‘Confluence’: my first Australian commission

My old tutor back in the UK always said he avoided doing commissions for family and friends – and I can understand his reasoning.

New designer/makers rely almost wholly on word of mouth to get business up and running and inevitably this will mean interest from family and friends. However, sometimes the people closest to us are less likely to appreciate the norms of the bespoke fine furniture market, so even when you apply ‘mates rates’, there is a chance of checkout shock. In addition to this, and probably more challenging, is that normal consumer patterns don’t work well in this field and are in fact counterproductive. Part of the allure and normalcy of high street shopping is the idea of ‘choice’ – you decide on every aspect of the product to best reflect your functional demands, but more importantly reflect a small part of who you are.

When it comes to employing designers or creatives, however, after a certain level of choice has been exercised, choice starts to cinch a tourniquet on the designer’s creative flow. It’s easy to think that defining a strict brief to a designer is less risky, that you have a better chance of the best possible end-result. But I’d argue the opposite – you actually get less than what you paid for. You’re engaging the designer to bring to the table not only their creativity and technical expertise, but less obviously you’re asking them to understand you. This requires reading between the lines, observing differences between what they say and how they act. It also requires you to be empathetic and walk in their shoes for a time. Hopefully by doing this well you can actually tease out of the design aspects that the client would never have thought of, but that also resonates with their inner self.

So it was with some trepidation that I accepted my first Australian commission from my in-laws… but I’m excited to say that yesterday they happily signed off on a concept design called “Confluence”.

‘Confluence’ mirror / side table watercolour concept design perspective 1 (Paul Chilton)
‘Confluence’ mirror / side table water colour concept design perspective 2 (Paul Chilton)

To understand the inspiration for the piece I’ll explain the brief at two levels. Firstly, the explicit brief from the client:

  • Create an aesthetically strong piece of furniture that helps form a central anchor of the home;
  • The piece is to take influence from themes of rivers and the moon and the view of Pittwater Harbour to which it will sit opposite, specifically the bush, leaves, sail boats, etc.;
  • The piece needs to have a table and mirror;
  • Organic curved lines are desirable;
  • Dark wood is preferable.

This was an ideal level of detail for the brief, and I thanked them for having the confidence to set the direction but not the destination of the piece. This allowed me to form my own, secondary brief that expanded and consolidated the client’s desires and, in a nice turn of fate, my closeness to the clients actually resulted in a much stronger and more empathetic response.

The piece is to be situated against the wall opposite a view and the main dining room table. This means the normal viewing angles will tend to favour the top half of the piece as the table either pushes you close to the piece or shadows the view of the bottom half from beyond the table. However, knowing my in-laws and their love of entertaining, I knew this piece had to perform when the room was cleared for parties. The house is also home to an ever-expanding contingent of toddlers, who I think should also be able to interact with the piece at their level. So for these two reasons alone, the bottom half is to me equally important as the top.

The house is situated on a steep incline among tall spotted gum trees overlooking the ever-changing Pittwater Harbour. To reflect this natural setting the piece will be tall and slender like the trees with elegant sweeping curves to reflect the shoreline of the harbour. It’s asymmetric to reflect both the organic nature of the environment but equally importantly, I think, to reflect that people’s lives aren’t symmetric, and this piece has a very important human influence in it.

The most important design story of this piece, and the one that ties directly to the name ‘Confluence’ is the running of two rivers together but separately, which I’d suggest is a metaphor for any successful marriage, signified here in the design by the two mirror frame components. In plan, there is a concave curve that sweeps through the length of the frame that is another visual link between the two frames and helps to form a subtle lens effect that helps provide a natural focal point from which to stand in front.

The central statement of the design is the mirror and frame. The scale of the mirror is contrasted with a modest ellipsoid crescent moon-shaped table that is detailed to lead the eye into the mirror and form a bridge between the two frame components.

I’m recommending spotted gum timber for the piece, as this wood ties closely with its future home setting. It’s a sustainable hardwood timber with wide colour palette and is also native to the local area. The house has a sentinel-like spotted gum tree around which the building has been designed to symbolise love and respect for the natural environment that attracted the clients to the area in the first place. For this reason alone, I’d like to do service to this significant tree by representing its influence in the species of the wood for the piece.

Now it’s time to begin the process of making the piece, starting with detailed documentation and creating a process list. This is where I test my technical abilities as a maker against my penchant for taking risks as a designer – an enduring inner conflict that I’m hoping will pay off in the end result.

4 thoughts

  1. Your explanation of the brief surprised me by being so interesting & easy to follow, so much so, that it belongs to & needs to travel with the final piece of fine furniture. Is that what is meant by provenance?

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