But the classic BYO Wine Cooler of the early 80s is still the company’s greatest success. After winning a Prince Philip Award for Australian Design the cooler went on to find a home at Buckingham Palace.
It is also part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York Curve Editor Belinda Stening spoke to the managing director and founder of Décor, Brian Davis, and discovered why Décor remains a product leader in Australia and overseas.
How was Décor the company created?
I was the sales manager of Toltoys and was very keen for the company to develop a housewares line as well. My uncle Alex Tolmer who owned the company was not keen.
I was so persistent he sent me to America to work with US Plastics, a toy company in Pasadena with whom we cooperated, by exchanging ideas and moulds. He hoped it would get housewares out of my mind.
During that time I attended several toy fairs, saw a lot of America – and a lot of housewares.
When I returned to Australia I was still unable to convince my uncle of the possibilities of housewares so, to cut a long story short I decided to start my own housewares business.
Was there anyone in Australia producing housewares at that time?
Yes, there were many, but most just copied products from overseas, particularly from America. The world was a larger place then, and the term Intellectual Property was generally unknown.
I had lots of my own ideas I wanted to develop.
Did you employ a designer from the beginning?
I was the designer in the beginning. I’m not a designer by profession but I could draw. I worked with a friend who was a draftsman and together we designed a set of plastic beakers in a plastic case. It was a big success and it was the product that got me established.
Sometime later I moved to new premises, which happened to be near the offices of Yuncken Freeman Architects (who had just designed the new Treasury Building) and met some young architects and interior designers who worked there.
I asked one of them, Tony Wolfenden, to design a couple of products for me, and I was delighted with the results, and from then on used only professional designers. Tony still does some wonderful work for Décor.
My graphic work had been done by ‘ticket writers’ but as the designs of my products improved, I could see the need for better graphic design.
We have had excellent graphic design work done over the years by such people as Frank Eidlitz, Andy Schmid, Gary Emery and Carolyn Simm.
I have always paid a lot of attention to the way our products looked as well as how they worked. It’s not just a matter of money – it’s a matter of pride.
What did you produce after the beaker set?
I had noticed that there was no complete, well-designed range of food storage containers available in Australia. Modern clear polypropylene, the material used these days, was not available, so most containers were made from coloured opaque materials in all sorts of odd shapes and sizes.
I asked Tony Wolfenden to design a modular range of containers with drop lids made from the then new crystal clear material SAN (styrene acrylonitrile copolymer). They were an immediate success. They were called Stackfresh.
Soon after that, I asked Richard Carlson, a young product designer starting out on his own to design another modular range of containers using SAN bases and soft, low-density polyethylene clip-on lids. We called them Clearseal and they became the market leaders in Australia.
How did you come up with the name Décor? And what part did the logo play in the success of the products?
In the very early days when my company was Brian Davis and Company, I acquired a set of moulds for a set of decorative wall plaques... those were the days when a flight of ceramic ducks on the wall were the in thing.
I put two plaques in a box with a clear cellophane window and showed them to a leading chain store buyer. He liked them but he said you have to have a more zippy company name. I said OK. They are decorative plates, I’ll use Décor. By the way the plaques sold much better later when they became flowerpot saucers.
Our first logo, I’ve forgotten who designed it, was an elongated style, but when Andy Schmid saw it he recommended a change to the style he had designed and which we use to this day.
The wine cooler has enjoyed outstanding success. Can you explain how it came about?
In about 1978 Ray Gordon our manufacturing director and I were invited to a presentation of Australian Design Awards at the Victorian State Parliament House in Spring Street.
One of the prizes went to the designer of a canvas or hessian bag with letters BYO stenciled on it to carry two bottles of wine (BYO restaurants were very popular at that time). I said to Ray “we can do a lot better than that” – the trick was not just getting our white wine to the restaurant – but getting it there safely and cold on hot summer evenings. (We all had disastrous experiences getting cold white wine to restaurants in plastic bags filled with ice cubes).
We briefed Richard Carlson from a public phone box in Spring Street with our requirements for an insulated container with a chilling device to safely carry two bottles of wine and keep them cold.
He understood immediately what we wanted and the very next afternoon showed us a sketch which was very close to what would be the final design. That was in 1978. In 1979 the Decor BYO Wine Carrier won an Australian Design Award.
In 1980 it won a Prince Philip Award for Australian Design and in 1983 it was accepted as part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art New York. It was at that time our most successful single product and even today continues to sell, particularly in the United States.
During those years when Australian Design Awards were important to our customers we were awarded more than 300. Almost every new product won an award.
How has the Décor food container concept evolved over the years?
We never stop looking for ways of improving all our products. After the success of Clearseal, we developed the Tellfresh range. A standout feature of this range are the optional clip-on plastic tags, with use-by-date, contents and reheating instructions. They are reusable and come with a pencil and eraser.
How important is good tooling to Décor?
We spend a lot of money on excellent tooling and tooling design. Our tools are made like watches so that they will as far as possible give us trouble free running and produce excellent quality parts.
Do you produce off shore?
Most of our products are made in Australia, however where there is a lot of handwork involved, say for insulated coolers and lunch bags made from fabric, we do outsource in China. They are made to our designs and specifications and we closely supervise quality.
Your products are very popular in Australia, where else do they sell well?
Décor products are sold around the world but particularly in the US. Our biggest customer for BYO Wine Carrier these days is a mail order house in New York and one of our most important Tellfresh customers is The Container Store based in Dallas with stores in many parts of the USA.
Our overseas customers like our original ideas and designs, graphics and our quality.