“After graduating in industrial design at Sydney’s University of Technology in 1991, I created a number of furniture pieces – fairly expressive, experimental things – and put a couple of these in to what I would call limited batch production, meaning I made them myself,” recalls Wilson.
“My Swivel chair was the first design to go into serious production. I just designed it ‘on spec’, as there were no likely clients, nor competitions or exhibitions where you could show your work in those days. If I designed a piece of furniture ‘on spec’ now, I could enter it in any number of shows or competitions. I don’t remember much like that existing then.
“It was picked up by Norman and Quaine, a furniture and interiors company in Sydney that had won a grant from the NSW Ministry of the Arts. They decided to put the grant money into developing the Swivel chair.
"It was then tooled up and manufactured by Woodmark International in the mid 90s and has been in production ever since.” The Swivel chair is in the permanent collection of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
Though Wilson’s focus has mostly been on designing sofas and chairs, he is currently enjoying success with his design for a candelabra, which has been taken up by Menu, a Danish manufacturer.
“I met the buyers from Menu at the Ambiente fair in Frankfurt this year. I had several products to show them, and they were particularly keen on the candelabra.
They have since made it a high priority and have been developing it at a cracking pace. It was launched in Denmark in August and will be in stores in Australia in December.”
The candelabra is 200 mm high, cast in zinc and electroplated in silver.
“With the candelabra I wanted to do something glamorous in silver that was also practical – for example, it can be flat packed.”
It may seem unusual for a designer of furniture to move to candelabras, but Wilson says that he is always looking for ways to apply the distinctiveness of his aesthetic to different typologies.
“I am currently working on Spool, a height-adjustable rocking stool with a gas lift mechanism. The idea is to offer a better alternative to an exercise ball for work-related tasks – whether or not you can exercise your ‘abs’ on it remains to be seen.
“Exercise balls take up a lot of space and have an annoying habit of rolling away when you get up, and aesthetically they may not be to everyone’s liking.
“At the moment I’m experimenting with the upholstery, and it’s a bit tricky. Obviously, it needs a highly elastic cloth covering over it, so I’m working with swimsuit designers and seamstresses to get the stitching right.”
Although he has tended to be ‘old school’ over the years – drawing things up by hand and making physical prototypes – Wilson also sees a place for computer modelling.
“In recent years I have been getting into three-dimensional computer modelling, and I find it an amazing tool for developing designs. It expands the way you think about form and introduces all sorts of interesting notions into the design process.
“With CAD programs you develop a design in a particular process in order to build it up using building and subtraction techniques such as extrusion, turning, spanning etc. As things happen along the way you can very easily experiment by changing the parameters.”
He says this can lead to radically different, unexpected results.
“Sometimes this happens by accident, sometimes I do it deliberately to explore different directions that I might head off in to. It can be very interesting and liberating in a way.”
According to Wilson, CAD programs have the added advantage of saving time and money.
“Compared to actually making a three-dimensional object – which would take perhaps months in the workshop – three-dimensional CAD programs can save a lot of time.”
Although he clearly sees some advantages in working with CAD programs, he won’t be abandoning his hands-on style of working anytime soon.
“With the candelabra I didn’t really use three-dimensional modelling at all. When Menu asked me to, I refused because I knew how hard it would be with an organic form like that.
"When they actually tooled up for it, I witnessed that process, which occurred over several months, and saw how difficult it was for the toolmakers to get the form right. I was very glad I wasn’t the one at the computer – it would have been hell!”
Wilson cites Woodmark International, a Sydney-based furniture manufacturer founded by managing director Arne Christiansen, as key to his success.
“Woodmark was the biggest break I’ve ever had. Arne Christiansen (the managing director) is Danish, and that is significant in that he brought a huge amount of knowledge with him, as well as the respect for tradition and quality that we associate with Scandinavian design and manufacturing. He also appreciates modern design and the need for original work.
“With upholstered furniture you can use moulded foam or fabricated foam. To make a sofa from fabricated foam involves a complex construction of foam bonded to itself and to a frame, which is then upholstered. For much of the Woodmark furniture,
we are using moulded foam to achieve organic forms that are complex and need to be precise.
“I worked for some months on the forms for the Boulder lounge and ottoman. They were actually quite difficult to document precisely, so I felt the need to make them myself, rather than send the drawings off to someone else.”
The process Wilson uses to create the moulded-foam prototypes is painstaking.
“I make a scale model and we agree on that form, and then I proceed with full-scale drawings and make the patterns from those. The patterns are used to make the aluminium epoxy-filled moulds that are used for production. Into that mould goes an embedded plywood structure around which the foam is injected.
“With this form of volume production the tooling cost is very high and, for a piece of furniture, represents a massive investment. This sort of investment is quite unusual in Australia. There is very little furniture made this way here.
“Woodmark was interested in heading down this production path, and wanted to have furniture that wasn’t likely to be copied easily – that and the potential for making new forms was quite exciting for me when I first started working with them.”