making the plunge

Wondering what is involved in launching your own collection of furniture and lighting? Adelaide-based Rhys Cooper talks us through the trials and triumphs as he prepares to launch his first commercial range in June.

 

At DENFAIR 2016, Adelaide’s JamFactory – under the guidance of CEO, Brian Parkes and designer/maker Jon Goulder who runs the Jam’s furniture studio – launched a collection of furniture that connected established and emerging designers with local manufacturers. Part of the collection was an armchair designed by one of Australia’s new kids on the design block, Rhys Cooper.

Cooper, who previously studied at the University of Tasmania, made the move to South Australia to refine his skills through the JamFactory’s Associate training program – working weekends in hospitality to earn a living. The move paid off with him being shortlisted for the 2016 IDEA Awards in the Object – Furniture and Lighting (rising) and Emerging designer category among many other accolades.

His Split desk, fusing timber and Corian, is a perfect example of the twenty-seven year old’s approach – like the Cusp armchair which blends timber with leather, he is clearly enamoured with materiality. Something his JamFactory colleagues, Daniel Emma and Jon Goulder, most certainly bring to the table.

As the collection was launching, in a room full of young Australian designers, Cooper found himself in conversations with the two Tom’s of Australian design (Skeehan and Fereday) and Dale Hardiman of DowelJones. Inspired that people just that little bit older than him were forging careers in design locally, he recalls; “In April last year, leading up to the DENFAIR launch I was already thinking I need to do this for myself, but when I went to Melbourne – that was the moment I thought ‘I have to do this!’”

What advice does he have for anyone thinking of pursuing their first independent collection? “Start early. Make decisions at the start and follow your gut.”

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, and Cooper admits “the learning curve has been steep!” Working with manufacturers is a different world for someone used to making things themselves. The collection, which he has yet to name, comprises a series of wire pendant lights, a dining chair that mixes timber and steel with the possibility of a glass side-table on the near horizon – and come June he will have his hands full.

The biggest challenge for Cooper has been understanding how industry works. “I haven’t worked with manufacturers a great deal in the past and with this collection I have learnt that even though we are creating prototypes, they still prefer to work in volume,” he says, adding “pressing go on 10 or 20 units and accepting the costs involved took a bit to get my head around but once it was happening I never looked back.”

It has also meant a shift in his working process with the collection being inspired by the possibilities of manufacturing. The dining chair, with a 5-axis CNC machined timber back-rest, started life as a cardboard model and from there Cooper had to revert back to his training in CAD to generate the cutting files rather than follow his more familiar path of staying in the workshop.

While CNC machining is a more expedient process, it is also costly and Cooper’s collection has been made possible through and Australia Council grant, which in itself was a two month effort – working every second day to ensure the application was perfect. “Without the grant I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Cooper says, “it has been a huge weight off my shoulders and meant that I have been able to cut back on hospitality and focus more on what I really want to be doing”

Until now Cooper has been known mostly for his sculptural pieces which find their homes in exhibitions or as part of one-off commissions, something he will continue to focus on into the future. Not wanting to become too caught up in the commercial side of mass-produced furniture, his hope for the new body of work is that it generates a steady income to facilitate his more bespoke practice.

Surrounded my some of Australia’s leading thinkers and makers in Adelaide, Cooper has a wealth of knowledge at his finger tips but what advice does he have for anyone thinking of pursuing their first independent collection? “Start early. Make decisions at the start and follow your gut.” The project thus far has taken him out of his comfort zone but as he says – you just have to “Take the plunge and go for it!”

 

Cooper’s collection will be available at DENFAIR stand 814 and via his website from June 8, 2017.

DENFAIR runs from June 8 – 10 at The Melbourne Convention Centre