Interview: Sarah Gibson & Nicholas Karlovasitis of DesignByThem.
There is a direct relationship between how many fucks I give about something or someone as to how difficult it is to articulate my thoughts about the given topic. My guests today – industrial designers Sarah Gibson and Nicholas Karlovasitis, founders of Australian furniture, lighting and homewares brand DesignByThem – fall into this category.
I’ve known Nick and Sarah for some time now, and the better I got to know them over the years, the more I grew to love and respect them. They were one of the first people I interviewed on Yellowtrace back in 2011, which is approximately 100 internet-years ago when I used to write this thing from my dining table at night after working in my “real job”. Our original chat is almost too embarrassing to link to, but of course – I can’t help it cause it’s kind of funny. We were all so fresh-faced, wide-eyed, footloose and fancy-free back then, hahaha!
Nick and Sarah established their business in 2007 as recent graduates working out of an apartment in Newtown, with an audacious goal of becoming net exporters of Australian design, something they’re well on their way to achieving. This is no small feat, especially given how different the Australian design landscape was back then.
Anyway, I think at this point it’s best I move out of the way and sit with my #ProudFace while Nick and Sarah fill us in on what they’ve been up to over the last few years. And while they’ll be the first to admit they’re far from having all the answers with so much further to go with their business, what they’ve achieved so far is truly remarkable – like supplying the offices of major international brands with Australian designed furniture (OMG!); hosting a solo show in Milan last year; moving their operation into 1,000 square metres of space in the heart of Sydney with a studio connected to the showroom and warehouse (this is seriously amazing for an independent brand – Sydney real estate/ rents are bloody expensive y’all); building a killer team of crazy-organised high-achievers who continually seek to improve every aspect of their business, in turn creating legitimate opportunities to compete against much larger brands. And so on.
There are countless pearls of wisdom in this interview, not to mention a fair share of bad jokes. Basically, a perfect recipe for a good time in my books!
Hello Sarah & Nick, welcome back to Yellowtrace! Holy moly, so much has happened since our chat in 2011. You established DesignByThem in 2007 with a big dream of challenging the status quo. You basically saw the potential for Australian designers to have a presence on the global stage. This would’ve been a pretty audacious plan back then – Australian design was far from being seen as a desirable ‘export’ nor was it sought out locally in the same way the international product was; Instagram didn’t exist and the local design landscape looked very different to what it does today. I feel you guys are the ‘OG Australian Design’ hustlers. Full props! Can you tell us about some of the achievements you’ve had since we last spoke?
It’s been quite the journey… and although we have had many and what often feels like never ending challenges it has been incredibly rewarding. We started the brand with the goal to become net exporters of Australian design and we are on our way to achieving that.
We’re almost surprised the international market has taken off for us the way it has, especially the last couple of years. In the past few years we have exhibited in Milan and supplied international brand offices for Google, Nike, Netflix, Facebook, Dropbox with Australian designed furniture. I think it helps that Australian interior design and architecture are so killer at the moment. This is helping to create an Australian design identity that we need to harness as a design community. This has followed through into the Australian furniture scene with lots of people doing great stuff. It’s awesome to see.
We have built an amazing team to help us achieve this and DesignByThem currently represents 14 Australian designers with quite a few more to come. We have definitely committed ourselves to Australian design whilst also producing (hopefully!) what people consider to be good and distinctive work.
DesignByThem’s latest launch is the August Lounge Collection by GibsonKarlo. See more here.
Do you feel your youth, ignorance and naivety plaid a part in reaching towards your goal? Sometimes people feel they need to know every step for achieving a goal before they take it, however, sometimes not knowing or making mistakes along the way seems to be the best way forward. What are your thoughts on this?
We are mindful of sounding like we have made it. We really haven’t and we have so much more to go! We have an ongoing joke in the office that our mantra should be “always learning”.
Our youth, ignorance and naivety definitely played a huge part in us actually starting this brand and continuing on with it. What we lacked in experience and knowledge we made up for in energy, risk taking and sheer determination. We knew it was going to be a hard road (maybe we underestimated this a tad) and it would require some personal sacrifices, luck and good decisions but we definitely made errors along the way and looking back we just kept rolling with the punches and tried to learn from them.
