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1st June 2017

Untrodden Territory: Q&A with Dowel Jones

Melbourne-based design studio Dowel Jones is a master in crafting functional furniture and objects for daily life. The studio specialises in simple furnishings, lighting and accessories made of everyday hard materials; powder-coated metals and natural wood being staple materials in the studio’s designs. For its materiality alone, Dowel Jones’s latest project is particularly noteworthy. As one of three studios invited to collaborate with Kvadrat and Maharam as part of the brands’ collaboration with the curated online hub Local Design, Dowel Jones has ventured into soft furnishings and upholstery. It’s completely untrodden territory. 
Dowel Jones’s involvement in the project is the result of the curation by designer and stylist Emma Elizabeth. The curator of Local Milan, an exhibition hosted at Milan’s Salone del Mobile that showcased the works of 11 Australian designers (amongst them Dowel Jones), Emma was approached by Kvadrat and Maharam to conceive an installation that celebrates both Australian design and textile innovation. The installation will greet visitors at the entrance of Melbourne design show DENFAIR throughout the duration of the event (8-10 June 2017) and is distinctive in its ambition to fuse scenography, design and fashion. Dowel Jones is one of just three studios invited to create pieces of furniture that showcase colour and texture edits from the latest Kvadrat Maharam collection for the installation. 
Ahead of the unveiling of the entrance at DENFAIR on 8 June, Zetteler caught up with Dowel Jones’ co-founder, Dale Hardiman to discuss the ins and outs of the collaboration. Within the resulting interview, the studio also reflected on the significance of venturing into soft furnishings, the state of Australian design, and the importance of finding a creative middle-ground. 

How did the collaboration with Kvadrat and Maharam come about?
Shortly after Local Milan, the exhibition’s curator Emma Elizabeth asked if we’d be interested in producing a piece for Local Design’s presentation for Kvadrat and Maharam. The opportunity to work with such a respected brand on pieces that would have a softness to them, especially when compared to the majority of our work which is formed from hard materials, was really exciting. 

Kvadrat is based in Denmark, Maharam in the US and your studio is a former mechanic’s garage in Melbourne; it’s quite an international cocktail. Does this have an impact on the way you work? Is there a sense of each entity having its own design culture?
We typically look at the company we’re working with for an element of historical or theoretical context. For this collaboration, we decided upon a detail that didn’t feel particularly isolated and could be appreciated and universally understood. 

How did you approach the creative brief? 
Each designer was given a colour palette. We were very lucky to be assigned the colour green; having not worked with it before, we had an entirely new colour to explore. The brief was to produce a hero piece with an element of upholstery that would sit within an immersive environment designed by Local Design As we haven’t previously produced upholstered pieces, we decided to have the entire pieces upholstered. We started with a theme of playfulness, exploring how we could produce various games as oversized objects that could be used within the home. 

How would you qualify the current state design in Australia?
We can’t speak for Australian design beyond the last half-decade, but in our eyes it is rapidly progressing. It’s a topic that we frequently talk about with other designers; we realise that our generation of designers is the largest group to ever be so active. For a long time Australian designers have looked to the likes of Milan, London and New York for influence and relevance, but there seems to be a burgeoning respect for looking more inwardly. There is an increasingly acknowledgement of what Australian designers have to offer as creative practitioners globally.
Fuse by Raf Simons for Kvadrat
Micro by Maharam
Local Design presents itself as a multi-dimensional show that fuses scenography, design and fashion. How hands-on has your involvement been in this showcase and how closely have you collaborated with Emma Elizabeth?
Our involvement has been only the focus of one of the three hero works, Emma has been working with designer Tom Fereday on the presentation and scenography. Emma has been, and always will be, a driving force in the facilitation of good design – we are lucky to have Emma based in Australia! Emma continues to allow us to work flexibly on these feature projects. She also trusts our vision which is invaluable. 

Much of your work so far has been pointedly bare – powder-coated metal and untreated wood – but this collaboration called for the use of textiles. This is a first for Dowel Jones, does it mark a new departure for the practice? How did you find working on upholstered pieces? 
This is the first time that we’ve produced work with any kind of considered upholstery or fabric. As we do with every project, we approached a skilled manufacturer to help realise the project. We don’t suggest that we’re experts in any particular field so we find people who are and then develop pieces collaboratively. We began by designing only a detail, and then Geordie from Stellen Workshop helped us realise the piece in a completely upholstered form. We’ve always wanted to work with upholstery, and we have had prototypes produced previously, but we hadn’t found the right collaborator, until now. We were incredibly excited to not be working on a powder-coated metal or natural wood project. Hopefully this project will demonstrate diversity in our aesthetic.
There’s something playful and whimsical about the pieces you produced for Local Design. What was your inspiration?
There is a long history of exceptional projects created as a result of Kvadrat collaborations so we spent a considerable amount of time developing concepts that would hopefully stand alongside designers such as Philippe Malouin, Muller Van Severen and Raw Edges. We had some elaborate and romantic ideas, but the more we talked about our project, the less elaborate we decided it should be. We decided that a simple addition to a well-represented typology with simple gestures would be the best way to represent Dowel Jones.
Lift by Konstantin Grcic for Maharam
Micro by Maharam
Tell us more about your creative process. How do you make it work? Does collaboration come naturally to you both? Do you have the same approach? Does anything drive you mad about the other?
I think the more we work with our team, the better we become at understanding our creative process. Projects such as this are a total rarity: having freedom over what we produce and no particularly strong constraints such as pricing, transportability or whether it is suitable for the market. We both have very different approaches, and sometimes it’s more about finding the middle-ground that allows us to create the very best results. 

What has been your favourite project so far?
We love working on projects that explore design beyond the realms of furniture and objects. As a result, many of the projects that we’ve worked on in 2017 stand out. In January we produced a large installation for Sample Brewery at Sugar Mountain Festival that consisted of 800 pink outdoor balloons held together by pink expandable foam, and in March we produced an installation for textile company InStyle which provided participants with a moment to reflect on their thoughts.

What’s next for Dowel Jones?
At the same time as our collaboration with Local Design, we are hosting our largest presentation to date – Clubhouse by Dowel Jones. The week following, we are also launching our Hurdle range with North American company Grand Rapids Chair Company at Neocon in Chicago.

DENFAIR held in the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre runs from 8-10 Jun 2017. For more information on the show make sure to email Jodi on jodi@zetteler.co.uk.


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