One of Australia’s most successful product designers internationally, Helen Kontouris is a star whose career has taken a stellar trajectory.
December 12th, 2017
Melbourne-based Helen Kontouris designed her first product only 10 years ago, but she now has over 50 items manufactured under licence by the likes of Alessi and Kundalini in Italy, WMF and Ritzenhoff in Germany, SunWeave in Hong Kong, Manufacturas Celda in Spain, and Schiavello in Australia. She has exhibited regularly at the Milan Furniture Fair, and in numerous design shows in London, Tokyo, Melbourne, Sydney and elsewhere, and has garnered extensive international press coverage with over 150 citations in publications around the world. Building on this success, she launched a range of products under the Helen Kontouris name.
Kontouris describes the development of her career as a dream come true and a race she has run entirely in her own way. Even as a schoolgirl, she says, she was strong-willed, self-motivated and goal-oriented, citing the determination that led her to train for and compete in a 10-kilometre run when she was not yet 10 years old. By 12, she had decided she would be an interior decorator and, at 17, she embarked on a two year TAFE course. That done, she launched into her own interior design business, twice, while she worked in fashion retailing to support herself. Then in 1999, at 23, she formed a partnership with highschool friend, Dion Hall (co-founder of Melbourne design studio Projects of Imagination), establishing Migg Design, and producing hospitality interior schemes.
The two young designers were trying to bring something unique to their work, says Kontouris, searching for working processes and a set of skills that could lead them to original, self-initiated solutions. To avoid being overly influenced by the design media and environment around them, they drew inspiration instead from graphic designers and artists, in particular from sculptors such as Isamu Noguchi, Constantin Brâncusi and Clement Meadmore. Kontouris describes an intensely driven period in which they worked obsessively on projects, chasing up clients through their social networks, while Kontouris worked in hospitality in the evenings. She says the design processes she uses today have evolved from ways of working that were established at this time.
Exhausted after working at this pace after a couple of years, Kontouris took a family holiday to Greece and, on reflection, felt that she was not achieving her full potential. She also realised it had been the custom-made furniture and lighting created for their interior schemes that she had most enjoyed designing. Deciding to focus, from that point, on product design, she dissolved the partnership with Hall and set up on her own. “It was just that whole self-belief thing again,” she says. “I knew that I wasn’t producing to my best abilities. I knew that could do better.”
Reading about the world’s best young and emerging designers exhibiting their work in the Salone Satellite in Milan, Kontouris thought: ‘Wow, that seems like the ultimate dream! How do I get to that standard? How do I get there? ’Her solution was to contact Kjell Grant, Professor of Design in the Furniture Lab at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and founder of the Melbourne Movement, a group formed in 1999 to help showcase the work of gifted Melbourne design graduates on the international stage. Meeting with Grant, Kontouris presented a range of furniture and product design concepts – maquettes she’d made and photographed – and on the strength of these designs, Grant invited Kontouris to join the Melbourne Movement. “I was very enthusiastic,” says Grant. “She’s a very talented designer.” And, as Kontouris says, Grant’s response “gave me confidence to think that this dream of going to Milan could be a possibility”.
One of the designs she presented to Grant was the idea for the ‘101 Chair’, a continuous curving surface with origins in the sculptural work of Meadmore. With assistance from Grant, her family and a very supportive fibre glasser and upholsterer, Kontouris produced the prototype of the chair, a process she concedes was “an absolutely huge learning curve”. As her first real product design, it was an extraordinary success. The ‘101 Chair’ was shown along with products designed by other Melbourne Movement designers at the 2002 Tokyo Designers Block, in Hybrid Objects, a design exhibition hosted by the Australian Embassy in Tokyo. Presenting the work of 32 Australian designers, the Hybrid Objects exhibition was also shown in Melbourne in 2003.
“My ultimate goal at the time was showing in Milan,” says Kontouris, and while Melbourne Movement designers also exhibited at Salone Satellite in 2003, she says, “I didn’t stay very long with them – again I travelled my own path”. She entered the ‘101 Chair’, along with her ‘CanU’ chair and ‘Schmo’ stackable lamp system as a solo exhibitor, securing sponsorship and government funding to cover the considerable costs involved. “It was really very tough but it was such an amazing experience,” she says. “You start to understand the whole world of manufacturers who can potentially decide to produce your work under licence and what that could mean.”
