Henry Wilson, the Sydney-based Industrial Designer, is a part of a new crop of Australian designers who believe in and utilise Australian manufacturing.

“Everything I make is very local, it’s all made in Sydney,” Henry Wilson muses. “The foundry is not far out of town, just out of the CBD. The timber work gets done near the Blue Mountains. It’s all really local in terms of how it’s all made. I sort of designed it that way”. Gaining acclaim for his series of sand-cast ‘A-Joints’ and subsequent pieces from that family, Henry resumes a unique business model for young designers where he is in control of everything, from conception and manufacturing to retail and installation.

Compared to the traditional model of licensing a design to a manufacture and receiving royalties, Henry notes that he “didn’t have that opportunity when I was starting out, so I decided to take it upon myself to self-produce the work”. Starting up and overhead costs are a very real concern in this arena, but he “managed to get a small loan and get it off the ground pretty easily. I was really lucky with the A-Joint range in particular, because it wasn’t a massive start-up cost to get it running”.

Although starting off and becoming established through self-manufacture he says that he is moving into the area of “working with manufacturers and talking about receiving royalties and licensing”. This model frees the designers up to focus their energies on other tasks, instead of getting down in the “drudgery of getting suppliers costs down and trying to market the product and sell it”.

However at the same time, it is a risky move financially, with most designers receiving royalties of 3-5% of the wholesale cost of objects sold. Some designers I’ve spoken to, who worked in Europe licensing designs and selling them, estimate that you need 15-20 well selling products on the market to make a living. Apart from the difficulty of getting into that game, perhaps this is another reason why designers are converting to self-managed production (however it must be noted that this is not the same as a designer-maker).

It’s also “really rewarding to build a brand,” says Henry. “You really have to think about what you’re doing and your customer as well. You realise just how much work that is and also whilst in the beginning it’s quite creative and fulfilling, you do quickly learn it’s a business game.”

Idealistically, and perhaps naively too, one may assume that adding the phrase “Made in Australia” to a product or item may increase its appeal to consumers –  tapping into the customer’s loyalty to Australia and supporting the domestic Australian economy. Henry has other thoughts. “A Made in Australia element is really good to have, but it’s funny, it’s probably more because you can turn things around quickly and you can do things on time and often on budget in Australia,” says Henry, who explains the reason why people would choose his furniture over European or American manufacturers. They often experience “problems with lead times and fitting into build projects” says Henry.

For the high-end market that Henry is targeting, perhaps national pride doesn’t play much of a role. But should it? What if Government insisted that all their office furniture be Australian made? This would certainly spark an incentive for manufacturers around Australia to produce more, and create competition to drive the price down to win the bidding process. In an interview with the Australian Financial Review, CEO of the Australian Furniture Association Patrizia Torelli noted that if every government department was furnished by Australian furniture, the impact on the industry would be “astounding”.

“Manufacturing in Australia is actually very difficult because the cost of production is quite high,” says Henry. As a smaller designer Henry says they are often “restricted with what you can produce and the amount of risk the manufacturers are willing to take on with you. If you have a thing for not many numbers and you don’t know how they’re going to sell, most manufacturers aren’t going to be too forthcoming with their time. And that’s fair enough because they’ve got to make it all stack up.”

It appears to be a catch-22 situation, high prices for objects and furniture lead consumers to buy imported goods, unless they are able to afford high end and high quality. Even then the furniture isn’t always chosen for being Australian made, it’s more convenient for the project. Unwillingness from manufacturers to take on risk and support independent designers (although in volatile economic times like these, this is fair perhaps) and high labour costs/transport costs add to the price of the finished product.

Cost appears to be the issue. Should it though? Should consumers buy quality, well-made objects that last for decades rather than the duration of renting a shared house? More often than not this is cheaper over the long term. Perhaps due to influences such as social media, the immediacy of information and our appetite for instant gratification and the rise of fashion in day-to-day life, this concept is becoming imbedded within our lives. But is it the right concept? Should designers take a collective responsibility and aim to change attitudes like these?

…I don’t think every designer should be an entrepreneur…

Selling the product in a physical retail store increases the cost further, with the wholesale cost being multiplied between 100-200% in most retailers. If the manufacturers sold directly to the public, this would drive the cost down and also give them extra profits. Henry uses both models, selling directly to clients via his online shop and person-person but also through retailers like Cult, who stock many Australian designers as well.

So what is the answer? If there even is one? “I don’t think every designer should be an entrepreneur and try to chase Australian companies to make their products,” says Henry. “I think it should be Australian companies who look inwards and go ‘Hey hold on, we’ve got to do something about our manufacturing, let’s get a designer in to look at what we have and do something with what we have’. It has to be a holistic choice like that.”