You can never know everything before you start and you can try to prepare as much as you can but inevitably some things will not go to plan and so you need to be adaptable and resilient. As Mike Tyson said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Fenster indoor/ outdoor seating collection by GibsonKarlo.
How has your practice evolved over the last 13 years, and how have you responded to the growth and changes in the design industry, advancements in technology, digital media etc?
The practice has evolved quite a lot over the past 6 to 7 years, especially. The first five years we were finding our feet and developing one or two small products a year. We did quite a bit of Industrial Design consulting for other companies to support the business which was great but it also distracted us from furniture development. The design consulting was a safe, regular income for us so we knew that if we did not cut it then we would not focus on what we really wanted to be doing. So we decided one day to cut it and just like that, we willingly removed this as a way for us to make money… this made us focus.
We are definitely laser focused today in comparison to the early days and have really embraced technology. We love a good app and we’re data nerds! We are very systems oriented with a large emphasis on website development, automation and tools that make it easy for the client. We noticed when we first started that no one showed pricing online – crazy, right?!
We also knew that to be a globally competitive brand that we would need to embrace Australian and International manufacturing. Our priority is the success of the product and to get royalties to our Australian designers.
Our team is always looking for ways to improve every single part of our brand, processes and business. Creating an environment to allow them to then implement these has been a big part of why we can compete against much larger brands.
Cabin Lounge Collection by GibsonKarlo, featuring the Chapel Coffee Table by Nikolai Kotlarczyk.
You are an Australian design brand first and foremost, but you have your sites firmly set on the international markets. Can you talk about some of the steps you’ve taken to put yourselves in the position to be noticed globally?
This has been a long process but it really started with our focus on design and aim to consistently create commercially viable designs that are unique, interesting and benchmarked against the best international and local brands that we admire. It is incredibly competitive out there and so it is important that you are consistent and aim to be ambitious.
We think it is important to invest in showing your work overseas, so the Milan furniture fair was the right place to launch for us as an international brand. A lot of time goes into our marketing strategy and how this translates into all the touchpoints and experiences that our international clients are exposed to.
In particular, we found that approaching publications that have both Australian and International reach helped get us out there *winking at you, Dana and Yellowtrace team*!
Confetti Seating Collection by GibsonKarlo.
Confetti Collection comprises dining/ side tables, planters and accessories.
Confetti Paper Bin.
Confetti Pill Side Table.
What is your main priority when designing or commissioning products? Is there something that is fundamental to your practice – your philosophy and your process? And how has this changed over the years?
We are a furniture company founded and run by designers and we think that this is reflected in what we produce. We have some rules about what we consider to be a DesignByThem design but in essence we want to continue to push ourselves to create unique pieces that will surprise and delight. We have always loved playing with materials and our focus on sustainable materials and experimentation has created some distinctive ranges.
There are some product categories that do not allow for the same level of experimentation, of course, but we still feel there is always room to make something feel special and considered without it being immediately obvious.
One thing that we often find is that we identify characters in our products. It is not obvious but we think when it is done well it makes the product have a sense of charm and are subconsciously likeable.
Acting as designers and as curators we are enjoying the process more and more as time goes on. Maybe it is because we are constantly developing, learning and pushing ourselves to be better.
Potato Chair by GibsonKarlo offers 25 variations and 180 possibilities with a single design.
Ribs Bench by Stefan Lie.
How is your studio structured – how many people work in the business and how many projects do you usually handle at any one time?
There are seven of us who work full time and we have two part time casuals spread across design, production, sales and marketing. We currently have fourteen new designs in various stages of development and approximately five updates/additions that we are working on. We have an amazing team and we are lucky to work in the studio that is connected to the showroom and warehouse. We have 1,000 square meters of space in the heart of Sydney, we feel super lucky to have this dynamic.
Our team are all high achievers and really well organised. We not only design and produce our designs but also sell and distribute it as well.
Team DesignByThem. What a bunch of spunks, huh?
In retrospect, what do you consider to have been a turning point for DesignByThem over the last 13 years? Has there been one project, one client, one product, or an important set of skills you’ve developed that has changed the course of the business?
