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Interview: The Fortynine Studio | Object Designers

Raw Collection designed by The Fortynine Studio for Jardan

While in English we say ‘two minds are better than one’, in Japan they believe three heads are better than one. This Japanese Buddhist proverb could not be more apt than for Sydney-based Fortynine Studio created by three designers not long after graduating from Sydney’s College of Fine Arts (COFA).

The Fortynine Studio

From left to right: Harriet Watts, Ben Elbourne and Sarah Spackman.

Coming from different backgrounds and knowledge bases but with an inherent commonality in their love of design, Ben Elbourne, Sarah Spackman and Harriet Watts decided to join forces to share their skills, resources and a working space. And in doing so they have been able to take on a wide variety of work, all based around the creative design of objects using local materials, from ceramic homewares to commissioned sculptures and themed exhibitions. They also offer workshops (teaching others the art of ceramics) and even kiln hire for those who need their work ‘fired up’.

Ben, Harriet and Sarah at work in the studio

Ben, Harriet and Sarah at work in the studio

Here, Ben lets us into the world of the Fortynine Studio …

Tell us about yourselves and your different background and how you’ve ended up where you are today?

The Fortynine is an object design studio with a focus on making and materiality. The three of us – myself, Ben Elbourne, Sarah Spackman and Harriet Watts – all met at COFA studying design. We have different backgrounds and knowledge in different areas, but our common interest in materiality, experimentation, simple and hand production, using local materials, and referencing the natural Australian landscape in our work drew us together. Now, as a studio, we design and make a range of work – for exhibition, production, commissions, custom projects and collaborations.

'The Lazy Season' self-watering planters designed in conjunction with The Planthunter

‘The Lazy Season’ self-watering planters designed in conjunction with The Planthunter. Image courtesy Daniel Shipp.

I love the concept of your name and the reasoning behind only making 49 of one piece. How and when did your studio The Forty-Nine come about?

Yes, our name is a reference to the small-scale manufacture, and more loosely, the handmade. Under Australian law, 49 is the maximum number of objects that can be made where the design is protected by copyright. Once a multiple of 50 is made a design is considered mass manufactured.

Flip Flop Slip Pie Dish

Flip Flop Slip Pie Dish part of the Flip Flop Slip range of ceramic tableware, bowls, serving dishes and platters designed and handmade by The Fortynine Studio. Flip Flop Slip borrows form and texture from found vessels and remnant textiles.

After graduating, a group of us decided to pool our skills, resources and working space. We initially produced an exhibition for Sydney Design 2011. Each making work from council “throw-outs” we re-presented ‘new’ objects in the lane way behind my house. The popularity and success of this event lead us to formally create a studio space through the City of Sydney Cultural and Creative Spaces Program. We began to take on commissions, custom projects and develop our own ranges of work.

You make a wide range of pieces from ceramics to textiles to stools, and have undertaken a variety of different projects and commissions, such as the Lazy Season pots (see image above) and the Belgenny Farm Milkpans commission (which involved custom developing and making an interpretation of an early settler milk pan based on historical information). Tell us about your creative process – how you like to work, what inspires you, what you love doing most.

We like to work with a design process that involves thorough research, inspired by nature and narrative. We tend to bounce ideas off each other to explore, build and refine designs. Our work is often embedded with stories, concepts and ideas, and strongly connects to the inspiration. We’re object designers, so our process tends to be pretty similar across all sorts of different materials.

The Other Hemisphere Espresso Cup and Saucer

The Other Hemisphere Espresso Cup and Saucer designed by The Fortynine Studio in collaboration with SarahK Cups. Image courtesy Andy Lewis.

How do you balance the work load of all that you do and also with making/creating your own pieces and those for your store?

Sometimes we work on a single design and sometimes we make multiple designs at the same time. It depends on the processes and materials we are using. Often one project informs another and problems can be solved using a crossover of ideas or processes.

ReForm Exhibition Sydney 2011

ReForm was the first collaborative exhibition project designed and presented by The Fortynine Studio. Part of the official program for Sydney Design 2011, ReForm emerged from the theme ‘is old new again?’, and aimed to revalue discarded materials.

Who or what inspires you?

Nature, history, futures and thinkers.

How do you like to work best ie explain your ideal working conditions and environment?

We enjoy the freedom to investigate, experiment, respond to a brief, and then refine a design in a creative way by combining our collective thoughts and skills. When we produce work together it is exponential in its outcome, meaning that it is more than the sum of each of us.

The Bushfire Collection by the Fortynine Studio

The Bushfire is a collection of work developed for exhibition with ‘The Other Hemisphere‘ at Ventura Lambrate, Milan, as part of Milan Design Week 2014. The collection is an exploration and expression of Australia’s unique understanding of the regenerative aspects. Image courtesy Andy Lewis.

What would be your dream project? Or have you already done it? Explain.

Our ultimate dream projects are ones that allow us to shift paradigms of consumerism to a more constructive view of how objects can be vehicles for positive social and cultural change and ecological thoughtfulness. Also, we will never pass up a good opportunity to explore new interesting materials, processes and manufacturing, and what the possibilities of pushing these might be.

For the Face Exhibition poster

We’re currently working on …

So much! Recently we’ve been making pieces for a group exhibition “For the Face”, which opens at Create or Die gallery next week. The surface treatment of the pieces responds to the theme of food and explores how our work can be used for sharing. We’re also in the midst of planning a move to an exciting new space at the end of this year, as well as developing some new production pieces.

It’s not very cool, but we really like…

Our kilns!

The Fortynine Studio

The Fortynine Studio’s inner city Sydney kilns are available for those who need regular or occasional bisque and high firing. Drop off your pieces and they will pack and fire your work for you.

Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?

Every time we play with a material and how this experimentation leads us to new uses and results. Or when we find out that a process which works for one material also works with another.

Black Star Pastry shop stools

As part of an extension of the Black Star Pastry shopfront on Australia Street in Newtown, The Fortynine Studio was approached to design and make new cafe stools and tables for the space. Made by hand from Australian Blue Gum.

The Fortynine’s upcoming exhibition, ‘For the Face’ …

Opens 8th October 2015, 6-9pm.

At Create or Die Gallery – 10 Mitchell Street, Marrickville.

Thanks so much Ben, Harriet and Sarah for sharing your work and creative life with us! You can find The Fortynine Studio on Facebook and Instagram.

Visit the Who'd Have Thought store

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