All images courtesy Makers Lane. Photography by Dom Goldsworthy.
Makers Lane is a new concept conceived by co-founders Craig van Zyl, Clare Gilligan and her brother Paddy, seeking to connect Australian artisans and crafters to clients looking for custom made pieces. In an era where online businesses of any kind need to be truly disruptive, the Makers Lane service is no exception, connecting a community of makers with a community of consumers interested unique and local design.
ADR: Tell us a little about your background, what has been your journey through the Australian design industry and how have you arrived in such a uniquely entrepreneurial position?
Clare Gilligan: I’ve been fortunate to experience an extremely varied career in the construction and property development industry for almost 20 years, primarily as a project director for larger projects, from commercial spaces through to award-winning residential communities. My career began with construction work on a number of Sydney Olympic venues before moving on to the refurbishment and fit out of the Governor Macquarie Tower in Sydney CBD, eventually moving into a project director role with Australand and then CIC Australia. I think I am most proud of the suburb of Crace in Canberra, which was a design led project from the beginning where we incorporated a number of new ideas and concepts which were really very experimental at the time. In 2013 I completed an MBA at Melbourne Business School, which woke a desire in me to challenge myself to a new career direction.
Makers Lane combines the challenges of a start-up business with the ability to use my years of experience in managing projects and commissioning work and construction projects to create a solution to a problem I felt existed – you have a great idea but sourcing the right people to bring it to life can be time-consuming and frustrating. Makers Lane looks to provide a solution to that problem. I believe design impacts on every person and their quality of life all the time – from a piece of furniture or lighting that you commission to how our public spaces are designed and created. I have always been interested in pushing the boundaries of what can be created and I love the experimentation that a design process can allow.
How did the Makers Ln idea come to you? What were the key points of inspiration behind the initial concept?
Makers Lane came to me when I started renovating my own house. I have a beautifully designed structure from the 1970s, which really needed to be contemporised without ruining the original design intent. I would also describe myself as the ultimate custom customer – I don’t particularly want off-the-shelf designs and products. I really want more of my own design story in my space and home, so every element has that now for me. For me the real creation story of Makers Lane started when I need to relocate a wood burner from the centre of the living room to a wall. It needed to become a feature and in the end I decided I would like to create a concrete hearth and feature wall. But I wanted to do it in a deep red concrete. I had done a bridge in a past project where we had chosen the concrete colour from a Dulux sample board so I knew it could be done.
So I spent about 12 weeks trying to find a specialist who was willing to have a go at my idea before I found Tony – he hadn’t done it before either but was excited about the idea. We went through nine samples before we felt we had nailed the colour and process.
I thought ‘how is it that it was so hard for me to find someone when I have worked in this industry in Canberra for over 10 years?” It must be really difficult if you don’t already have a network. So that’s when I started to think about this problem as a business problem that needed to be solved. From there it wasn’t much of a leap to start thinking about a business that could also provide tendering and contact administration into the core of the business flow given my past experience, so that it could provide significant value to the professional specifier and designer as well.
What we have discovered is the enormous wealth of talented and creative makers in Australia who are incredibly skilled at making items and really not so good at promoting themselves and being able to be found.
How involved are you from the initial conceptual stages and throughout the design process of briefs posted?
My level of involvement is really dictated by the client. We have had projects where the client has a need but no design idea right through to full CAD design drawings. Sometimes I will work with a client to develop a brief that is then able to go to our makers, sometimes it’s a case of understanding what a client needs in their maker and I can then make the connection to the right maker for that client. The great thing about a broad maker community is that when a project needs two different specialties we can connect different makers from within our community and manage it as a single project for the client.
Of course we are in the project right through to completion and client acceptance of the end product which means we are involved throughout the creation process.
What are some of the challenges of coordinating a business where all pieces are bespoke?
I think the greatest challenge for our business is to help our clients brief to their expectations and end intent. Often a bespoke piece will be an experiment – that’s the nature of custom. You can’t walk into a showroom and see the end product and say I will have one of those. The designs come from an idea, or even spark of an idea, that then is created. In saying that, often clients will see a design from our makers and then want that design customised for size or materials for their space.
How do you hope a concept like Makers Ln will improve the design culture here in Australia?
We hope that more people will be drawn to bespoke creations if we are successful at making the process easy, enjoyable and rewarding. Clients who aren’t designers can still have their own creation stories in pieces around them.
The quality of products that are produced and crafted in Australia is incredible. I believe there is a real push back from consumers against poor quality imported products that abound. When people see the price of a custom, handmade piece from Makers Lane, and compare the quality of construction and material and longevity of the piece, they quickly realize that we can offer real value for money. Quite simply – we are on a mission to bring ‘special’ back into people’s lives.
Who are some of the makers or designers we could expect to craft our goods through Makers Ln? How diverse are their backgrounds?
We have an extraordinarily diverse range of makers and designers in the Makers Lane community. We need to because our client requests for custom product is really diverse as well. We have makers of fine furniture and joinery, lighting, polished concrete, metalwork and fabrication, textiles, wallpaper, art, sculpture, ceramics and leatherwork. We even have a maker who has a range of sustainable coffins.
Some of the Melbourne community who provided feature product for DEN Fair included fabulous lights from Ilan El and Daniel Giffin. We also commissioned the concrete and American black walnut table to demonstrate what could come from connecting two of our makers – Melbourne based furniture craftsman Mike Hayes and Canberra local Tony Wood – from different specialties together to create something new.
We are adding new makers to our community every day and we expect to grow our various specialties of makers fairly quickly.
What excites and what frustrates you about the current state of Australian design?
I think the demonstration of Australian design at DEN Fair was extraordinary. The creative talent in Australia is at an all time high. The challenge is in providing a commercial environment that enables and supports Australian designers to keep growing and developing their talent here at home. I would like to see more locally sourced procurement for projects and homes. If we are to continue to grow the local talent, we need to ensure that there is a sustainable industry that enables young designers and makers a career path.
Where would you like to see Makers Ln in five years’ time?
We would love to see Makers Lane become the home for creative and talented designers and makers in Australia. We have a vision of building a diverse and supportive community of makers – one that can provide avenues for them to reach beyond what they are doing now and provide opportunities to undertake projects they may not otherwise see. We also want to create an enjoyable and accessible marketplace for clients who dream an idea to have that idea realised. I love seeing the imaginative ideas that people have, and seeing those ideas take shape. The wonderful thing is that this process is as exciting to a maker as it is to a client. They create an amazing partnership to bring an idea to life and they are both committed to the outcome. We are at the start of the journey for Makers Lane and already we have a long list of features and developments we are starting to bring to life within the Makers Lane business. With such a creative and passionate environment to work in, who knows where the ideas will end?