Pino by Keith Melbourne

Do Designers Have A Responsibility To Manufacturers?

The A+D world faces a precarious future: dwindling local expertise, unlikely local capacity, and a race we thought was heading toward the bottom but seems, instead, to be heading nowhere.

The Anxiety Of Influence

Although the current state of our property market might indicate our growing status as a well-designed nation, few of us in the A+D world are quite so sanguine. Tasked to close contracts faster and cheaper than ever before, our A+D community continues to report a culture of fear within the industry, circuitous monetary flows and wildly ambivalent consumer confidence – whether for key developments in our property market or for the position our industrial design will index on the world’s stage in the face of growing international competition.

At all avenues, we appear to be racing to the bottom faster than ever before. Needing to curb costs wherever possible in order to bolster our value proposition to the market, (namely, a value proposition that hangs solely on price point), the collateral damage has been enormous and, sadly it would seem, largely silent.

Within the space of a single workforce generation, our local manufacturing industry has experienced an ongoing period of contraction, falling to record lows on the Industry’s Group Index. In the 2015-2016 financial year, manufacturing’s injection into the national economy capped almost $30 million AUD. Throughout the last financial year, however, it contributed less than $15,598 million – a drop of almost 50% (which, comparatively, outstrips the drop experienced during the same parameters for our equally anxious mining industry).

Manufacturing Industry’s Performance Activity
(% contribution to AU GDP):
Australian-Bureau-Statistics-Australian-National-Accounts
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Australian national accounts: national income expenditure and product, cat. no. 5206.0.

But Is It A Question Of Déjà Vu?

It may sound flippant, but it feels all-too-familiar to me. Though few might be willing to see the correspondence, we find ourselves today in an oddly similar position to mid-Nineteenth-Century Europe. As the cause of industrialism continued to make in-roads into European social and political circles, the correlative emerged simultaneously for the continent’s economic thinking: the purportedly unspoken virtues of laissez-faire market drivers. We have novelists, in particular, to thank for the gainsaying. In the British tradition, Dickens, Eliot, Carlyle, Gaskell and any one of the Bronte family filled reams and reams of paper with the very human-centric tales of entire industries falling to task as the race to the bottom became more of a chaotic sprint.

But what might the Victorians teach us here? Well, for one thing, their response was inspired: intervention. Charter after charter was passed from the 1848 People’s Charter onwards, delineating strategies for mutually beneficial relationships between industry sectors: the cotton industry bolstered the weaving industry, textile trade and international trading relationships (even the colonial military) all working collaboratively to manage the ongoing struggles of ameliorating the rapid effects of mechanical innovation into an otherwise localised cottage IR structure. In short, the shift in industrial relations produced highly specialised skillsets as relationships became entirely driven by exclusivity and specialisation for quality control.

Do Industrial Designers Have A Responsibility To Manufacturers?

Needless to say, such effects are also currently extant within the A+D community. Relationships between our industrial designers and suppliers have never been richer and more penetrative. And yet, the local manufacturers still appear to be lucking out. While our lower dollar continues to boost manufacturing export volumes, weak local demand continues to subdue total activity as designers seek cheaper offshore alternatives

According to a recent report by Fairfax, 83% of Australian votes believe that we have a responsibility to generate more revenue and jobs within our total manufacturing capacity. Such sentiments could not have arrived at a more pressing moment. Between 2008 and 2016, more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, now accounting for approximately 1 in every 13 workers.

“The public’s instinct is absolutely right,” says Jim Stanford, economist at the Centre for the Future of Work at the Australia Institute, following his key findings that this nation displays a significantly lower proportion of manufacturing capacity than any other comparably advanced economy. “We risk paying a long-term price if the decline continues.”

So, should the A+D world reconsider its relationship with manufacturers? After all, government deregulation of the commercial sector in particular – plus the constantly changing landscape of taxation and tariff control – doesn’t bode well for too heavy a reliance on offshore manufacturing in the long term (even if it does satisfy short-term commercial imperatives). While local expertise continues to decline, we are actively complicit in creating an arena that is not sustainable for our local industrial designers, their local and international suppliers and the push for seeing our local design language make a loud impact on the international level.

