It takes considerable effort to build a name in the highly competitive European furniture world, PracticeMakes speaks to Melbourne’s Nick Rennie about the long-term investment required to cut-through from afar.
“Can you believe there are less than ten Australian designers with furniture in production by European manufacturers!” says Melbourne-based Nick Rennie who can count himself as one of that number. Of course this excludes the long list of Antipodean’s whose objects and accessories are made by the likes of Alessi and Norman Copenhagen but it raises the question: Why is it so difficult to get a piece of furniture across the European border?
Seeing a piece of furniture make it to production is a tough gig regardless of your location and with the talent that resides in the UK and Europe and their proximity to the manufacturers – getting noticed, making a breakthrough and forging relationships takes years of persistence and a lot of frequent flier points.
This April will mark Rennie’s eighteenth trip to Milan for the Salone del Mobile – an investment which may never fully refund itself but it has certainly paid dividends. His first trip, in 2000, was with RMIT then with the Melbourne Movement and from there he showed independently at the Salone’s Satellite – a space within the Rho Fiera for emerging designers to hopefully catch the eye of those in the larger halls.
“Now is a much different time to back then,” recalls Rennie, “it was time before the internet, blogs and social media. Today you might have 100,000 Instagram followers but then – the only way to gain exposure was to be there.” Ironically, his first breakthrough was in being published at home with a full page in Belle magazine but not long after, in early 2002, he received a call from the head of design at Wallpaper* which went something along the lines of ‘We want to publish you, can you send us some images?’
That was Rennie’s first breakthrough to an international presence and from 2005 he persisted, returning to Milan each April to “remind people and evolve relationships.” Some of those relationships were borne out of pure chance, just by simply being in the right spot at the right time. “Everyone is there and these crazy opportunities just happen. A lot of the people I now call friends I have met because I ended up at a dinner or sharing a cab.”
“I prefer sending a physical thing rather than an email,” he advises, “they are compelled to open the envelope and that creates 3-4 seconds when they have your work in their hands. It’s not an email you can simply delete or ignore.”
One of those chance encounters was at the legendary Bar Basso in 2007 where Rennie met a fellow Australian who was working for the UK retailers of Italian brand Porro. 3am seems like a bit of an odd time to whip out your portfolio, but that is what happened and it was suggested Rennie show the brand what is now known as the Chicku bookshelf – his first piece to go into production internationally.
Returning to Melbourne, Rennie sent the concept off in June and as is common for furniture designers – he heard nothing back; “You have to find a way to cut-through as some manufacturers get over two-thousand unsolicited proposals a year.” Come Febraury of 2008 he received a phone call “We are going to make the bookshelf for this year’s fair!”
It is a familiar story for Rennie, one that repeated itself when he approached French brand Ligne Roset. Again sending them a physical, printed book of concepts he found himself waiting. “I prefer sending a physical thing rather than an email,” he advises, “they are compelled to open the envelope and that creates 3-4 seconds when they have your work in their hands. It’s not an email you can simply delete or ignore.”
It was a tactic that worked as he received an email suggesting they want to discuss a few of his projects. One was the Saldo coffee table, the first cab off the rank for this new international collaboration, which that year was their best-selling piece of that typology. Subsequently came the Softly sofa, designed in 2012 and the result of a twelve-month development and prototyping process. “The thing with Ligne Roset is they are famous for sofas, and they are exceptional in what they do.” says Rennie of the brand who are more focused on the product than a designer’s reputation. Of course, their range includes some international names and for this Victorian designer “it is reward enough to see my first sofa produced by a European company but to be sitting along side the work of Ronan and Erwin Bouroullec is the icing on the cake.”
Of the one-hundred or so products the brand releases a year and the feedback on the Softly was that it was the most comfortable sofa they had released in a decade, and less than fours after it was launched the question was asked – “Can you do this as a sofa-bed?” With that Rennie’s sofa became a multi-functional piece of design and rather than the traditional sprung folding mechanism the seat folds in half: “It is unlike a normal sofa bed where you have a thinner cushion to sleep on, with the Softly you have a 20cm mattress.”
Explaining that the flexibility and skill Ligne Roset provide makes them a dream to work with, Rennie is reminded of something Patricia Moroso said to him in person: “Furniture is like a family, the designer is the father (regardless of their gender) and the mother is always the manufacturer – together they create their children.”