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Interview with Laura McCusker a leading Tasmanian furniture designer

Feature

With Tasmania’s large range of speciality timbers and growing strength in the arts, our state is beginning to develop a competitive advantage in contemporary furniture design, with designers Laura McCusker and Simon Ancher currently leading the charge.  After starting her furniture design business in Sydney’s industrial wasteland in 1996, Laura McCusker relocated to an old apple shed in Moonah where she and partner Peter Howard now create exquisite bespoke furniture for the likes of MONA and TMAG amongst everyday clients.

Where did you begin your path as a furniture designer and maker?

I enrolled in an architecture degree at the University of Technology in Sydney and realised very quickly that the only reason I had enrolled was because one of the first year projects was to make a table. The idea of becoming an architect as a way of learning how to build furniture seemed a little circuitous so I went off and started an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. Next, I did a fine woodwork course learning traditional joinery techniques and then started working in a cooperative in Sydney where I learnt an awful lot working out in the industry.

Ward table (variation)

Ward table (variation) by Laura McCusker

With Tasmania’s small population the number of potential buyers of your products must be more limited than larger Australian cities. Why have you chosen to work in Tasmania?

Initially all my furniture was sold through retail outlets and galleries but over the last 10 – 15 years that has become less necessary.  People now come straight to me which means there’s no retail mark up and I don’t have to have a lot of stock waiting around to be sold. The shortening of the chain from the client to me has meant that everything has become much more affordable and the connection between the commissioner and the maker becomes closer. Being able to access people via our website and social media has changed everything. My business has continued to grow, the model has slightly changed, but it’s never been more accessible for people to have pieces made and we’re now sending pieces all over Australia and internationally.  Being on a little island at the bottom of the world doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue, in fact it seems like something that people are really into at the moment.

Tasmania is widely recognised for its unique endemic timbers, do you have a personal favourite to work with?

I like to use Tasmanian Oak. When I was working in New South Wales we would pay a premium for Tasmanian Eucalyptus but when I moved down here I really only saw it used in timber frame houses and for structural joinery. Most makers that I met were really only focusing on Huon Pine, Blackwood, Myrtle, the more precious species, but they’re getting harder and harder to get and the ethics of finding them is difficult. I use Tasmanian Oak as a way to elevate the design rather than compete with it. Some of those other timbers are really dramatic and demand a lot of attention.  It becomes all about the timber and people become really anxious about how to use it.

MONA has obviously had an enormous impact on the arts in Tasmania since its inception in 2011. How have you noticed the landscape of Tasmanian furniture design change over recent years?

The designers that are now graduating from UTAS have a broader view of what is going on internationally. We’ve got better access to global design trends, markets and makers and at the same time have better communication within the local community. It’s kind of this strange thing where we’ve gotten bigger and smaller at the same time. Obviously having MONA has been an absolute gift. They bring international media and visitors here, but they’re also really good at giving local people an opportunity to work with them.

I-beam bench

I-beam bench by Laura McCusker

Looking back over the last 100 years it is clear that trends in furniture design are constantly evolving. How has your personal style evolved over your career as a designer?  

What I would like to think ties most of my designs together is functionality. I try and not have a style that is too ‘of the moment’. When it becomes defined by a certain era or fashion it can go out of style and people will just want to replace it. If you’re making something out of a precious resource, something that takes a long time to make, it really shouldn’t ever go out of style. The more people use a piece of furniture the more they love it and if it doesn’t break then there is no real reason to throw it out. There’s no reason that something that’s made today using contemporary techniques, materials, glues and finishes shouldn’t last 500 – 600 years.

Where do you draw inspiration from in particular? Is there a certain period or designer that strongly influences the pieces you create?

I love the mid-century aesthetic mainly because of the functionality of a lot of the pieces that were made then. It was about making furniture for how people were living in that era and was a real shift from 1920-40s where people started becoming very progressive. Every era does have its amazing pieces however. Whilst I appreciate different design aesthetics I am also very practical about having to combine contemporary fabrication techniques so that we can be financially viable.

Which of your designs or projects are you particularly proud of?

There’s a screen I’ve designed that can be used as a room divider. It can move and be rolled up and shipped really easily. I first made it in 2000, so 15 years ago, and every time I make one it’s a little bit different. They’ve gone all over the place, all over the world. I finished one last week and I still get a buzz out of it when I sit back and have a look at it, 15 years later and I still love it!

There’s also the outdoor setting we made for the Cellar Bar at MONA. The idea there was to make something where the materiality bled and merged into the environment. With those particular tables the oxidising of the steel is bleeding into the timber grain softening the piece and making it look like it has been part of the environment for a long time. It’s really nice to see pieces that don’t look great just on the day but continue to look better as they age.

How do you feel about the growing standardisation of furniture brought on by cheap mass production and global mega stores like Ikea?

I think Ikea is actually a fantastic concept, the problem is that because it is really cheap the perception is that it is not very good quality, so people don’t look after it. It’s great for students who leave home and have to fit out their first apartment cheaply and efficiently, but it’s not everything for everybody. I’m certainly not one of those furniture makers who thinks that Ikea is the devil’s child, I think that’s totally impractical. Ikea’s not really a competitor for us. Obviously not in Tasmania, but even in Sydney and Melbourne. Ikea’s great, I go there all the time, but people sometimes want something a little bit different, and that’s when they come to us.

Floating bed (queen)

Floating bed (queen) by Laura McCusker

With university courses, Tafe classes and apprenticeships dedicated to furniture making the right path can be difficult to choose. What direction would you recommend for people looking for a career in furniture design?

It is really hard. I learnt the most working out in the industry and having a go myself. I read a lot and I buy second hand furniture to pull apart and see how it was put together. Your training never stops, it is really important to get that basic training but it doesn’t finish there. Learning how to be a furniture maker is one part, but you’ve also got to learn how to be a business person, how to do your marketing, customer relations, time management, all of those elements of running a business are part of it and often these courses won’t teach you that. I see people who graduate and can make a cracking chair but when the time comes to actually transfer the rest of it, it becomes a little bit more difficult.

Both of your businesses are a part of the COLLECT Art Purchase Scheme that offers Australian residents interest-free loans to purchase artworks by contemporary Tasmanian artists. How do you think the Collect scheme will impact on your ability to do business in Tasmania?

I think it’s a fantastic scheme. It evens up the playing field between us and some of the large local furniture retailers who can offer interest free finance. It’s a crazy idea to think that we can end up competing with businesses like that, but we can now. To be able to commission pieces of furniture or jewellery or ceramics and be able to access that kind of interest free loan is fantastic. People can use it for things like bridal registries or 40th birthday presents that kind of stuff, I think it’s great.

Article published 12 August 2015