Because Australia is a young country – young in terms of our manufacturing industry – and doesn’t have the tradition of utilising the ‘decorative arts’ or even designers to improve their product. Graduates from the Bauhaus in Germany were enlisted to create products for the home in Europe, British ceramic giants like Wedgwood and Royal Doulton both have long histories of collaborating with designers. More recently the Italian manufacturing players like Cappellini, Flos and Alessi have dominated the scene, using esteemed, ‘name’ designers to produce objects with their manufacturing capabilities.

Why isn’t it done in Australia? Henry suggests that maybe it’s because we haven’t established ourselves as designers very well as Australians. “I think we have incredibly talented designers, but in the realm of product design we don’t exactly have a big talent pool,” he says. In the process of a rebranding or restricting within a company, Henry adds “when the stakes are really high you might turn to European designers to do something for you because there’s more over there with a better track record or knowledge for building those kinds of areas”.

Adam Goodrum, an Australian Industrial and Furniture designer who has worked for Cappellini (Italy) and Tait (Australia) recently collaborated with the re-branded Australian furniture company Cult (previously Corporate Culture) to produce a relatively large range of household furniture pieces. Cult stock Henry’s pieces too, in fact they stock a number of Australian designed and manufactured works. “People like Adam and Trent Jensen and Charles Wilson have, in a way, legitimised Australian design in the public eye,” says Henry. “But what I was trying to reflect on is the larger scale. Adam’s range at Cult is great but it’s a relatively small market. It’s not a mass produced component”.

That sums up Australian manufacturing perfectly: small, niche, well-made but not mass produced and not accessible to the average consumer. Can this be turned around? The end of the mining boom is upon us already, which will slow the economy further in years ahead. As a result there will likely be a widening gap in the Australian economy. With the current cost and living very high and the cost of employment very high, it seems unlikely that the manufacture of low-cost objects will resume.

It appears that it’s a combination of factors at play here: high cost of labour, cheap goods available from overseas, lack of design direction in companies. Is it the public’s fault for not supporting Australian business? Opting for cheaper goods?

Mass production has most certainly been the path to social and economic liberation. But at what cost? Environmental concerns top the list, with little to no thought given to what happens when a plastic product breaks or is thrown out. Sure they may make our lives easier, but what’s the real cost, and who pays?

Placemaking for Henry is “in any context, is about making something fit for where you live and how you live. I think a lot of designers when they’re starting out and one of the things you do at university is you’re trying to experiment and do things with the process, that kind of discovery. And I think that is absolutely really valuable to do that work. But inward reflection at some point about how people will use this product and asking yourself hard questions like, would you use this product? Would you buy this? Would you actually have this in your house? Would you use it with your friends? Would you let your Mum sit on this chair? Those kind of things are questions that when you start to ask yourself those, you think, ‘Oh I’ve really got to decide is this good enough?’. And are you making it for an actual environment or are you just making it for yourself. And I think that time when you can really start to design things that you know will actually fit in places and be part of rooms and become part of the fabric of someone’s life then I suppose that’s making something for a place.”

“Sure it may be aesthetically pleasing, but if it’s not functional or ergonomic or usable, what point is the product?”

Perhaps that’s the point when one becomes a designer, when they think of and envision how their design or product or object will fit into someone’s life and what effect it has on them. Social media has begun to play with this concept, as everything is two-dimensional and in photo form, perhaps giving designers other motives to produce work. If, today and in the future, the value and worth and judgement of a product is how popular it is on Instagram or Facebook or a design blog or website, where will that leave the physical world in the future? Sure it may be aesthetically pleasing, but if it’s not functional or ergonomic or usable, what point is the product? Should objects like this even be considered design? But rather part of the decorative arts or even art itself?

The world is now fuller of objects and design now than it ever has been. Shouldn’t this spur designers to think more about the objects they produce and how they fit into real life, as opposed to creating for the Internet, and appeal only to our visual senses? Perhaps in the Western world we are part of, where our standard of living is so high we don’t think about these notions and concepts because our basic needs and wants are met already, leaving us to produce unnecessary objects.

Unless fundamental shifts in the way our economy, and society, function then we cannot give up producing items. It is unfeasible (based on the current model). With this in mind, objects should be more thoughtful and considered so they have a clear and distinct raison d’etre. It’s an interesting time to be a designer today. On one hand things are easier than ever: materials, information, knowledge, contacts all readily available at ones fingertips. It’s also one of the hardest: a saturated market place, a global marketplace where anyone can design, drying up of natural resources and, in Australia, a dying manufacturing scene. How does one stand out in an environment like this? According to Henry Wilson it’s by producing carefully considered, quiet objects that allow the entertainment of the room take the lead role. Combining locally made products with a philosophy for simple, long lasting objects his model of business, manufacturing and design may be the way forwards into the future.

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