplines. Tom Fereday was another who gravitated to a collaborator from another field of design. His modular ottoman design was developed with industrial designer turned textile designer Danielah Martinez who created a new print design for the upholstery.
“Talking to the designers one-on-one before and during the project they were all a bit worried – they were all out of their comfort zone – but they have come around to the collaboration method and are now very positive about it and several of them are talking about doing more products both with their collaborator and with others who were involved in the project. It’s this type of intermingling of ideas and practices that we had hoped for”, says Laura.
The next edition of Tandem Project is already being planned and while the intention is to grow the design pool it will once again be held in Sydney. “We just happened to start with a number of Sydney based designers because both Laura and I are based here. The intention next time around is to reach out to other designers that are further afield – at least a few from Melbourne and some from Canberra,“ says Christel.
Beyond the exhibition itself the other focus for Laura and Christel is the documentation of the process. Having photographed, filmed and interviewed those involved along the way, the Tandem Project website will host updates through out the coming months leading up to the Tandem Project 2015. “We want the Tandem Project to live beyond just the exhibition dates”, says Christel “We have documented it heavily and we want to follow the collaborations beyond the products the designers created for the event and see what they do with the collaborations going forward”.
All photographs by Cedric Tourasse Photography.