Form, Function and Feeling with Studio Henry Wilson
Henry Wilson designs and manufactures products for humans. His furniture is built on sustainable materials and an ethical mindset; his goal to creating a lifelong connection with the user. He's a long time friend of Semi Permanent, and with the impending release of his new design, A-Joints, is becoming a globally recognised name in furniture design.
Wilson toes the line between design and manufacturing. Both are important, but the exponential growth of his business (including fit-outs for Aesop and Google) has seen a shift in the inputs to his design process. “It used to be a self-initiated thing. Kind of like how an entrepreneur would look for a gap in the market...that's how the A-Joint started. Now there are more projects that are initiated by an architect or a need. Someone will say 'oh we need this joint or this light or this componentry'.”
Wilson launched A-Joints (a simple approach to joinery that he describes as 'open source furniture design') as a standalone site at Semi Permanent Sydney 2017 after years of R&D. “It came from trying to make furniture in Australia that was quick in terms of manufacturability, which meant reducing the joinery to a component rather than through timber work. That was the goal we set ourselves. The joint itself came from a pre-existing component that was used for sawhorse brackets, so taking that, changing the casting material, the method, sizes, angles, re-engineering it and adapting its use to something else gave it a new path. Then it went down the process of refining that design, prototyping, building the manufacturing plates so they can be made in Australia. We worked with engineers for the A-Joints, especially in getting those angles right for the tolerances we needed.”
From Product to Technology
A-Joints has gone down many paths, but its current iteration (a customisable solution manufactured by his studio team in Darlinghurst) is the form it will take for now: “Originally it was just a matter of selling the components and letting people do what they wanted with it.” Inconsistent work from both casual and professional furniture makers saw the manufacturing move back in-house. “We came up with very tight parameters of what works best – it's a simple bit of joinery but the woodwork has to be done well for it to work. [Not selling them individually] was a hard decision to make, but I've preferred working with clients – we end up getting better results for the customers and it feels much more connected, friendlier, the process feels better. That's why we did the website (which we launched at Semi Permanent) to encourage people to be that part of the process.
"There's a preciousness you can get across in product design that people still crave a little bit in their daily life – a ritual here, or something more tangible there."
Wilson has enjoyed a varied education, training as a timber joiner at Canberra's ANU, and undertaking a masters course on 'Man and Humanity' at the mythical Design Academy Eindhoven in The Netherlands. As such, his work seeks to create a lasting value to everyday products; a common goal to deepen the relationship between objects and humans. Here, the design challenge is universal:
"It's the desire for something that is clear. We want people to have to feel an attachment to our products. If you can understand something and grapple with it conceptually you build a bond to it."
"Ever increasingly it's easier to use 3D printing to fix something that was 'a bit tricky to do' in a conventional sense. I feel that can be cheating a little bit because you're not doing things by hand. It might work now, but down the track it might break and it's like 'oh well, that works for now', so you keep patch-fixing stuff. These products have a limited lifespan and end up as landfill, which isn't ethically sound. Finding that simple connection to the user is the challenge."
'Ethically sound' is the mantra that the studio works towards: "Because we're a small scale manufacturer and we keep the design process fairly simple, those recyclabilities and ethical choices through the manufacturing process are by nature and size are taken into account for us. The components are all aluminium, they can easily be recycled, there are no crossover of materials, or changes to make ups. Timber components can be substitutes, all that stuff can be changed and made into something else – there is a lot of flexibility in that sense."
Staying Local, Working International
Wilson spoke at Semi Permanent Sydney as part of a panel of Australian designers making it internationally (including industrial designer David Caon and architect Kelvin Ho). This second layer of cultural sustainability manifests itself in both product and location, but it's growing as a premium design alternative to European offerings. "It used to be that Australians would try and get a job in Europe, or work there, or set up a studio there, or try and sell a design to a manufacturer over there, but what you're seeing now is a tendency for them to practice and manufacture in Australia. There is a growing appetite for design in Australia, and you have to get your tables from someone. I feel the same way when I'm looking for something, I'm thinking 'who is making a go of that' that I need to look into. All my best jobs have come from small Australian start-ups. I've done some work for Google and various larger companies too, but the ones that have been recurring or interesting clients are like Aesop, which began as a small startup. It's nice to be here and have a connection to the people."
Wilson will continue this slow burn approach to functional, beautiful product design that sticks to its core purpose. "We definitely want to keep this Australian connection. We want to deliver a product that people have an understanding and feel a connection to. There's a preciousness you can get across in product design that people still crave a little bit in their daily life – a ritual here, or something more tangible there. I hope to inject in the things that I do. Growing a studio, employing people here, taking this work overseas. It's a growth strategy but it's not a business plan – it's more, to paraphrase my grandfather 'hasten slowly' – don't try and build too much stuff, don't grow too quickly. We've never taken on loans, we've been funding it as we go, and as the projects go and as the money comes you can do more, build more, try new things."
Feature video by MAUD