David Caon on Transport's New Frontier

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It's 10 A.M in Sydney and Studio Caon is calm. It's an unassuming workspace –small, well-lit and tidy – not the kind you would  assume to be behind some of Australia's biggest industrial design projects. But when companies like QANTAS are knocking on your door to design their new aircraft, you can pretty much do things however you want. 

David Caon has gone on a long journey to get to this point. An Economics dropout who pivoted to study Industrial Design at the University of South Australia, he got a leg-up in Milan through a period of rapid tutelage under two highly influential designers – George Sowden (of the legendary Memphis Group) by day, and the avant-garde Jerszy Seymour at night (“It was design 24/7, with a lot of partying in between”) – before working with Marc Newson in Paris on a slew of projects, including the QANTAS A380. With a well-earned sense of independence, Caon landed back in Sydney in 2009 where the studio and research bureau was born. 

"In all of them (Sowden, Seymour, Newson) I found something that I liked and that I wanted to mimic, or at least reference and have a part of it."

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QANTAS Hong Kong Business Lounge by Studio Caon
It's an astonishingly wide output for a relatively small studio: From furniture manufactured here in Sydney, to a massive (and mysterious) museum project in China, and airport business lounges in Hong Kong; the diversity of Studio Caon’s efforts make it hard to pin down. “I work in a lot of different fields depending on which day you catch me. I’m still interested in objects and the simplification of things, but the process by which to achieve that is constantly changing.”

"A solid education and knowledge of design is so important, otherwise you might be going out there and doing something a bit ignorant. There are 50-60 year old design ideas that are just as relevant today as when they were thought up. I don’t see how it couldn’t make you a better designer."

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BLOC™ by Studio Caon
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BLOC™ by Studio Caon
In the background of our conversation, his team work steadfastly on 3D models while chopped-and-screwed rap plays in the background. It's a cool environment; less formal than what their sleek approach to design might suggest, and certainly not indicative of the influence of their decisions. “We don’t work in isolation,” he says, referring to his team as a nucleus, ‘small and focused’. “We’ll set up initial ideas together, talk about it, then I’ll go work on something else while the guys develop it a bit, then we’ll come back together.” His criteria for new starters flips standard convention too. “The main thing I look for is enthusiasm – about the projects they’ll be working on and design in general. I don’t spend too much time looking at portfolios, but the projects we work in have a fairly high requirement for knowledge….on VR, 3D renderings, 3D prototyping, all of that.” It's a relaxed approach when you consider the scale of work and urgency of deadlines. But theirs is a well-oiled machine, with just enough mess to make it comfortable.

"If you look back, some of those really early sci-fi concepts of the 20s and 30s have now become reality. When people let their mind open a little bit, some of these things do happen."

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Left: QANTAS Hong Kong business lounge.
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Right: Photo - Toby Peet

QANTAS Dreamliner: From nose to tail

Every now and then, a project comes along that seems to encapsulate not just the ethos of your studio, but of your design journey altogether. You could assume this presented itself with the Dreamliner project, a complete fit out of nearly every interior element for QANTAS' Dreamliner aircraft "nose to tail". The plane has been met with huge investment from Australia's national air carrier as a more nimble successor to the A380; one that can travel further (and more comfortably) than any in the current fleet. We’re not supposed to talk about it thanks to the stakeholder system of a project this big, but how could we not? From a distance, it feels like the culmination of nearly everything Caon has built before it: From his first aerospace project, the Kelvin40 with Marc Newson for Fondation Cartier  ("mostly finding aerospace-grade screws and landing gears, and incredibly fascinating"), to working together again on the ‘prequel’ Airbus A380 ("I was one of my guys in the Marc Newson team”, he says, gesturing to his design team on the floor below) – it’s all led to this.

"I already had the love of aviation, as a kid I used to make model airplanes, and I was fascinated by commercial and military aircraft. I still am."

