With her design influence extending from the NGV to the Australian Open, Helen Kontouris’ name is unequivocally ingrained in the topography of the Australian design scene. Here, we take a look at the legacy she has created under the LEN brand name, and her consistent commitment to local manufacturing practises.
February 4th, 2022
Helen Kontouris’ prolific design legacy stretches over 20 years, however the eye for design is something she developed much earlier on – at the young age of 12 Helen already resolved she would become an interior decorator one day. Today, undoubtedly making that little girl proud, Helen is one of Australia’s best known designers and boasts a career which – she admits – has been filled with a plethora of incredible moments.
Helen, who joined Stylecraft portfolio in 2012 as part of the One Third collaboration of Australian designers, mentions meeting Mary Featherstone on the ABC Radio National “By Design” podcast and having her 101 Chair and La La Lamp acquired for the permanent collections of the NGV as some of her career highlights. “Creating a retreat for Australian Open tennis stars to relax in between matches along with corporate sponsors for the AO and NGV when I designed their 400 sqm space called the ‘NGV Room’ would also have to be one,” she adds.
It was her collaboration with NGV that became the genesis of Bauhaus, one of the most prominent collections she created under the helm of LEN – a brand the Australian designer established in 2012, alongside Simon Cross, to showcase her exclusive partnership with Stylecraft.
“Being commissioned to create the seating for their Great Hall was a fantastic way to immerse myself in the building and space,” Helen says. “Designing the furniture and thinking about how I wanted hundreds of thousands of visitors to this space to feel while in the building, and how I intended people to use the furniture while they visited the space was inspiring yet it had its challenges.”
The result was a compact collection of seating inspired by the Bauhaus movement, and by one of the gallery’s most striking features: its colourful, multidimensional ceiling. Echoing the character of the intricate, stained-glass surface above, the bold and playful identity of the collection is defined by a modular amalgamation of squares, circles, triangles and rectangles designed to be grouped into interchangeable formations or utilised as individual seating.
In contrast to the sharp edges of the stained glass, Bauhaus’ organic quilted softness carries a gentle promise of comfort which – further enhanced by the addition of backrests – makes the collection suitable for a wide range of contexts, including public or educational environments and workplace interiors.
But the GOLD winner of the prestigious 2020 Good Design Awards isn’t Helen’s only collection designed upon the premise of modularity. Softscape, her first release under LEN just one year after partnering with Stylecraft, was conceived with versatility in mind. “I wanted to ensure people had the freedom to create interesting and conversational spaces using our seating system,” Helen explains.
Establishing Softscape as a timeless collection, the range’s inherent adaptability makes it easy to integrate each of the modules – such as lounges, armchairs and ottomans – into any residential or corporate environment. Softscape’s flexibility is augmented by the extension tables the pieces are equipped with, facilitating a seamless integration of accessories like lamps or coat stands.
Widely appreciated for its universal character, Softscape has been incorporated in a variety of local projects in recent years. The rounded edges of the collection’s pieces can be found at the Australian Ballet headquarters, at KPMG’s Barangaroo office and at Royal Flying Doctor Service, highlighting the designer’s pronounced presence within Australia’s cultural landscape.
But the innate sense of flexibility isn’t the only undercurrent that ties these collections together. What underpins both Bauhaus and Softscape, and all of LEN’s designs is Helen’s commitment to local manufacturing. “Local production enables us to work with manufacturers and local artisans that intrinsically share our values on quality, vision and, of course, experimentation,” says the Victorian designer. “Without building these strong relationships, it would be challenging to work on products with the type of detail and dedication to quality that we strive for with our collections. We also gain knowledge from their expertise, and it allows us to improve and evolve collections.”
Helen explains that it’s also vital to be able to oversee prototyping and production regularly. It’s not something that can be done when producing offshore. “I also enjoy supporting Australian businesses, and together our local industry grows,” she adds.
Compounding this appreciation of local capabilities, the Botanical collection is not only Australian-designed and Australian-made – it’s also Australian-inspired. Awarded Gold at the 2018 Good Design Award in the Furniture and Lighting category, LEN’s planter screens draw influence from the greenery of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, and Helen’s fascination with the Australian native flowers.
Aptly named “Wattle” and “Waratah”, the stainless steel and aluminium-made planters have also been designed to – much like the Australian flora – withstand the harsh Australian elements, opening up the opportunity to bring lush greenery to any space, whether it’s indoors or outdoors.
Yet another collection designed with the Australian weather in mind is the Panier seating range. While the Botanical collection echoes the intricacies of the Australian plants, Panier was inspired by the elaborate art of basket weaving. In a beautifully crafted balance of careful precision and gentle softness, intricacy and pared-back simplicity, the Panier stools cultivate a graceful and contemporary form that is available in a broad range of colours that will complement any residential or commercial setting.
And like with Bauhaus, Softscape and Botanicals, the relationship with LEN’s local manufacturer was crucial for the design process. “All of these collections were technically very challenging, yet probably appeared visually simple,” LEN’s co-founder discloses. “Creating products manufactured for production is always a delicate balance between quality and production efficiency. When designing Panier, we worked with our local manufacturer to make the tool in Italy to ensure the precision and quality we needed.”
Helen Kontouris’ incredible design legacy is immersed in the Australian context and consistently anchored in Australian craftsmanship, exemplifying Stylecraft’s ongoing devotion to fostering Australian design talent and artistry. LEN’s engaging, versatile and meticulously crafted designs are available exclusively with Stylecraft, and the full list of products can be found here.
Imagery courtesy of LEN
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