Charles Wilson‘s career as a successful and innovative furniture and industrial designer has had a seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory.
February 14th, 2018
One of Australia’s most talented industrial designers, Charles Wilson has notched up a growing record of successful product launches, exhibitions and awards over his career, while creating an impressive portfolio of furniture and homewares. Wilson is associated with high-quality local manufacturers like Woodmark International and Danish brand MENU, which distribute his products worldwide, as well as local retailers Zenith and King Furniture, the designer has more recently turned his hand to limited edition pieces for the growing collector market.
I caught up with Charles Wilson at his Potts Point flat in Sydney, where he both lives and works. He also spends some of his time at a farm in Forbes, in central western NSW, where he grew up. Here too, he says, “work is what he does”, in part because of the reality of life as a freelance designer.
“I tend to work all the time. It’s a full-time job coming up with new ideas. I’m very conscious of the fact that I always need to get more [designs] into production because while a lot of my work has enjoyed quite long periods of market success, nothing lasts forever.”
It’s more than that, though. “I love answering a brief or exploring what might lie in a brief and how I can contribute to it,” he offers at one point. At another: “I really enjoy the design process of resolving problems, of structure and mechanics… I’ve always loved designing things in the round.” Adding that, “I love the ability to perfect an idea in its prototyping and development stage.” He also loves production. It’s a clear case of a man who has found his metier – and here’s roughly how it happened.
Growing up, Wilson was interested in art and music and was always going to pursue a creative direction. “I do have a mechanical bent,” he says, “but I’m also interested in the way things look and feel and how we interact with them.”
Although he couldn’t have articulated this at the time, he says that somehow he intuited (correctly) that industrial design would suit his skills. In the late 1980s, straight from school, he enrolled in industrial design at Sydney College of the Arts, where he rebelled against the conservatism of the “very traditional” Modernist teaching, although he adds, “Ever since then I’ve felt privileged to have had that classic Modernist education.”
While Modernism remains fundamental to Wilson’s practice, he says that these days he doesn’t so much adhere to its dictums as he finds they naturally filter through his creative process.
On completing his studies in 1991, he and a group of fellow-graduates established an industrial design workshop in Surry Hills, Argo, an operation Wilson describes with characteristic self-deprecation, as his “non-business.” Within the year, however, the Herbert Barstool he’d designed while he was still a student had attracted the attention of the Design Institute of Australia, and Wilson was nominated ‘Best Young Designer of the Year.’
Then, in 1994, with the aid of an Arts and Industry Grant from the New South Wales Ministry for the Arts, Wilson’s first furniture design was put into production. His experiments with plywood led to the SW1 Swivel Chair, which was taken up by Norman + Quaine, who approached Woodmark International to manufacture it. The distinctive sinuous lines of the SW1 created a stand-out design statement, but it was the ergonomic success of the design that led Wilson to a new respect for the importance of comfort and usability.
As a testament to its appeal and quality the SW1 Swivel Chair has remained in continuous production since 1995 and was acquired by The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, for its permanent collection in 1998.
It was this introduction to Arne Christiansen at Woodmark that some years later provided “a terrific break” in Wilson’s career. In 1990, Christiansen had decided to shift the focus of his family-owned company from importing to manufacturing locally, and with the production of the SW1 Swivel Chair, Woodmark began its now established practice of promoting Australian designers and helping bring their products to market.
When Christiansen approached Wilson asking if he’d like to design a compact lounge, Wilson, seizing the opportunity, wasn’t going to stop at one. He presented Christiansen with an extensive array of designs that they then condensed into three substantial ranges – “a whole catalogue of furniture,” that was launched, momentously, with design retailer Corporate Culture [now Cult] in 2001.
“It was a big a step for Corporate Culture to show that much support for Australian design,” says Wilson, “as it was for Woodmark, who hadn’t ever made such an ambitious collection before.”
It was also a major achievement for Wilson who won wide acclaim around Australia and internationally for his CP1, 801, Lamella, and later Julep ranges. Since then Woodmark has produced his R50 Sofa, his curvaceous Boulder Lounge and Ottoman, and the beautifully sculptural Heron Chair.
All of Wilson’s designs remain in production, and boosted by its recent merger with commercial manufacturer Luxmy Furniture, Woodmark anticipates launching more of his furniture down the track.
In addition, Wilson has established an ongoing collaboration with King Furniture, which has resulted in the hugely re-configurable Andrea range, with more in the pipeline. He has also designed a chair for Herman Miller South East Asia.
It’s no surprise then that Wilson’s growing reputation positioned him as a furniture designer. But as an industrial designer, he was not content. “I am by nature interested in designing just about everything,” he says. One of the benefits of being his own master (he has never worked for anyone but himself) is that he is able to work on speculative projects of his own, which are an important part of his practice.
He has also been very successful in bringing some of these products to market by entering them into exhibitions and competitions. His design for some canisters won Launch Pad’s New Design of the Year in 2005; and his Pacific vase and silver candelabra were finalists, in 2004 and 2005 consecutively, in the Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Award.
