With an industrial design degree from the University of South Australia and a year as an Automotive Junior Designer at Mexico’s AirDesign, one might expect Liam Mugavin to be all about precision engineering and hi-tech materials. Instead he prefers to work virtually exclusively in timber. Four years spent living in Japan has had a profound effect on his aesthetic and this is reinforced on a daily basis by his partner, Nana Kazama, who hails from Niigata in North western Japan.
“I took a job in a small country town in northern Japan teaching english and developed a close relationship with a family of farmers who lived in a remote part of the Northern Alps near where I lived. While farmers they were also carpenters who built their own houses from mountain timbers. It wasn't an epiphany but over time I gained a strong appreciation for the act of making and the beauty found in honest materials”.
Mugavin's move to Japan in 2009 was not directly connected to anything to do with design or furniture making - it was more a search for adventure but his choice of destination has become a defining element in his subsequent career. His work focuses on the replication of shape, minimal use of materials and clever ways to create surprise. It requires a thorough understanding of woodworking to pull this off. While his furniture is ultimately highly practical, Mugavin delights in creating a little visual deception with elements interlocking as in the 'Tangle' table from 2013 below, or by the careful manipulation of a material, as in his 'Hamra' chair and 'Step' bench above.
After bumping into Adelaide based designers Daniel Emma at Tokyo design week one year and seeing that they were successfully making design their career, Mugavin was inspired to return to South Australia and apply for a position as an associate at the Jam Factory, Adelaide’s unique hub for craft, design and creativity. Accepted to become part of the associate training programme within the Jam Factory's furniture department headed up by renowned Australian furniture designer, Jon Goulder, the position offered Mugavin a way to combine his industrial design background with his new found interest in materiality and traditional woodworking techniques. After the initial two years as furniture associate, he stayed on for a further twelve months as a Jam Factory Studio Tenant to refine what he had learnt and to pursue commissions.
“My practice is now based on the furniture studio model with a mix of product, commissions and fit-outs largely designed and produced in-house. I want my designs to be instantly intriguing but also lastingly intriguing. What I mean is that when you first see them they should make you say “wow” and when you see them 40 years later they should still have it. Although some aspects of my designs seem complicated, there is always an underling simplicity and elegance in how they are constructed and this is where the true beauty is found”.
2015 was a breakthrough year for Mugavin picking up a couple of design awards, one of the most important being the Clarence Prize for Furniture Design. Entering the Emerging Designer category, he was awarded the overall prize and $20,000 for his clever 'Koto' floor light (below). The award not only provided some much needed financial certainty but also lead to a number of commissions in Sydney. With visits to Sydney becoming a regular occurrence, Mugavin decided to take the big step of leaving the security of his home town and setting up his studio in Sydney’s inner west suburb of St Peters.
Recent work has included some striking new designs for new limited edition brand, Commissioned Editions such as the 'Library Steps' shown above and the 'Sen' lighting range (the large pendant light version is featured at the start of this post). The 'Library Steps' are graphically pleasing and share a link with the visual language found in the work of Nendo, one of Mugavin's enduring inspirations.
The 'LL' table was a design that grew from an unrelated object (a coffee bean silo) within a commercial fit-out. Made from mouth-blown glass created by Liam Fleming and turned timber, the 'LL' table removes any need for fixings and relies simply on gravity. The combination of transparent glass and black stained timber creates a level of dynamic tension between base and top that is graphic but light. A big departure from Mugavin's normal all-timber work, the design is still a prototype but the general response at shows like Sydney's Factory Design District, has been positive.
One of Mugavin’s biggest commissions to date went well beyond a custom piece of fine joinery. Coffee Bondi Beach was the type of project most designers dream about, a small space where everything from the cups and coffee bean storage, to the joinery and freestanding furniture were commissioned from local makers by Mugavin personally.
Approached to be the lead designer for the project, Mugavin was responsible for designing the café’s contents and commissioning anything that he couldn’t make himself. Glass was blown by Liam Flemming, metalwork by Christian Hall, ceramics by Ulrica Trulsson, while Stephen Soeffky lent a hand with additional design and production. Mugavin designed and made most of the furniture and lighting and smaller components such as coasters and signage.
Setting a goal of only using Australian makers using purely natural materials the project was also required to be recyclable at the end of its life. No chipboard, MDF or laminates were used, just solid timber. Steel was left in its raw state and no toxic paints or finishes were used – just tung oil and wax. The result feels highly bespoke but at the same time, honest and unsanitized.
For more on the work of Liam Mugavin check out his website here.