Under such conditions, never has ecologically and socially sustainable approaches to our industrial relationships been more pressing. And thankfully, some industrial designers are proving that understanding the future direction of our collective practice and the potentially errant market forces at play is key to our overall success – as a nation, as an industry, and as a design community.

Rethinking The Designer-Manufacturer Relationship

Keith Melbourne is one such forward-thinker. Following the launch of his Pino collection for Zenith, Melbourne sat down with me to discuss his unique relationship with manufacturers, underscoring his discussion with the insight that closer collaborative approaches are key to the success of industrial design as a discipline, and design as both collective practice and community.

From designing all unique manufacturing componentry for the range, not to mention furniture kitted with ergonomic solutions for the manufacturers needing to construct these difficult product typologies – it becomes clear that it is near-impossible to delineate where Pino’s design story ends and its manufacture story begins. At all points, the difficulties, necessities and support systems for the range’s manufacture appear to inform its design resolution from the beginning. What emerges is not simply a product to decorate our mantle as a well-designed nation but, rather, the vital support system needed to ensure that the mantle will no longer be top-heavy.

Pino by Keith Melbourne
Pino by Keith Melbourne

David Congram, Indesign:      You’ve commented elsewhere that Pino is unique for you because it was very much a balancing act between sustaining its characteristic wire form and still providing the level of comfort and performance we wouldn’t normally expect from hard furnishings.

Keith Melbourne:      Yes, and ‘balancing act’ is the perfect term for it. [laughs] Well, sometimes, but it really was more of a pleasurable experience as a whole. And probably the number one thing which I found especially arduous this time with Pino was the manufacture. It was a wonderful challenge but I seriously underestimated the scope of the manufacturing side. We developed twelve manufacture components, and then spent two years refining the manufacturing process as a whole.

DC:      Well, since the manufacture for Pino was largely uncharted territory for you in terms of the form of the range, was it key to collaborate with specialist manufacturers?

KM      Oh absolutely! It was a very mutually-rewarding experience for both myself and the manufacturing team because it was such a prolonged collaborative process. Manufacturing is something that is very hidden, so I enjoy coming out and championing that part of the design process. Otherwise, how would people know?

Pino Stool Bodies by Keith Melbourne
Pino Stool Bodies by Keith Melbourne

DC       And people are intensely interested in that part of the design process, too, I feel.

KM      Yes, extremely so. It’s always met with a very high level of fascination. It has a tendency to ground the product, and really sweep away the unecessary ‘mystique’ that surrounds design as a discipline.

DC       And when you were refining each element during that questioning, how many prototypes were required to truly test its functionality?

KM      Interestingly, not many at all. I normally make a lot of models when I’m designing furniture, but it’s almost impossible to make a model of anything in the Pino range. When you take it down to one fifth of the scale, the wires don’t really translate. The accuracy required during the prototyping stage to inform the end-result just couldn’t be achieved for Pino because of its peculiar materiality. So largely it was done in CAD with some mock-ups in MDF for an ergonomic point of view.

DC       That’s quite interesting because I imagine it would be rather uncommon –

KM      Well yes – prototyping is an important part of any design process, but the material that constitutes the bulk of each piece wasn’t very welcoming of traditional prototyping, and certainly wasn’t particularly suited to dropping down the scale. I developed a new type of prototyping for this range using laser cut MDF to make a simulation of the chair, for example, so that you could sit inside to test the distribution of load and weight. Although it differs incredibly from the end result (not only in material) this way I was able to test and refine the ergonomics of each piece. But largely, I think we only did one prototype overall.

DC       One?!

KM      Yeah! But, thousands of megabytes of CAD data as well. It was an interesting challenge because I normally do like to make many models and work directly with the material and form. Unfortunately, or actually quite fortunately in a way, the material in this instance worked against the way I normally design.

DC       You’ve told me quite a bit about the manufacturing side of developing this range, and I’m curious to know your opinion of the manufacturer-designer relationship.

KM      Oh it’s extremely important! It’s critical as far as I’m concerned. I don’t work just by completing the design process and then passing the spec sheets through to the manufacturers. I prefer to work more collaborating alongside the manufacturers and I find very often that this also colours the design process to a great extent too, while also influencing the success of the design from a performance, quality or even aesthetic angle.

