When COFA graduates Harriet Watts, Ben Elbourne, Sarah Speckman, Lauren Austin and Carly Vickers decided to hold an exhibition of their design pieces, the group were surprised at the level of response to their wares.
The artisans had long been admirers of each other’s work, but clearly the public also shared their love for bespoke pieces that could be incorporated into the everyday. In 2011 the five multidisciplinary artists joined together to form the Fortynine Studio.
“We came together to share space and equipment and develop work fuelled by our values and passions, as that wasn’t possible in a commercial company,” Watts explains.
Real-life being what it is, the five-some have now become two. Watts and Elbourne remain as the collective’s only full-time members as others answered the call of family commitments and commissions. Yet their passion for exploring new techniques and delivering an alternative to mass-produced products has never waned.
Speaking with Kochie’s Business Builders from their Marrickville studio in Sydney, Watts tells us art and the arts have always played a major role in her life.
“One strong memory I have is a charcoal on paper drawing that hangs in my parents’ living room,” she explains. “When I was very young it looked to me like a large wild scribble, later I could decipher a leg sticking out, and another shoe. It took me many years to read the drawing as it was … two dancers in motion.”
Watts says she wanted to be an artist “more and more as she grew older”. Eventually, that passion translated to studying design and a career as a textile and object designer.
The ceramicist says she and Elbourne are driven by a combined interest in designing work that has a positive impact.
“We’re developing work that presents an alternative way of connecting with objects, understanding and relating to the natural world. Our ranges offer a local and low-impact alternative to mass-produced products,” she adds.
The studio’s name derives from a reference to small-scale and local manufacture, and more loosely, the handmade.
“Under Australian law, forty-nine is the maximum number of objects that can be made where the design is protected by copyright. Once a multiple of 50 is made a design is considered mass manufactured.”
Bespoke items have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Watts is pleased more people are moving away from the manufactured and embracing bespoke products.
“Statistics show that people are now living with less material objects. Perhaps, as a result, people are seeking to have more considered, beautiful, and relevant pieces. I think there’s been an increase in understanding about materials and materiality. People are also becoming more aware of the social and environmental impacts that objects can have, and recognise the buying power that consumers have in regards to this. People are supporting companies that align with their own values more and more.”
Whilst artists aren’t usually renowned for their business acumen, Watts and co have managed to sustain a successful business for a number of years. She says that whilst finances will never be at the “centre of what we do” they nonetheless are a serious consideration for the studio.
“Our decisions are fuelled by our values and our creative ideas. So it’s been important for us to have various income streams to support our practice, and as we’ve built this in, it’s given us more flexibility in what we are able to do creatively.”
Whilst the creation of bespoke pieces can be time-consuming Watts says ironically it also helps them with their cash flow.
“Although the pieces take time, because we produce the work ourselves we’re able to put in additional time when it’s needed to make things happen. A ‘time risk’ is much easier to manage than a financial risk, and has allowed us to take things on where we wouldn’t have otherwise had the cash flow,” she explains.
She says having the studio grow out of a collaboration between like-minded friends has been immensely beneficial.
“With a team of five friends we had fun, we were all there for the right reasons and with strong convictions about what we were doing, and were able to grow together. Thinking about what we’re contributing in the big picture is something that’s always been important at The Fortynine Studio, and it’s shaped our studio and work. Having said that, starting with clarity around what, why and how you are doing what you do is really important.”
As practising artists, Watts said she and Elbourne are always experimenting with new materials and processes, testing and developing ideas. And finding ways to stoke the creative fire is important.
“We do a mix of self-directed design fuelled by our own interests and values – these will sometimes be for exhibition, competitions, and/or develop into production work that is available for sale. We also do custom work for clients, interior design firms, and commissions. All this feeds into each other and we constantly build on our material and processual experience and knowledge.”
As an artist, Watts prefers to be guided by her materials and often finds inspiration in the natural world, particularly the landscapes and species in Australia.
“As much as possible we use local, native, natural and sensitive materials. We tend to use simple production processes, often hand-production processes.”
She suggests anyone with an interest in design and design processed would benefit from a visit to the Fortynine Studio.
“We have all of our ranges available here in our studio, as well as many tests and samples that we can develop custom work from.
The studio also provides the opportunity for additional income:
“We run monthly workshops where you learn some basic clay techniques and get to make your own tableware and plant pots. They’re great fun and a good way to see a working studio, get your hands dirty and spend some time with friends or family.”