In 1519, William Horman – then headmaster of the famed public schools of Eton and Winchester – published a Latin primer. Posterity has been kind to him for (if nothing else) its opening inscription: mater artium necessitas. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’
Some five hundred or so years later, and necessity remains just as central to the pursuit of creation. “We were in the process of renovating our home,” says Susan Chung, “and as we were looking for a floor lamp to stand beside our couch, we were dismayed that we couldn’t find one that could both fit and that had an attractive base.” Unlike myself, Susan along with her husband Michael Mabuti did not bemoan such a deficiency. Rather, like so many punctuating the annals of design history, they embraced necessity as the wellspring of innovation. “Out of this, the inspiration for a new venture emerged – a cordless lamp.”
As the directors of the Melbourne-based design studio, Made By Pen, Susan and Michael speak considerately about seeing design as a way of life. “Our products all carry the same objective, to provide a solution to something that is missing or currently not available. Our idea come from talking to consumers, designers and architects, so we can gauge need.”
‘Sway’ – the studio’s recent design of a cordless, swaying lamp – is a true exemplar. Since the days of electricity’s first foray into our lives, the basic design elements of lamps have remained largely unchanged: static pedestal, counterbalanced base, tethered to a power socket. But for Susan and Michael, those days are a far memory. Of course, they’re right! While the world around us continues to change, new forms of inspiration and innovation abound: “The way people use spaces has changed,” says Susan. “Work environments are more flexible and people’s homes are no longer defined by singular rooms but, instead, fluid spaces.”
“This means that we now demand more from the products around us”, Michael adds. “They need to do more, and incorporating a cordless, rechargeable feature within the design of the Sway lamp delivers on this.” Designed in collaboration with Nick Rennie, Sway’s globular base allows the lamp to playfully teeter and sway when knocked or moved. “It breaks the mould of how you would expect a lamp to be formed, allowing the user to playfully interact with it.” Play, interaction, joy: the humble ‘lamp’ has been reimagined to elicit our emotional reply.
“With all new products there is a process of design, refinement and testing. For Sway, with the cordless feature we wanted to achieve this simply meant this time there were a few more refinements. However, the time spent perfecting this we understood to be worthwhile. […] Designed in collaboration with Nick Rennie, who is renowned for his playful designs that create pieces to engage with the end user and elicit and emotional reaction, our main goal for Sway was to develop something fun, absorbing and inviting for the user to interact. Sway does just that. It breaks the mould of how you expect a lamp to be formed and allows the user to playfully interact. In fact, with our preview showing, consumers have shown such a positive reaction to the light that we only have a limited number left in Australia from our initial product run.”
In more ways that one, the emotional secret life of objects is the Made By Pen signature. Turning their hands from lamps to, instead, servingware for ‘Field’ designed in collaboration with Helen Kontouris, it was precisely the emotional underside of design that inspired the product’s development.
“If you get to know Michael, myself and the rest of the Made By Pen team”, says Susan, “you’ll soon realise that food is very much a part of our lives, as are friends and family. Made By Pen’s team is a blend of different cultures in which gathering occurs around a table of food. Food, design, nature and love of family became a simple combination to make this partnership work beautifully.”
Inspired on the hand by the shared company of loved ones and, on the other, by the thousand-years-old history of agriculture and the cultivation of the land, ‘Field’ brings to mind the country’s dramatic landscapes, its fertile earth and the communities it sustains.“ Like Helen Kontouris, we are also inspired by natural landscapes and it’s not hard when Australia has so many breathtakingly beautiful places”, Susan continues. “Much of the inspiration for our work comes from light, contrasts, angles and the tonal palettes of natural landscapes.”
“The slow food movement is very important to us all at Made By Pen. Taking time to sit and enjoy food and company is an important antidote to the stark contrast of our ever-increasing app-enables lives. In this, the collaboration with Helen Kontouris was an easy one. Food, design, nature and love of family are shared by us all, and it was this simple combination that made the partnership work so well.”
It is clear that, speaking so eloquently about the inspiration nature provides, that Australia and Australian design heavily colours the Made By Pen philosophy. Working in close collaboration with the nation’s top talent – including the likes of Michael Ong, Helen Kontouris, Nick Rennie and Jim Hannon-Tan in recent years – the studio has recently emerged as a front-runner in a new wave of Australian design.
It was precisely this embrace of local talent that the Made By Pen team inspired the industry with late last year at Sydney Indesign 2017. After launching the very first glimpse of the Sway Lamp in collaboration with Rennie at the event, as well as showcasing Field in partnership with Helen Kontouris, the brand also exhibited the latest iteration of Linea. “For us,” says Susan, “Linea is a really remarkable product as it can continuously evolve. It allows us to creatively never be finished, insofar as we can and indeed are continuously exploring different surfaces, colours and materials.”
Developed in conjunction with Jim Hannon-Tan, Made By Pen have also collaborated with the Clan Collective to create a new suite of resin attachments for Linea’s essential core form. Whether on a kitchen bench, a desktop or even a bathroom counter, Linea’s supreme functionality appears almost an extension of its beautifully resolved form.
“The evolution of this product range was as much consumer-led as it was design-led, too. In a way, these latest developments for Linea are a response to those who initially bought it, and found new configurations and ways to incorporate it into their lives, in the bathroom, in their offices and home studies and even kitchen benches. Anywhere that items need to be contained and ordered, Linea is their solution.”
In more ways than one, with interactive and responsive approach is highly characteristic of the Made By Pen orientation to the world of design. “We love interacting with our users, and consumer feedback allows us to translate and evolve the design elements”, says Michael. Even though they work alongside some of the design community’s biggest names, both Michael and Susan remain highly attuned to the fact that a central philosophy of their brand is that it remains to a degree “also user-curated.”
“We respect the design process and understand that artists are able to identify and process objects, lines, light and space in a unique manner. By collaborating with them, we are able to capture these ideas and develop the Made By Pen range.”
And yet, retaining these close ties to the local design community and their family of Made By Pen design hunters will always be a core driver of the studio’s place in contemporary design. “Australia, and in particular Melbourne where we are based, has a strong sense of identity and culture. Behind whatever inspires you, there is a strong community that supports it. There is a passion and respect for ‘good things’ that exists too, hence why we are rich on so many levels from food, events, fashion, and even our street art! As a consequence, the design community here is strong, cohesive and supportive. There exists the freedom to design, and attempt anew.”
Made By Pen’s entire portfolio is available through various stockists across Australia and the United Kingdom.
Visit www.madebypen.com for more information.
Made By Pen
A version of this article was originally published by the writer in McGrath Magazine (March 2018).