DC       Do you think that is standard or rare for the design community currently working throughout Australia, in particular?

KM      All designers I know have slightly different relationships with their manufacturers. Some, like me, are quite involved, and others can be very removed, some removed entirely as we often see with those who use offshore solutions. But I think that the line in the sand – where the manufacturer finishes and the designer starts – for me at least is very blurred. Perhaps that’s more informed by my engineering background than I know. But I love the relationship with the manufacturer. I spend a lot of time physically in the factory refining the manufacturing process. And the manufacturers love it too.

Pino Rolling off Production Line by Keith Melbourne
Pino Rolling off Production Line by Keith Melbourne

DC       I imagine that the stronger the relationship between the manufacturer and the designer leads to a better-resolved product at the tail-end of the whole process.

KM      Yes I’d have to agree. The whole process of the tooling side of things is about spending time refining those elements that can improve quality but also save time and a lot of funds too.

The design process for me can sometimes be quite lonely. I do a lot of the legwork alone and then the collaboration starts with the manufacturer where the sparks start to fly. I have a lot of respect with the manufacturers I work with, and the transference of skills and expertise is by far one of the most rewarding parts of this relationship.

By David Congram

 

Happy Third Birthday To Zenith In Hong Kong

Happy Third Birthday To Zenith In Hong Kong!

As Zenith celebrates their third anniversary in Hong Kong, we look to some of the brand’s landmark achievements in designing the Asia Pacific A+D world.

Happy Third Birthday To Zenith In Hong Kong

“Many of our clients have offices in Asia and there are so many Australian architects and designers working in these regions. We need to be there to support them.”

 

Three years ago, Barbara Schmidt’s above observation prompted Zenith Interiors to build on decades of accomplishment in Australia and New Zealand by branching further into the Asia Pacific region. As Australian architects and designers began to collaborate more with the A+D community on the Asian continent, our region began to see a regional design philosophy take shape on its own terms. And, no doubt supported by brands such as Zenith that were brave enough to jump the pond and extend the offering of their service to new markets requiring their expertise, this cross-cultural negotiation also began to see the rise of Asia Pacific’s economic and political dominance on the global stage.

Now celebrating the third anniversary of their presence in Hong Kong, Zenith is thus also celebrating an important milestone in
the history of our region’s design tradition. The brand joins us in celebrating, that is, the growing strength of our region in our time: the world we designed, the world realised by our innovators,
our risk takers, our thought leaders and our design talent.

Part of the ongoing story of A+D in our growing region is a sub-story of those businesses growing alongside us. Last year I reported on Zenith Interiors’ further growth across the Pacific – it is one of many stories that testify to the ongoing support of such brands for our emerging design talent. What Zenith’s story uniquely inspires, however, is a coming of age for our A+D designing beyond borders.

Happy Third Birthday To Zenith In Hong Kong

From the 1950s, Zenith has steadily refined its approach and
grown across the Australasian region, closing out the millennium with four manufacturing facilities and showrooms throughout the nation’s major cities. With a commitment to bringing the best in international design to the local market, they quickly noticed the emerging prowess of the design community on our own shores.
In the past decade, Zenith launched their own contribution to our growing design importance – Zenith Design (2009) – led by their own design and manufacture direction, state-of-the-art facilities and an award-winning suite of proprietary products to enhance collaboration, wellbeing and productivity in the modern workplace. Suddenly with the capacity to offer bespoke solutions “ being a local manufacturer in this Asia Pacific region”, commented Barbara Schmidt, was integral “to offering fully resolved solutions with a customised edge. […I]t was a huge point of difference for Zenith.”

And the significance of this capacity should not be understated here. After all, according to the Asian Development Bank, its was not
our oil, agriculture or global trade that underpinned Asia Pacific’s meteoric economic rise in the new millennium – it was our region’s wholehearted embrace of local industry, the preservation of our traditional skills and unique craftsmanship, and the mass-investment in advanced machinery. In the years that would follow Zenith’s further continental expansion, our region continued to enjoy growing rates of consumer activity, stronger levels of income, continued remittance inflows and greater intra-national ties between supplier and consumers. Earlier last year, I reported on how this has culminated or us, today, in the most remarkable expansion of education in world history – a confident indication
that our 1.7 billion + combined middle class demographic will continue to play an important role in shaping the global future.

