As the directors of the Melbourne-based design studio, Made By Pen, Susan Chung and Michael Mabuti speak considerately about seeing design as a way of life. “Our products all carry the same objective, to provide a solution to something that is missing or currently not available. Our idea comes from talking to consumers, designers and architects, so we can gauge need.”
‘Sway’ – the studio’s recent design of a cordless, swaying lamp – is a true exemplar. Since the days of electricity’s first foray into our lives, the basic design elements of lamps have remained largely unchanged: static pedestal, counterbalanced base, tethered to a power socket. But for Susan and Michael, those days are a far memory. Of course, they’re right! While the world around us continues to change, new forms of inspiration and innovation abound: “The way people use spaces has changed,” says Susan. “Work environments are more flexible and people’s homes are no longer defined by singular rooms but, instead, fluid spaces. This means that we now demand more from the products around us”, Michael adds. “They need to do more, and incorporating a cordless, rechargeable feature within the design of the Sway lamp delivers on this.” Designed in collaboration with Nick Rennie, Sway’s globular base allows the lamp to playfully teeter and sway when knocked or moved. “It breaks the mould of how you would expect a lamp to be formed, allowing the user to playfully interact with it.” Play, interaction, joy: the humble ‘lamp’ has been reimagined to elicit our emotional reply.
In more ways than one, the emotional secret life of objects is the Made By Pen signature. Turning their hands from lamps to, instead, servingware for ‘Field’ designed in collaboration with Helen Kontouris, it was precisely the emotional underside of design that drove the product’s development. Inspired on the one hand by the shared company of loved ones and, on the other, by the thousand-years-old history of agriculture and the cultivation of the land, ‘Field’ brings to mind the country’s dramatic landscapes, its fertile earth and the communities it sustains.“ Like Helen Kontouris, we are also inspired by natural landscapes and it’s not hard when Australia has so many breathtakingly beautiful places”, Susan continues. “Much of the inspiration for our work comes from light, contrasts, angles and the tonal palettes of natural landscapes.”
It was precisely this embrace of local talent and inspiration that the Made By Pen team excited the industry with late last year at Sydney Indesign 2017. After launching the very first glimpse of the Sway Lamp in collaboration with Rennie at the event, as well as showcasing Field in partnership with Helen Kontouris, the brand also exhibited the latest iteration of Linea. “For us,” says Susan, “Linea is a really remarkable product as it can continuously evolve. It allows us to creatively never be finished, insofar as we can and indeed are continuously exploring different surfaces, colours and materials.” Developed in conjunction with Jim Hannon-Tan, Made By Pen have also collaborated with the Clan Collective to create a new suite of silicon, marble and brass attachments for Linea’s essential core form. Whether on a kitchen bench, a desktop or even a bathroom counter, Linea’s supreme functionality appears almost an extension of its beautifully resolved form.
As one of Melbourne’s most active design studios, Made By Pen brings a unique perspective to the role of collaboration in contemporary design. We caught up with the team to find out just, exactly, what makes them tick.
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Collaboration is clearly a central pillar to the Made By Pen philosophy – working with Australia’s top talent across so many disciplines. Could you tell me a little about the value and the inspiration you see arise out of this process?
Made By Pen is about taking an idea and bringing it to form. For us we see collaboration as an essential part in making these raw ideas into beautiful architecturally designed products. We have been lucky enough to have worked with, and continue to work with designers, architects and a production team that are all invested realising great products. We believe that for collaboration to work you must foster trust and respect for each other’s expertise, to be open and clear with communication and hold each other accountable to high standards. We also respect the design process and understand that artists are able to identify and process objects, lines, light and space in a unique manner, and by collaborating with them we are able to capture these ideas to develop our range. We truly believe Australia has some of the most renowned talent and working with designers such as Michael Ong, Helen Kontouris, Nick Rennie and Jim Hannon-Tan has been our privilege.
In your respective roles within the studio, every person seems to wear many hats. How do you find this very cross-disciplinary and diverse approach to product design and development enriching your work?
Both Michael and I have diverse, yet complementary backgrounds and been exposed to many disciplines during our early career paths. Our cohesion as a team though is based on our shared loved of design, and for Australian-based design. For Made By Pen, creating a team that is able to be cross disciplinary means that we can create an agility in our design, our processes and our thinking. Our team members knowing the total that goes into bringing a product to market means collaboration is effortless.
And, similarly, what are some of the challenges and benefits that arise from working across so many different product typologies (from lighting to furniture, accessories and beyond)?
Our products all carry the same objective: to provide a solution to something that is missing or currently not available. With this as our basis of new product development, it is then easy to span different product typologies. Our ideas come from talking to consumers, designers and architects, so we know there is a need. Our design influence is architecturally led, we concentrate on the designed space as a whole and how the products work within the space.
Balancing the divide between form and function is clearly a focus for your studio, and your products are characterised by a streamlined, clean and confident aesthetic. Is this visual language something that occurs organically for you, or is it something that exists at the very beginning of your design process?
A bit of both. An idea from its raw form to the end product evolves, the process is a journey and for us, by decision of it being a collaborative journey, there is an element of organic transformation which occurs too. However, all our products are underpinned by our design discipline to connect to and enhance architecturally designed spaces.
A lot of your collaborations have arisen out of the Melbourne design scene. What, in your opinion, makes Melbourne’s design community so unique?
Melbourne has a strong sense of identity and culture. Whatever you are into there is bound to be a strong community to get involved with. There is a passion and respect for good things which exists too, which is why we are rich on so many levels from food, events, fashion and our street art. As a consequence, the design community here is strong, cohesive and supportive. There exists the freedom to design, and attempt anew.
Sustainability, too, is evidently a clear focus point in your design practice. From innovative manufacture approaches all the way through to using particular materials, just how central is sustainable initiatives to your studio ethos?
Sustainability is a discipline and practice that should be incorporated into all threads of life. Overconsumption and wastefulness should no longer be an option. We apply this thinking holistically to Made By Pen from using off-form pieces as part of our design through to the way we approach our design ideation. Our belief is that if you can create pieces with purpose, function and beauty we can reduce the need to throw away, and disregard.
Made By Pen works across so many sectors, bringing products to the market that would be equally comfortable in someone’s home as they would in an office. Is this something that has been a clear goal for the studio? Or, do you feel it speaks more to the blurring of lines between sectors we’re currently seeing at the moment?
Our products are purposely designed to fill a void, recognised by designers, architects and their clients. Their clean cut, timeless design form means they equally suit residential and office spaces. Our philosophy is more about the harmonising of our products with architecturally design space rather than for the habitat itself.
If you had to characterise Made By Pen using only one word, which one would you select?
One word is too hard! But if we had to keep it as brief as possible, I suppose something like: Balance with the space / Collaboration as our process / Innovation as our ideation.
And, what’s on the cards for Made By Pen in 2018?
We will continue to collaborate with some of Australian most respected talent, bringing new products to market whilst purposely driving the profile of Australian design. We are excited about 2018 so stay tuned!