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Ten years ago, I remember looking to Italy as the ‘only real place’ to seriously have furniture produced. I guess that was the general perception back then – to reach a larger European market (and skill set), rather than risk the effort on the smaller domestic design market here. Although to a certain degree this old sentiment still exists in Australia, things have certainly changed as technology continues to break down barriers of location, production quality and new technical capacities.
It certainly feels like local manufacturers are recognising the strategic importance of good design. Historically, there was often a discord between the two, as opposed to working in unison for the greater good of an Australian design industry. Now I tend to see a stronger focus on building better relationships with our local manufacturers, who truly value design. I think this sort of practice is paramount to the continual growth of our industry – and it ultimately makes our life a lot easier.
For example, one such manufacturer is Melbourne-based Tait – who I recently worked with to develop Flint, an indoor/outdoor table and bench system. The ability to prototype locally made the whole thing a collaborative process, which is essential to the realising of any good design, I believe. Why do you think the Italians have been so good at this for so long? The designer is the producer’s neighbour, and vice versa. That proximity can have a very positive effect. Further enabling us to make on-the-spot decisions to the design accelerated our process, and it should be noted we had a number of structural issues to resolve. Had this been a long-distance procedure, it could have easily taken the product in different directions. Tait always remained adamant to keep the original design intention, and the final product reflected this effort.
Now this is just one personal example, but I know Spaceleft is not alone. In large part, Australia has a manufacturing culture of its own, albeit a small one that focuses more on batch-production, but it’s a creative sector that is always active and burgeoning. Sure, we will always have to compete against larger countries with vast capacity and heritage, but there is an advantage in this as well – locally, we can adapt and evolve comfortably, without preconditioned expectations. Italian design, one might say, has little room to grow. It now looks outward for new ideas. It feels like an amazing opportunity for this country to muscle its own unique space within the global design community, and perhaps more importantly, to be identified and recognised for it virtues. Quality, price and aesthetic appeal will ultimately dictate demand for our products, from which we can only prosper beyond our isolated market.
Design in general seems to be valued a lot more in this country than it was even five years ago. Organisations such as Design Victoria have aided the connection of industry and design through programs such as Business Immersion and Design Ready, further enabling us to keep working together. Business Immersion engages with manufacturers who have a specific problem and joins them with a designer who is a specialist at solving such problems. It essentially works like a grant to facilitate collaboration between the two parties and provides a good example of the greater emphasis government is placing on design and manufacturing.
Considering the more stringent requirements that have been put in place to certify products to GECA, the next 10 years will be interesting to see unfold. We should see this as a good thing, by the way. How it all plays out is yet to be seen, but it will surely have a trickle-down effect through to our standard manufacturing processes. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s also beneficial for locally produced products to receive greater support from the designers who specify on larger projects. I suppose the power of international brands and competitive pricing is a force we’ll always have to live with here, but suffice to say that specifying a locally produced and certified product – as opposed to a foreign, certified product – has way more benefits than just saving on transport miles. I just hope we can keep our eye on the bigger picture as we move forward.
Ross Gardam is the founder of Spaceleft Products + Spaces, a dynamic Australian design business that values new technologically advanced materials and processes alongside heritage and handcraft skill. Spaceleft is a partnership between Ross Gardam, based in Melbourne, and Michael Travalia, who currently works in London.