WORDS BY CAMERON BAIRD – PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS IRELAND
An After Hours interview with Henry Wilson.
From beautiful fixings to bookends and a big brass wall, Henry Wilson is bringing sexy back to design. Though he studied in The Netherlands, he has successfully returned home to launch a number of sellable products — quite a feat for a young industrial designer today. And it’s from Sydney that he is quietly putting his stamp on the scene, one project at a time.
IT’S PRETTY EASY TO FALL IN LOVE with the work of Henry Wilson. His clever and sophisticated furniture with simple features and beautiful materials look as appropriate in a high-end restaurant and boutique retail fit-out as they do in one’s own living room.
The name is now synonymous with some of Sydney’s most adored spaces, whether it be fine dining heaven, Noman, a globally renowned Aesop store, or a project by an award-winning architecture firm.
And it’s not hard to see why — the modern, functional, tactile designs are as attractive as they are genius. Take for example his ‘A-Joint Range’, a flexible joinery system, which can be used for any number of functions from holding a boat up in a shed to fixing a marble table top to its base.
Not content with larger objects, the brand also includes an extensive object range that will steal your paycheck without you even noticing. From the wonderful Vide Poche range of trays and coin holders, to the Thoronet Dish and FIN bookend, mantlepieces around town are due to receive a serious upgrade.
In addition to his objects and accessories are explorations into lighting, storage and occasional tables. The lighting range appears to be rapidly expanding, last year launching the beautiful bronze Surface Sconce and Surface Wall Sconce. Wilson has worked with ceramics, wood and metal to build the range, and has also collaborated with other experts such as Bianca Chang and paper artist Benja Harney as part of the Paperweight Project.
The Timber Anglepoise is one of the collaborations that displays Wilson’s keen interest in the history of design. “This is a replica of the classic Anglepoise lamp rendered in timber,” Henry explains. “It was one of a three-part series in which I investigated and reworked a piece of classic design. This timber version was made by Dr Rodney Hayward who was my woodwork professor at ANU Canberra. He has retired and made this as a one-off from parts I sourced from the internet,” he details.
We recently caught up with Henry, while he was taking some time off for a much-needed holiday skiing in Jackson Hole, and asked him about the last 12 months and what’s in store for the future. It was clear that he rarely switches off for a break, always keeping an eye out for the next project.
When asked about his massive 2016, the philosophical side of the man comes to the fore. “I don’t really go back over years as they tend to blur,” he admits. “Having said that, the past 12 months have seen [the studio complete] a variety of projects, from collaborations with Lexus for the design pavilion at the Melbourne Cup, through to new products from our own range and collaborations with architects. It’s been varied which I’m happy about,” he says.
One of the projects I am most interested to hear about is his ongoing partnership with Aesop, which culminated in their second retail collaboration this past year. The two brands appear to be made for each other, both based on a foundation of clean, minimal, refined design practices, with an emphasis on superior finishes and quality craftsmanship. “The two stores for Aesop came about from a discussion with the founder and creative advisor Dennis Paphitis. The Balmain store had the rough brief of being designed from parts found in a hardware store. [The design] also relates to the industrial heritage of the neighbourhood,” Wilson explains. “The building used to be an old sandstone pub and when revealing the walls it was evident the stones had been honed by hand chisel — perhaps by convicts. It was a desire to express this raw work in the design of the space”.
When his second store design for Aesop opened up on Sydney’s North Shore, in Crows Nest, the end result was testament to a man who knows how to sprinkle just the right kind and amount of magic on an otherwise-forgettable space, and turn it into the most beautiful-looking piece on the street.
The area is a mix of heritage Federation, Queen Anne and Victorian dwellings, with a history of residential and more recently retail, so that, combined with its modest 45 square metre space was one that required refined consideration. The interior exudes a warm domesticity with its oiled native Tallowwood furnished cabinetry, shelving and flooring. But what makes this space so unique in a street full of restaurants and takeaway joints is its air of sophistication. From the understated olive green façade with simple branding, it opens up into a room featuring a monolithic brass dividing wall and point of sale desk. The wall is a stunning statement in raw metal, a material Wilson has become familiar with, having used it extensively in his own objects and accessories range of wall hooks, bookends and other accessories. As the wall ages, it will acquire a natural patina, creating an ever-changing object of personal beauty. It is this same transition over time that many of Wilson’s customers note in response to his product range. The space is completed with a simple rubber plant and vintage armchair upholstered in green velvet.
“THE BALMAIN STORE HAD THE ROUGH BRIEF OF BEING DESIGNED FROM PARTS FOUND IN A HARDWARE STORE…THE BUILDING USED TO BE AN OLD SANDSTONE PUB AND WHEN REVEALING THE WALLS IT WAS EVIDENT THE STONES HAD BEEN HONED BY HAND CHISEL — PERHAPS BY CONVICTS. IT WAS A DESIRE TO EXPRESS THIS RAW WORK IN THE DESIGN OF THE SPACE.”
Recently it appeared as though wherever you turned, a Henry Wilson design was providing the impact in a well-designed space. Was it a case of timing, or was there a gap in the market? When asked why his designs have been so well-received Wilson responds, “I’m not sure they are that well-known… There was a bit of an unplanned gap filled with the A-joint range. This component has grown to become something that architects can specify and design to particular jobs. There’s not much like that on the market”. When Frost Design set about their new office fit-out in newly established Redfern Lane, the massive open plan was perfect for the A-joint range of stretched desks for their huge team of creative and account services.
In an attempt to fish for some 2017 spoilers I ask Henry what is in the pipeline for the year ahead. Any secret projects or products we can get the inside scoop on? “Not really. We are always working on new things but it’s hard to know when they will be released,” he says. “We will be exhibiting this year in Milan for Salone and also at DENFAIR in Melbourne, where we will be launching the new A-joint website and some new product”. What about new brand partnerships or concept projects? “I’m increasingly working with architects on custom products. It’s rewarding to work within a brief set by someone else,” Henry states, adding, “We have recently collaborated with George Livissianis on lighting for the Paddington Inn and Aria restaurants”.
I wonder if working locally is something Wilson will remain content with, or if the international exposure his work is beginning to gain will lead him to target clients abroad. Although Studio Henry Wilson is based in Sydney, its products and furniture are distributed internationally through Matter in New York and Very Good & Proper in London. It was often the case in the 1990’s through early 2000’s that designers, like many artists or creatives, were forced to travel and work abroad as a requirement for full recognition of their design excellence, and potential customer base. Although Henry studied overseas, having received the HSP Huygens Scholarship for Postgraduate Studies (Design) at The Design Academy Eindhoven, he was happy to return to Sydney to set up his studio in 2012.
“Australia is becoming a very nurturing place for designers. There is growing interest in design and I think local talent is being swept along with that,” he believes.
Outside of his day-to-day work life, I wonder what After Hours life the man lives. If holidays are rare, and running the studio is a full-time commitment, how does Wilson relax, regroup and get inspired? “I enjoy cooking, reading and I try to get outdoors to do something that challenges my comfort zone,” he replies. Does he have a strict work day schedule or does he work odd hours? “It’s not very structured. Usually designing 10% and admin 90%”.
With a uniquely calm and quietly confident personal style, obviously in sync with his design creations, does he keep the other eye on the world of fashion, design, music or travel? “I’m doing my best to keep my eyes off my phone. I think being disconnected is becoming more and more important each day”. END