Features

Profile: Keith Melbourne

January 11, 2011

Andrew Mackenzie delves into the world of Australian designer Keith Melbourne, whose work is a fusion of craft and streamlined engineering.

There’s a lot of talk about trans-disciplinary design in the world of academia today, but not a lot of action in the field of practice. It is indeed unfortunate how little real exchange there is between the ‘beaux arts’ tradition of design and the analytic tradition of engineering. I say this because time and again the people who do the best work appear to do so by getting these two areas – not unlike the two sides of the brain – to talk to each other. The work of Keith Melbourne is a good example. Undoubtedly the cross-pollination of the rational and the intuitive has led to the germination of a number of his product designs, and product families, which are fast establishing his design reputation in Australia. Indeed he has hit the ground running since he emerged from his design studies in 2004, driven perhaps by the fact that this is his second career.

Melbourne’s first choice was engineering, working first in aeronautics and then the automotive industry, where he spent over a decade developing an engineering reputation – chalking up a number of patented technology inventions. But eventually this path proved unsatisfying and insufficiently creative. After a pit-stop studying design in Western Australia, he re-emerged in 2004 with qualifications and a swag of ideas.

Thankfully however, Melbourne hasn’t entirely left his past life of engineering behind, as is evident in the sharp streamlined forms and efficient manufacturing processes that characterise his work. The I Do light was one of his early successes in 2007, winning him a lighting award along with some useful media and industry attention. In some ways it’s possible to see this product as seminal in his career, not only professionally, but also creatively.

The I Do light range is produced by extruding and laser-cutting aluminium to create an elegant floating form. It is also a production process that minimises waste. Although the use of LED lighting is now almost standard, only three years ago, Melbourne’s use of LED – where the light source was almost invisible and intriguingly abstract – was highly innovative. As a synthesis of attributes, the I Do light range can be seen as stylish yet practical; decorative yet efficient; of its time and yet (that most desired of qualities) perfectly timeless.

Many of these qualities can be found in his expanding furniture portfolio, the most recent being the Ellis collection, produced for Zenith here in Australia. Ellis is a family of products that share many of the qualities mentioned above. At first glance they seem boldly geometric, simple and even. But at closer inspection you see how its flowing lines and subtle form is also rather organic. In fact, there is something in the range, similar to his Amelia range – manufactured through Woodmark – that is distinctly feminine in shape. More Chanel than Gucci, but definitely more sensual than you would expect from a man who once specialised in advanced engine technology.

The Ellis range also displays his commitment to the craft of making. Manufactured in Australia, the full range, including an informal set of nestling organic shaped tables, is finely detailed down to the tailored stitching (customisable with a wide range of fabrics) and sturdy stainless or powder- coated steel frames. Although comfortable in the realms of computer technology and design software, Melbourne is committed to the tactile, physical process of design development. As he states “CAD is ideal for working with the intersection of geometric shapes but it’s rather ‘dead’. I also need to work with my hands, to touch and feel”.

It’s only been six years since Melbourne launched himself on the Australian design world, and already he has been exhibited widely, has won awards and commendations and has several product lines in production. So far so good, but what’s next? Asked this question recently he mentioned a few projects on the go, “one of which may involve a long walk in the bush…”

Feminine forms, tactile craft, a sense of humour and a rambling sense of inspiration – we think his career change was a very good idea.

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