Features

Tongue + Groove Design Refinery

February 3, 2011

Proud to be small and bound to be big, the design collective behind the Design Refinery has a vivid past, present and future in mind.

If you asked me to recall one of the first moments that struck me with such a fond appreciation for furniture design, without a doubt, I owe much to the flea markets I used to rummage as a young man in search of old mid-century gems. What was then a mere hobby ultimately became an obsession of sorts. To this day, I remain convinced that the search for good vintage can easily last a lifetime. The question is: where to put it all?

Lured by similar addiction, Ross Hines first found his way into the design industry by refurbishing worthy vintage pieces. Though clever enough, he made it his life’s work. As he shows me around his place in Collingwood, I have no problem calling the man a vintage and modern guru. For as much as Hines might know about Australian mid-century classics, he also has a keen interest for what is most relevant in contemporary furniture design, something I can appreciate even more. Needless to say, we’ve had some interesting conversations. Having established a small design collective with his counterparts just a few years ago, he now finds himself producing furniture alongside some of the brightest local talents, as opposed to simply collecting and reselling. Never to be ungrateful, as the vintage trade has always treated him well.

Still, the ideas that have brewed under the Design Refinery collective are an example of why collectives even work in the first place. By pooling their insight and resources to test and prototype their design thinking, the collective now shares access to great CNC technology and steel-working facilities, all within a 2km radius. Slowly, but with good scrutiny, they’ve managed to create a new range of products and furniture, all of which seems to be the mere beginning of something much greater for the years to come. And although making a business of this effort hasn’t been easy – we all know getting any fresh product to market never is – there now seems to be a smooth and running system of two small businesses in place, functioning in total unison.

“The basis is that this is the business I know really well, and this [vintage furniture] is what first attracted me to furniture and design,” says Hines. “It’s something that’s incredibly hard to leave behind, and I don’t think I ever will. So what we did is we split the business in two. We set up Lost+Found Market on Smith Street, which is a way for me to find stock everyday of the week, restore it here and sell it down there. Essentially, it’s recycling good quality furniture that’s fun – we don’t worry too much about it – and we keep it affordable.”

On the higher end of this restoring business, it’s worth noting that his mid-century classics – including select designs by Grant (and Mary) Featherston, Clement Meadmore, Douglas Snelling, Gordon Andrews, Roger McLay and Kjell Grant (among other rare finds) – easily make him one of the country’s primary collectors of Australian mid-century furniture. The collection stands on its own as a valued resource of Australian design history, and though he might sell things here and there to his top-bidding clients, the collection is mainly for show and hire.

While the vintage business is always good to them, keeping Tongue+Groove active in refurbishing these gems on daily basis, Hines couldn’t be more focused on the future efforts of the Design Refinery, a forward-investing venture between designers Justin Hutchinson, Ivan Mattucci, Lex Stobie, Rock Martin and Kevin O’Connor.

“Thing is, I think the future of the business is in contemporary design,” says Hines. “So we’ve set up a structure where one established business can fund and support where I think the future of the business is going, and that’s in ventures like this collective and moving into a new space like this. I think I’ll always have to dabble in the vintage, because I just love it so much, but it’s all just design, so the balance just makes good sense.”

Having recently moved his whole operation to an old Collingwood warehouse facility on Perry Street in North Melbourne, Hines now finds himself in a good place to call home, with hopes to grow in the company of his fellow designers. At a point when many are beginning to think progressively about the future of local design, albeit he admits, a slow-but-still-burgeoning market, the new space serves all four of his purposes brilliantly: allowing him to highlight all of his associated designers in the main showroom, with a secondary showroom upstairs displaying his vintage collection. It also makes room for a much more spacious workshop to handle the constant flow of refurbishments and new furniture assembly. Joe James is the man found behind the scenes here, and if anyone is responsible for seeking out the old gems and polishing them, it’s him. Of course last, but not the least of concerns, the warehouse also serves as a massive storage facility and office space for the designers to work and convene.

As we walk through the whole warehouse and suddenly re-encounter the main showroom, there’s a clear sense of their progress. Beyond their older work as a collective, it becomes evident that they’re actually starting to refine themselves here. I put down my bag and take seat on what happens to be their latest leather daybed, designed by Hutchinson. Realised by both Stobie and Mattucci, it’s one of the best examples of the collective’s effort. Where Mattucci upholsters these pieces by hand, Stobie “the cabinet maker” is responsible for the wood framing. “It’s nice how he allowed the frame to serve as both a base for the daybed, but also a coffee table (if we drop in some glass),” says Hutchinson. “It’s important to allow your ideas to form a range.” Hines points to the dining table, and says, “if you look at the frame you’re sitting on and then look at that table’s leg, it’s the same thing, but just in a different material.” I smile and then think to myself: Wow, expanding on a partner’s design concept must be so much more rewarding than just finishing their sentences.

www.tongueandgroove.com.au

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