Launching soon in Shanghai, Zenith’s co-ordinated design effort comes as an unique boon for an united Asia Pacific.
From Hong Kong to Wellington, Christchurch to Auckland
to Perth, and all along Australia’s East Coast and Southern
border, Zenith’s model recognises that design is (and needs to be) diverse. Their pan-regional presence declares that design is as personal as it is cultural. But, more importantly, it declares that ours is a design culture that matters – that matters outside our borders – and will continue to do so.

Happy Third Birthday To Zenith In Hong Kong

At Indesign Media, we congratulate Zenith
on this significant milestone, and wish to
thank them for their ongoing support for championing our design, our way.

 

Late last month, Zenith’s third anniversary in their Hong Kong showroom was ringed in with a jungle-themed party that brought
a touch of the South-East Asian tropics to sprawling megalopolis. Under a canopy of vines, their showroom was brought to life with jungle rhythms that drew out the wild side of their illustrious
guest list. In recognition of the environmental difficulties facing
our region, Zenith Hong Kong collaborated with Elephant Gin
Cocktails in an effort to conserve chronically endangered
wildlife. A significant portion of all proceeds where donated
to two foundations – Big Life, in support of anti-poaching,
and the Space For Elephants Foundation, in support of the restoration of old migratory routes.

By David Congram

 

Pino by Keith Melbourne

5 Minutes With… Keith Melbourne!

In the lead up to his launch of Pino for Zenith, we sat down with Keith Melbourne to get a behind the scenes glance of the designer
at work.

It has been said before, and yet I will say it again.
Keith Melbourne has carved out a unique place for himself in
the world of contemporary design. Exploring the sometimes twin, sometimes twain, virtues of rational engineering and creative design, his work bears an unmistakable signature: highly resolved end-results that appear equally whimsical and graphic, but soon start to reveal a litany of calmly determined design choices to bestow the invisible comforts of everyday life.

Having recently launched his latest collection – Pino – for Zenith,
it is clear that the union of engineering, manufacture, R+D and creative design continues to be a strong driving force for Melbourne. Across the entire range, comprising wire-work
dining and lounge chairs, stools, and accompanying tables, Pino carries a sometimes surprising back history that Melbourne was kind enough to share:

Pino Stool by Keith Melbourne

David Congram:       It has been said before that your engineering background heavily influences your work. I was wondering, however, whether your background in aerospace and automotive engineering
also influences it more directly?

Keith Melbourne:       That’s a good question. I don’t think that it
is directly influenced by aerospace and automotive engineering
as much as it is by manufacturing. I work with manufacturers to refine the design of the product and pre-empt moments where
we can refine the product (as an end result) and the process of its manufacture. The aesthetic … well, maybe I’m not the best person
to judge!

DC       [laughs]. No no, really?

KM       [laughs] Ah, well no not really. But I do think that in terms
of aesthetic, Pino has so many lines and in that way it is almost
like drawing. The different lineweights express the product in a different way. So we start with much finer seating wires that hang
in a frame, and these lineweights add more definition to the product.
So in terms of its aesthetic influences, I’d have to say it’s the precision I choose to work with … You can take the boy out of engineering, I guess!

Pino Dining Chair by Keith Melbourne

DC       And is that quite common for your work process? Designing functionally first, and then aesthetically second? Or are they constantly intertwined for you?

KM       Definitely intertwined. But having said that, I’m a strong believer in the functionality of products. So much time on this product was spent trying to perfect its comfort. I was adamant that although it is essentially a wire chair, it should be as comfortable as possible for its category type. So I spent a lot of time reworking the distribution of load over the wire seat, minimising or eliminating pressure points that lead to discomfort. I always start with thinking about the functionality and comfort of each piece, and then rework elements of its aesthetic dimension – so they are very intertwined.

DC       So when you began with the functionality and comfort of Pino, what was its initial seed?

