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Adam Brislin Furniture Maker Melbourne Workshop

Furniture Maker Melbourne : Adam Brislin

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Furniture maker Melbourne – Grant Featherston chair.

What does it mean to be a furniture maker in Melbourne, Australia?

Apart from the sporting arena, as a nation we tend to have the bad habit of downplaying our achievements. Whether they be in the arts, manufacturing, technology or countless other areas, we still seem to suffer from the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome that is often talked about. However, it appears that the tide might be shifting slowly in that regard.

A famous Aussie sporting icon and AFL coach – to whom I have a great respect for – once said ‘The ox is slow but the Earth is patient’*. The same applies to the changing of attitudes when it comes to furniture design in this country. At least when you consider of mindset of the ‘so-called’ general public.

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FLER advertisement from the 1950’s. PHOTO: Monica Lee.

Collectors, and some of the more informed members in the industry, have always known, of course. After all, a well designed and well made piece of furniture is almost always in high demand. And equally highly regarded as well, I might add. However, when it comes to everyday people buying furniture for their house, the appreciation of those people actually making the furniture is a little slower in the take up. It will change though. It will get better. Some believe, myself included, that it’s already happening as we speak, but it’s going to take a bit of time to filter through to the masses. It might sound a bit odd to say it, but I believe we need to mature more with our thinking. At least when it comes to our own opinion of ourselves.

So Why Furniture Maker Melbourne?

So what does this have to do with being a furniture maker in Melbourne, you ask? Well, plenty actually.

The other day someone asked me what it was like to be a furniture maker in Melbourne? After all, they added, it’s not exactly the same as working in Paris, or London, or Rome or New York. Anywhere, for that matter. It’s just, well… Melbourne. This got me thinking a bit. Sure, it’s different, but it’s also quite exciting. Generally speaking, you’re not under that much scrutiny really. You’re free to do what you want, when you want to. There’s no particular style you have to stick to because there’s no real Melbourne style to speak of when it comes to furniture design. Or even an Australian style, for that matter. As a furniture maker in Melbourne you can basically do anything!

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D350 Contour chairs by Melbourne furniture makers, Grant and Mary Featherston. PHOTO: National Gallery of Victoria.

This got me thinking further. While having nowhere near the vast background and history that Europe or America has when it comes to furniture design, Australia still has quite a rich history of its own to draw from. Be it the simplest – and quite resourceful – furniture made by our first European settlers, where they utilised found objects such as crates, boxes, tins etc., or furniture made with newer materials and modern equipment, Australia is still fairly new to the party.

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A Schulim Krimper chest of drawers in black bean. PHOTO: Richard Hughes. Fairfax Media.

While we might not be exactly at the centre of the furniture making world, we do alright. There is a healthy tradition of makers who have, over the years, called Melbourne home. Whether it’s makers who once called Europe home, such as Dario Zoureff and Schulim Krimper who relocated to Melbourne after the war. Or homegrown talent like Fred Lowan and Ernest Rodeck (FLER) or Grant and Mary Featherston. Even more recent makers such as Nicholas Dattner and Anton Gerner inspire creativity. Dattner for his ability to turn each piece into a vivid and emotional story, and Gerner for, well, just about anything. Each one of those names mentioned has been, at some stage or another, an iconic furniture maker in Melbourne. In short, the result is that it is a tradition that is built on a very solid foundation.

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Desk by Schulim Krimper.

It should also be noted that, with so many inspiring designer makers to draw from, we feel privileged at Beeline Design to be included amongst them. At least as far as a humble furniture maker in Melbourne goes, if nothing else.

On the subject of inspiration, the equipment and the materials used can also help push us further. Today’s range of computerised machines for working wood, metal and plastics is truly staggering. However, tools and machines are just part of the story.

What does change and help innovate is what those new tools and processes can do. How they can make difficult processes much easier to accomplish. This, in turn, almost forces you to think in different ways. For example, no longer are you as concerned with making dozens of mortise and tenon joints because of a new machine you might have, your mind starts to imagine other ways in which you can use the equipment. Your focus shifts, and you begin to wonder, ‘What else can I make with this thing?’.

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Dario Zoureff lounge chairs. PHOTO: thebitchisback.com.au

Of course you don’t need to be in any particular city for this sort of innovation to happen. You don’t just have to be a furniture maker in Melbourne. You can be a furniture maker in Sydney, or Brisbane, or Perth? You can be from anywhere. As Australia is still a relatively new nation, however, the process is often somewhat accelerated. Newer nations seem to be early adopters of technology and new methods of working, and Australia is no different on that score.

Likewise, the computer programs used for designing furniture are equally impressive. In our own business we use tools such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, as well as Google SketchUp. However, it all starts with a pen and paper (or a block of wood, MDF, the floor, a wall etc.) The point is, any surface will do in a pinch. After all, when inspiration hits, you need to be ready!

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Shallow chest on stand (c. 1948) by Schulim Krimper, made from Australian cedar, silver ash, myrtle, copper and brass. PHOTO: Culture Australia.

When I was growing up in Bunbury, Western Australia – God’s Country, by the way – I was always fascinated by timber. I knew from the age of 16 that I wanted to work with it. To make furniture, turn bowls, sculpt mirrors, craft boxes – anything really! Becoming a woodworker and making a living from it became my number one goal. Meeting and working with Lucy Grant, now Beeline’s designer with years of experience in the fashion and design industry, helped push my own design aesthetic even further. I began to explore the work created by makers that came before me. Heavily influenced by the mid-century modern makers, such as FLER and the Featherstons, both Melbourne institutions, I set out creating my own style using them as inspiration.

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Redgum cabinet by Nicholas Dattner.

So when it comes to being a furniture maker, Melbourne is not a bad place. In fact it’s a rather good place to be. 24 years later I’m still living the dream. Though I may have left Bunbury and have spent some time in London plying my trade, I’m now a fully-fledged furniture maker in Melbourne, Australia! It’s not been an easy process, and there have been quite a few challenges along the way, but I’m managing. Each year the company, and the product line for that matter, grows. That can only be a good thing in my mind. With luck, and good planning, it will be a process which, I hope, will continue. I know that Lucy and I will be working hard to make sure it does.

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Chest of drawers by Anton Gerner in Tasmanian myrtle, fiddleback blackwood, celery top pine and gidgee.

So when the question is asked ‘What does it mean to be a furniture maker in Melbourne?’ my answer is a simple one-word response. Everything!

Adam Brislin,
Furniture Maker Melbourne.

* NOTE: OK, so this saying may have been attributed to a bloke called Confucius as well.

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Chest of drawers by Anton Gerner in American walnut, ebonised wood and Bronze Flap Handles. PHOTO: Anton Gerner.

Additional reading:
Everything 1970’s Is New Again – (Sydney Morning Herald)
Fler And The Modernist Impulse – (ABC Radio National)
The Featherston Archive – Featherston.com.au
Dario Zoureff РMelbourne’s Iconic modernist furniture designer and maker РThe Bitch Is Back РFurniture As Art.

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