As a result of that first exhibition in Milan, Kontouris received an enormous amount of global press, “but really nothing came of it,” she says. Acceptance in Salone Satellite offers emerging designers the opportunity to exhibit for three years, so, in 2004, she returned with her ‘La La Lamp’ and ‘Minka’ chaise and chair. Again, she attracted huge press coverage, but this time Italian lighting manufacturer Kundalini made contact and, six months later, decided to put the ‘La La Lamp’ into production. “Two years in, this is exactly what I’m after, this is my big break,” says Kontouris, who attended Kundalini’s launch of the ‘La La Lamp’ the following year at Euroluce, the prestigious international lighting exhibition held biennially at the Milan Furniture Fair.
Kontouris decided not to exhibit in her third year at Salone Satellite. Looking for a more proactive approach than exhibiting a particular product and hoping it struck a chord, she began to focus more on researching manufacturers, developing relationships with appropriate companies, and entering into more long-term collaborative engagement with them. At around the same time, back in Australia, Schiavello began production development of the ‘101 Chair’. Having met Kontouris in 2004, Managing Director, Peter Schiavello – an Indesign Luminary in issue 44 – “liked her aesthetic” and was “impressed by her attitude and enthusiasm”, in particular, her perfectionist approach to her work and her determination to achieve her aspirations.
Since 2005, with these two products in production, the range of Kontouris’ designs on the market has risen exponentially. Along with the ‘101 Chair’, Schiavello now produces Kontouris’ ‘La La Stool’ and ‘Chubby’ sofa, and there are around 40 outdoor products created for SunWeave, including the ‘Breathe’, ‘Cloud9’ and ‘Mosaic’ ranges, which were exhibited in Milan. Kontouris has continued to visit Milan yearly, meeting with manufacturers so “they would get to know me as a personality and get an understanding of my work”. One company she courted was Alessi, and, after several years of relationship-building, Kontouris’ ‘Scoop’ egg cup and spoon was launched in 2011.
A clear reflection of her talent and dedication, Kontouris’ success is even more remarkable as it was achieved without the benefits of an industrial design education or the networks and knowledge gained from industry experience. Independence is a Kontouris hallmark. She works on her own at home, for instance, in a small flat in Port Melbourne. “I don’t know what everyone else is doing. I have nothing to gauge by, and that’s been so valuable to me because I just set my own agendas and my own goals,” she says. “My personality type is incredibly driven and I’m highly self-motivated.”
Her objective in designing is to combine the functional and the beautiful in equal parts. She feels she brings a structure to her work that is both feminine and organic, along with “a certain lightness and a textural quality”. Kontouris makes good use of technology for systems, marketing and networking, but she continues to design by hand, sketching and making maquettes from “paper, fimo, elastic bands, whatever is needed to represent the ideas”. Rather than working with solid forms, she has always been playing with materials she could manipulate – “just twisting, grabbing, cutting, or bending material to see what shapes could be created”. As a result, many of her designs make use of negative space and have the sense that parts of the form have been cut away.
This process of “playing with materials” is one of four methods that Kontouris has developed throughout her career to initiate design ideas. All rely on intuition. Another method is based on an ongoing collection of around 800 images that range from shadows on a pavement to a picture of salt flats, images of anything that appeals to her. In sifting through them at any time, certain resonances will occur, so she might cover a wall with selected images, trace over imagery, make sketches, find connections, and from these actions develop objects.
In the third way of working, Kontouris lies down, listens to music, tries to keep her mind silent and, through a process of visualisation, encourages different forms to emerge. While this is more of a meditative act, in the fourth method, designs invade her mind when she’s trying to sleep. She’ll feel an “absolute adrenaline rush”, and know, without any idea of what it might be, that she’ll come up with something that night. Kontouris also experiences an adrenaline rush, or a ‘butterfly effect’ in her stomach when she thinks she’s onto something good, or when she has refined an idea to her satisfaction. “I love designing. It’s my most comfortable state,” she says. “I know now that this is my right place.”
Looking to the future, Kontouris wants to design products more for the mass market and she sees her Alessi ‘Scoop’ egg cup and spoon as the first of these mass-produced products. “I want people to be taken by the aesthetics and the useability of the things that I create on a more everyday level,” she says. “It’s not just about the design for me, it’s about how people interact with these products and how I can design a better product.”
Kontouris is calling for radical change. “There’s a global market out there, and Australian manufacturers and designers need to start working together and creating products that are desirable to that market.” Kontouris is once again on a mission, and by all evidence, she is accustomed to achieving her goals.
Helen Kontouris was featured as a Luminary in issue #47 of Indesign.
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