KM       Well the very first part of the design journey for Pino is this softened hexagonal hoop that forms the seat and back of the chair. That’s the distinctive feature of the chair – it screams out at you from the other side of the street. The wires that hang from the hoop almost forge a sling shape – very soft, and very surprising given the hardness of the material.

Right from day one, the key features of the product were still
there, and they really did determine the direction and the
editing throughout.

Pino Lounge Chair by Keith Melbourne

DC       When I sat down with the other editors in the office, we were refreshing our memories of your recent work for brands like Stylecraft and Zenith, and the one thing that really jumped out at us was the strong graphic nature of your portfolio –

KM       That’s interesting because if I had to choose only one word to describe my work it would have to be ‘line’. How line in the 2D and the 3D form then translates into a sculptural presence. I obsess over it, really. Complex lines and vital lines are a central theme in my work. So when you recognised the graphic nature of what I do, you’re right on the money!

DC       [laughs] So you feel that Pino is very harmonious with your previous collections?

KM       I do, yes. Well … actually, that’s a difficult question.

DC       Well, do you feel then that Pino offers something new and slightly divergent from your back history of work?

KM       In a way, yes. For the dining chair in particular, I hadn’t tackled that type of product before – let alone in wire! I’ve done a lot of upholstered furniture and soft seating and stools, but for me I would nominate Pino as ‘hard’. One of the main challenges (which, in a way was more pleasurable than frustrating) was the fact that when you work in wire, everything is on display.

The ergonomics, the aesthetics, you can’t hide anything! By sculpting the piece to achieve comfort, you’re radically changing the sculptural form of it at the same time.

DC       Well on that, Pino has this sense – at least to me – of wearing its heart on its sleeve (if such a thing could be said of a wire chair…) –

KM       [laughs]

Keith Melbourne showcasing Pino

DC       And I have a feeling that this comes from its very flexible nature. Not only is it appropriate both indoors and out, but I can see it being equally at home in residential, commercial and even hospitality environments. It’s equally casual as it is formal. Was this versatility something very much at the centre of your design intent?

KM       Yes – and I viewed it particularly while I was developing
the chair, as ‘a chair’ not ‘an outdoor chair’, for instance. I wanted
to develop it to a level of comfort and aesthetic refinement that would allow it to sit in a home. I think that if people find it appealing enough to want it in their home then that’s top of the list. That’s the hardest nut to crack. And it’s been overwhelming because the manufacturers and the sales people and the general public who
have been introduced to it have already said to me that they’d
love it in their homes – and that’s extremely rewarding for me.

DC       So what were some of the questions you constantly asked yourself to achieve this degree of versatility?

KM       Comfort was one that kept coming up. And also, the pieces need to be universal – from a scale point of view, it needed to be quite universal in that way. But then also making sure that I was able to refine each piece for its specific function: dining chairs, lounge chairs and stools all require different negotiations of scale, weight and features, so it was definitely necessary for me to really question the relationship between form and function, without favouring one over the other.

DC       How did the range itself begin to take shape? Did you have quite a resolved idea of the relationships between each piece – where they diverged and coalesced – or did it emerge quite organically?

KM       Well when I began designing the tables to accompany the dining chair in particular, the soft hexagonal form kind of transferred across as a motif. I really did try to hero the chairs in particular,
so the tables are much quieter in form to allow the chair to be the star. But for the collection as a whole, it really did start with the dining chair. About a year in total was spent refining that particular piece, and then the rest of the collection iterated from that quite quickly in comparison.

DC       So the dining chair was … true north, I guess?

KM       Absolutely! It was very important for me to get the chair to a stage where it was harmonious, dynamic and highly resolved so that the rest of the pieces in the range had the best aesthetic and functional blueprint to work from.

Keith Melbourne with designer Gavin Harris

DC       And what do you think is going to capture the imagination of the market for Pino?

KM       Aesthetically, the soft hexagon is the key feature of the product. The curvature is very key, but I do believe that the fanning gesture of the wirework – particularly in the sling leading up the back of the seat – will be one of the more popular aesthetic touches. It gives the piece a sense of spaciousness and expansion.

DC       Yes, it’s quite an elegant gesture –

KM       And I think that will lead to it being equally as suited to the residential market. But in terms of what the market will love best, I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

By David Congram