The Melbourne based designer has gained international recognition for his lighting ranges beginning with Clio in the mid 90s and more recently with Poli and Mono.

After completing industrial design at RMIT in Melbourne in the mid 80s Smitka found work in exhibition and shop fitting design. Following a motorcycle accident, Smitka says he had time to reflect on his career and decided it was time to make some changes.  

“Industrial design is an excellent profession but a very tough occupation in Australia. You can do so much with an industrial design qualification. You gain a great breadth of knowledge in terms of materials and processes and it gives you a broad view on the nature of three-dimensional design. The industrial designer almost works with no palette or a very broad palette.

“The problem here in Australia is that there is minimal manufacturing (we have a small economy) and the manufacturing that does occur is driven by overseas trends. Particularly in furniture or fashion design where buyers and manufacturers seek inspiration from Europe rather than develop their own ranges.

Smitka points out that the reality of working in industrial design, particularly back in the early 90s was nowhere near as ‘glamorous’ as outsiders perceived it.

“It was recession time and it was a time when people were forced to reflect on their options and in hard times you often have to make hard decisions. I couldn’t find a job... it was soul-destroying, so I decided to take control by making my own products.

“And that’s basically where things really started for me. I was a member of a co-operative furniture based design studio, called TYM, that was set up as a squat in St Kilda in Melbourne. It initially started off with a membership of about twenty designers and inevitably that imploded and reduced to about seven of us. The premises were eventually sold.”

Smitka and his colleagues, Malte Wagenfeld and Marc Pascal then established a new studio in inner city Abottsford, Melbourne.

“We became a self supporting community. That really was one of the key things to us surviving as long as we have. We had a great support group and there was tremendous scope for exchange of information and ideas. This made the early years a little bit more bearable.

“Since then this has been a full time pursuit! I went into designing my own products, not really having a plan at all, I just said ‘I want to do this’, so I did it. I didn’t know how and I fumbled my way through, developed products, did this, did that, and made mistakes, tried something else and so on.”

Smitka likens his professional and personal survival to that of long-term survivors in the music industry.

“I use the music industry as an analogy because there are not a great number of designer role models around. Some bands just hang in there for years and eventually they come up with a big album and they make it, and then they still hang in there.

"They are passionate and tenacious and flexible. If this is really what you want to do then you have to modify your desires to match it, because that’s the reality of it. 

“Perseverance and tenacity are essential and I see the same in most creative pursuits. It’s about people who can stick it out and actually have some faith or karma; eventually success comes around.”

According to Smitka, his first lighting range, Clio, used a fibre glassing process and was developed with very limited capital support.

“I started off with nothing. The Abbotsford studio contained literally three piles of rubbish. What was in that rubbish was anything from hand tools to bits and pieces of timber. We were lucky if we got to use the odd power tool. It was almost like ‘reverse garbage’ but one step up. 

“All the machinery we had we very slowly acquired, we kept our ears open for any good deals going and we built it up from that. So when I developed my first range, I just didn’t have much money, so I had to do something at a cheap entry point. It was labour intensive, my subcontracting was minimal and the money I was generating from the products was through my own labour. 

“I plugged away at this range for years and then eventually in the mid 90s I got lucky. I was selling Clio through Lightwise a retail lighting store in Sydney.

"An industrial designer walked in to the store and expressed great interest in the Clio range. As it turned out he was doing the fit out for the First Class business lounges for Star Alliance at Hong Kong airport.

“They were interested in seeing a table lamp in the Clio range, which didn’t exist and I started working with them over a two week period to develop one for them. While they were doing their architectural documentation I was designing the table lamps to match their needs. 

“I then quoted and about six months later the order came through and that was my first order, which was rather scary. I was working as a kitchen hand in a geriatric hospital and I was teaching a few days a week, so I was working seven days a week (with some crossover), and trying to keep my business going in between! 

“And then I got this order, and had to work out how I was going to fit it in!

“Inevitably I had less time than I needed, because lighting is always specified towards the tail end of an architectural project. There were about forty-five table lamps and then four large wall lamps that were over a metre high. 

“I didn’t know if the large feature wall lamps were going to work, I just applied the theory and fortunately they did. And I had about eight weeks to do it all in by myself.