As a result, Candelabra – an elegant form in which two crossing arms are neatly held together by a magnet – went on to be manufactured in nickel-plated zinc and distributed around the world by Danish manufacturer MENU. It was also purchased for The Powerhouse Museum’s permanent collection.
In 2006, Wilson won the Bombay Sapphire award outright with a design for an adjustable rocking stool called Spool that was original, eye-catching and witty. Object Gallery’s then Director, Brian Parkes (ed note: now Director at JamFactory), who was on the judging panel, said “Charles has the full package.” He described Spool as “an outstanding product design that required great skill in the design process,” at the same time praising the designer’s interest in new technology and materials.
The award provided Wilson with $20,000 in prize money along with a trip to the Milan Furniture Fair in 2007. There have been other products too, of course: a shoe-horn, also produced by MENU, cutlery for WMF, cookware, various lighting projects and street furniture, and along with the speculative projects, there are those based on commissions. Since mass production is a central feature of his modernist design practice, it’s curious, says Wilson, that in recent years “I’ve ended up with more and more of my work in one-offs and limited editions.”
First came a prestigious commission to design furniture for the State Drawing Room at New South Wales Government House as part of the Historic Houses Trust’s ‘Furnish a Future’ project. The outcome was an edition of six Tasmanian blackwood side tables, the elegant lines of the design cleverly translating a sense of traditional cabinetmaking into engaging contemporary terms.
Then, in 2011, Wilson was invited, along with Trent Jansen and Adam Goodrum as core designers, to join a unique design venture called Broached Commissions, which was instigated by creative director, Lou Weis and Managing Director of Euroluce, Vincent Aiello.
Broached Commissions was established to recognise the place of contemporary Australian design in its historical context and to foster the creation of innovative bespoke pieces in limited editions, based on specific narratives from our history. “Everybody wants a narrative these days,” Wilson quips, but in response to the initial Broached Commissions project focused on the colonial era, he produced the seven-drawer Tall Boy, which draws on the makeshift vernacular of the colonial period in rural Australia to create a striking new form.
Lou Weis believes there is great potential for Australian design to differentiate itself in the world scene by drawing on local history and culture. But Wilson isn’t entirely convinced. “An Australian flavour? Well that’s not really my bag,” he says, although he also acknowledges the agricultural influence in his new Serif Stool. Through Broached Commissions, Wilson has also designed some couches for the uniquely Australian design hotel the Molonglo Group is creating in New Acton, Canberra, Hotel Hotel, which opened in late 2013.
Wilson says the collector market and limited edition or one-off design-work has expanded around the world in the last decade or so, and that as a result of projects like these, it is now a significant part of his work.
While this rundown of Wilson’s career could give the impression of a steadily soaring trajectory, Wilson laughs and concedes only that it’s been a “pretty chaotic progression” with “moments of success along the way.”
For all of his products that have made it on to the market, he says there have also been disappointments. “Some of the work I’m most proud of, designs with real innovation in their function and use, I‘ve had the most difficulty finding manufacturing partners for,” he says. Despite these frustrations, he often re-visits these ideas years later and finds he is able to the resolve the issues that had held them back.
There were also hard times, particularly in the early years, when he supported himself working as a model-maker for an industrial design workshop, and where he honed his skills in hand-making prototypes.
Although acknowledging the value of this experience, he says he doesn’t miss it for a moment, as he’s been a thorough convert, over the last ten years or so, to the new computer technologies, parametric modelling and rapid-prototyping techniques, which save an enormous amount of time, and are “accurate beyond belief. The old ways were really clunky by comparison.”
“I’m not anti-craft,” adds Wilson, “but in my work, it’s the technology that’s of interest.” While his design process still begins with sketches, he now routinely sends files off to Hong Kong or elsewhere for prototyping. He points to a fully-machined prototype of the Serif Stool, saying “a machine-head has carved that out of solid aluminium. These technologies are amazing!” Another recent project is a series of onyx vases, robotically machined in Italy to a translucent fineness.
There is one particular difficulty that remains for Wilson however – and that’s a reluctance to talk about his own work. He acknowledges that it “certainly has something of a signature about it, there’s a direction… maybe it’s a sort of robust, organic type of design.”
Lou Weis says Wilson is “an extremely erudite designer, who knows about the history of design and picks from it. He doesn’t do anything unknowingly,” Weis adds and suggests Wilson is loath to speak about his work because he thinks it should speak for itself.
If that’s so what might it be saying? With its singularity of focus, candid materiality, and reductive aesthetic, its international modernist message is clear. (Wilson did say: “Everything in a design must contribute to the message of that design.”) But surely there’s more to a signature: an appreciation of classical elegance, a feeling for the curvaceous? A refreshing lightness, perhaps a fineness and firmness combined – in the side tables for the State Drawing room or the Candelabra, for instance – that creates a particular poise?
We can see innovative twists in construction or function. An enduring quality is certainly another a hallmark… there is one sure-fire way to recognise the work of Charles Wilson however: everything he designs has his name on it.
Charles Wilson was originally featured as an Indesign Luminary in issue #55 of Indesign magazine.
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