David Caon

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QANTAS Dreamliner Premium Economy and Economy Seats by Studio Caon
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QANTAS Dreamliner Premium Economy and Economy Seats by Studio Caon
The scale of the Studio Caon Dreamliner integration is breathtaking – from updated cabin designs to entirely new Premium Economy and Economy seats, right through to the tableware (set in bone china by Noritake) – and trickled from small, individual pieces into ‘everything we could handle’. "There was a small group of us who worked on [the Airbus A380] for over five years. The amount of responsibility I was given was incredible and I organised my team in the same way. Everyone knows they’re responsible for a certain section, because it’s important you see a project through from beginning to end and know it’s yours.”
This is about as big as it gets for an industrial design project – from the engineering mandatories to a stakeholder network who must approve every design decision. But he is adamant the process, though rapid (eighteen months for Dreamliner vs five years for the A380), was an amicable one between the designers and engineers. “You’re working around a skeleton and a chassis that sets the parameters of the project, so scale isn’t in your control” he shrugs. “[With the seats, for example] the process starts where we know the basic structure of the aisles, how wide the seats needed to be; then we design it up, hand it over to the manufacturers and iterate really closely together throughout that engineering process until it's ready to be scaled."

"Sometimes they engineer around our design, and sometimes we’ll design around their engineering."

David Caon

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QANTAS Premium Economy seat by Studio Caon

Travel's next generation

Transport is an industry that continues to fascinate Caon. Obsessed with automobiles since childhood (he drives a vintage ’72 Alfa Romeo GTV2000), his love of cars is matched only with an excitement for the next generation of transport. For his studio, projects like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop and the potential of driverless cars offer a fascinating challenge. 
There is something to be said, however, about the engineered perfection of electric cars and transport tubes that erase the romance of a vintage era. But it’s this tension where Caon sees hope: “Transport technology, like electric motors and batteries, are becoming more efficient and more compact. To me, it just becomes such an interesting design study. If you can take some of the forms and use it as basic componentry, where you could swap the bodies in and out, that’s quite exciting.” For example, he grapples with the moral idea of ‘printing’ his 72 Alfa GTV with an electric motor – an impure way of keeping good (and rare) design in the public sphere.

"There is a reason to keep these cars on the road, because they are part of history, and an important part of art and design. They set the benchmark. The design is beautiful, the proportions are right, if there is a way we can enjoy that in another form, that would be quite interesting."

David Caon

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BLOC by Studio Caon
With the Dreamliner project literally up in the air, Studio Caon will revert to its business-as-usual mix of small and large commercial projects. “We’ll be doing some more collaborative pieces with other designers, which is a part of what our studio is about." He’s ruled out any strict research projects (“I don’t think my brain works that way. It’s quite laborious and I’m an impatient person”) instead exploring the manufacturing side of things, particularly for his modular furniture brand, Bloc™. “I’m interested in what manufacturing means being in Australia. It might not be as easy as in Europe, so you have to be more of a self-starter here”.
And, of course, some secret aviation projects in the pipeline which he really can't talk about. 

Home grown design

Caon recently spoke at Semi Permanent in Sydney with friends and collaborators (architect) Kelvin Ho and (furniture designer) Henry Wilson. They represent a new guard of Australian design, guiding trends and processes with a localised mix of timeless ideas and new technology – but he rejects the idea this is an intentional syndicate. “Australian design is really hot at the moment, and there are some terrific designers out there – people like Adam Goodrem, Kelvin Ho, George Livissianas, Tom Fereday, Henry Wilson – pushing boundaries and doing interesting and valuable work. The scene at the moment is very promising, and not just because the industry is pushing it. There’s this internal, self-initiated drive where the next step is for us to take our scene global. And I think now is the time for that to happen." 
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BLOC by Studio Caon
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Tableware for QANTAS by Studio Caon
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Private residence by Studio Caon
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Tableware for QANTAS by Studio Caon
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Tableware for QANTAS by Studio Caon