"It was a nightmare, I pulled out of RMIT and my hospital job for a while and I just focussed and worked very long hours to ‘knock it on the head’. I had to learn about shipping goods overseas and exporting. I had to look into the international electrical regulations.

“I needed to prove to myself that I could do it. I probably got a few extra grey hairs and lost some kilos. So that was my first break and then came Designex 2000 in Sydney.

“Again I was cash strapped and the hospital that I worked for was closed down and I was given a lump sum payment. The combination of money saved and the lump sum payment finally gave me enough funds to do Designex.

The Poli range

Smitka says the exciting Poli range was born of frustration at not being able to source satisfactory glass manufacturers. But, like all of his work, it’s the simplicity, sophistication and timeless quality of the range that stands out.

“I had been working with glass for a few years and had had huge problems getting the desired quality of glass components available from local and overseas suppliers. I wasn’t keen on the plastic moulding option ... glass is such an amazing material to work and design with. 

“Everyone at this time was designing with polypropylene sheet, and all the people in the studio had played with it as well. So I thought if I’m going to play with it as a sheet material I want to do something with it that hasn’t been done before.

“And that’s where I started exploring how I could work with the material in a different way. And that’s how Poli came about, through a folding process. I realised very quickly that I was on to something and I realised just as quickly that there was no way I was going to hand make it myself from sheet so I looked at alternatives like extrusion.

"I needed some sort of clipping system and with an extrusion it would need to be a sliding system which meant that to stop the modules from sliding apart was going to be tricky. I investigated heat welding, ultrasonic welding... they weren’t the way to go.”

Smitka credits the innovative suggestion of a friend to injection mould the material as the breakthrough he was looking for. 

“At first I thought it was absurd, then I quickly realised it was achievable and within my budget!

“I was working towards Designex, I had limited funds but I had to do it somehow. I got an engineer to detail it for me, who had connections in China. I invested in a single cavity mould and used a Chinese manufacturer to mould them for me.

“The basic concept was to get a module that I could use repeatedly to create an object and thus afford to use multiples. The first run was 5000 units... only just warming up for injection moulding. I could do 5000 units and know that my initial sales didn’t have to be astronomical.

“The concept uses a very architectural headspace. It’s a skin and a skeleton. It’s a frame with a skin. What you see is the skin and without the concealed super structure it’s just a big floppy thing.

“Quality is now my biggest headache, my quality standards are way too high. But I can’t help that, if I don’t use my own parameters as a way of judging things then whose do I embrace?”

Smitka is now enjoying working from a new studio where he can take on bigger projects and continue to expand his business, leaving his diverse employment history behind.

“Much of my time now is taken up working in the business. We have moved into this new studio, which is fortifying what I have. I now have more scope to take on larger jobs. I’m involved in a couple of apartment projects and pitching with an interior designer for a few projects connected with apartment developments. I’m working at getting products out there and into the market.

“Agents now sell on my behalf in Hong Kong. My website as a marketing tool is irreplaceable and is a great way of screening enquiries. People actually approach me now, which lessens the amount of time 

I have to spend on the road. There are companies in Japan, Malaysia and Singapore that have contacted me about marketing my products. I just put myself out there and into a few search engines and they find me. The next step is to update the website.

“It’s endless you’ll never get to the end, because as soon as you think you are close there’s something else needs to be done. The two most significant things I’ve done are Designex and the website. As a way of developing profile and potentially exposing your products to 17,000 people, Designex was great. 

“There are still so many people out there who haven’t seen my products. The marketing thing doesn’t finish it’s an ongoing thing.”

A focus for the future

“Lighting is really the focus. I love lighting for two main reasons, because it is a product, which is what I’m about, and there is so much scope for expression in it but it’s got function. This function is so simple that it doesn’t really restrict one’s scope for expression.

“There is something about lights, they have two lives. They can be a beautiful object that sits there and then there is scope for them to actually be a light... this is what I try to explore in my lighting. How the object can change by the virtue of being illuminated. It’s subtle, for example the way Poli changes. The way the surfaces, edges and shadows, create subtle changes. 

“With the Mono range I actually designed it so that the globe is about five millimetres away from the dimple that comes down, it gets a really nice hot spot and a vignette of light. It’s all about playing with the light. The object has one life as an object and when it’s illuminated it somehow changes. So I want to continue that sort of exploration in the next ranges.” 

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