Consistency has been incredibly important but one of the most important moments for the brand was our ten year product launches. We wanted to celebrate our ten year anniversary with some products that would define the direction of the brand. That year we released our first lounge, the Cabin range and our first wire range, which was the Piper range. These were well received and in many ways we have been building on the success of these ranges as it gave us the confidence to keep pushing for distinctive designs that we feel the commercial and hospitality markets are craving.
It’s kind of crazy to think that it took us ten years to release a lounge but it is really important to us that when we enter a new market segment that we do it and create a real impression and hopefully challenge ourselves to be as original as possible.
The mega-hot DL Collection by Dion Lee & GibsonKarlo is the first interdisciplinary collaboration for DesignByThem, merging fashion and industrial design principles.
How has the COVID-19 global pandemic affected your business? How are you feeling about the future, and how would you ideally like to emerge on the other side of the shitshow we find ourselves in right now?
Covid-19 has been a bit of a roller coaster. We are fortunate to have a very diverse supply chain so as places were closing down we could shift production or work down our stock levels.
We feel that the economic recovery from this is going to be slower and longer than anybody would like but the one thing that we are not going to do is let this impact our ambitious product release cycle. This isn’t going to last forever (hopefully) and we want to emerge with more to offer and be an exciting brand for people to follow.
What advice would you give to others who want to follow your path? What was one of your biggest lessons learned since starting your business?
DON’T DO IT! Jokes… Our advice would be to be as prepared as possible and go in knowing that there are going to be a lot of challenges. Also, to really ask yourself why you are doing this and what you want to achieve. What is going to bring you fulfillment and how will you measure success? If we didn’t care about Australian design so much, I don’t think we’d still be in the game.
If you are a designer, do your research and aim to do great work. Set yourself a high bar and consider all the things apart from design that will need to be executed just as well. There are a lot of moving parts to a business and sometimes people do not focus enough on what happens after the design is done.
DesignByThem’s gallery presentation at Milan Design Week 2019. Photography by Fiona Susanto.
Looking back at your achievements so far, what is one thing you are immensely proud of?
Nick: If I had to choose one thing it would be when I was standing in our exhibition space in Milan during the fair and saw all the products from our Australian designers in that one space. To think that we started as two recent graduates with an idea and working out of an apartment in Newtown to representing all these designers internationally made me a little proud.
Sarah: When we bought a forklift? Haha we’ve always joked “We must have made it” if we owned a forklift. For me, it’s paying our designers royalties. Ultimately, we want products to sell well for us and our team but also for our fellow designers.
What’s next – can you share with us your vision, some of your goals and some of your current projects?
Another female designer! It’s embarrassing really, but never intentional, we just don’t get approached by female designers ever, really. We’ve got three projects we’re working on in the pipeline with female designers. It’s just worked out that way but we can’t believe it’s taken this long!
We will, hopefully, in the next year or so be selling more to overseas markets than in Australia – reaching the goal of becoming a net exporter of Australian design.
There are also some interesting sustainable materials we are looking at using which really excites us.
Sarah Gibson and Nicholas Karlovasitis of GibsonKarlo and DesignByThem.
Let’s Get Real!
What’s the best mistake you have ever made?
Nick: Starting a business. Sarah: Entering competitions and exhibitions, don’t do things just for competitions, just do good work that is commercially viable but still interesting, much better to focus on that. Entering competitions should come second.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Cashflow, it’s all about cashflow! (from our metal manufacturer back in the day). There we were thinking it was marketing!
Your most treasured belonging?
Sarah: My babies (eeew yuck). And also a vase I bought at our first New York exhibition. Nick: My new August Lounge 😉 Jokes. My pressure cooker.
What’s one thing other people may not know about you?
People always ask if we are together. We are not. Working together is plenty enough.
It’s not very cool, but I really like…
Sarah: Rock climbing. Nick: Antiques Roadshow.
Bow Chair by Tom Fereday.
Bobby Stool by Daniel Tucker.
Piper Chair Collection by GibsonKarlo.
A small selection of DesignByThem seating collections.
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