Meet the AWR L!VE Speakers: John Madden

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AWR L!VE is a half day conference event for aspiring, emerging and professional woodworkers that takes place on August 21 in Sydney. John Madden is a furniture designer and maker who also has extensive experience in marketing for specialist woodworking suppliers. He has a unique insight into every aspect of the fine woodworking industry. John will speak at AWR L!VE and take part in panel discussions. We interviewed John about his background.

AWR: What got you into woodworking in the first place John? Did you start out doing that after leaving school?
I grew up in Northern NSW on a small farm outside of Byron Bay. Both my father and grandfather were very practical people – you made everything and threw away nothing. This early experience instilled into me a love of design and making things. I have always had a ‘make’ rather than buy view of the world.

I went away to boarding school in Armidale in 1984 – the school had a fantastic woodworking facility that I made the most of. After school and on my parents advice, I completed a degree in commerce from UNE. I never seriously thought about woodworking or design as a potential career when I was young.

In 1994 I moved to Sydney in order to search out a future, no real plan except that I knew I was interested in art. I took up a role as a cabinetmaker’s assistant in Alexandria thinking that – ‘well at least this is a creative role and it will do until I become an artist’. I worked as an assistant for three years for all types of high-end residential furniture and fittings – I really enjoyed the work. I attended the Australian Craft Show and met Robert Howard – from that point on I was pretty hooked on wood.


Ferdinand Rocker (Moo Design) - Tas blackwood with black stain, cowhide. Photo: Jon Linkins

AWR: When and why did you decide to start your own business as a furniture maker?
JM: In 1998 I decided to start my own small business making custom furniture. I was pretty impatient and wanted to move forward with my own work featuring my own designs. This was a premature move however, based more on the pursuit of creativity rather than good business sense – I insist on learning everything the hard way!

I set up a small workshop first in Chippendale and then in Alexandria. Back then there was little in the way of shared spaces and I was starting from scratch. I had to find a space, purchase all my own machinery and equipment, buy a vehicle, start marketing and start producing – it was tough. I did find a few loyal customers and managed to survive.

Tired of the grind of Sydney and inspired by Tony Kenway, my wife Megan and I moved to Byron Bay in 2000 with the intention of living a more alternative life and making studio furniture. We set the business up in Bangalow and had reasonable success making custom and small production run furniture for locals, interstate and some international customers.

Two daughters had arrived since moving to Byron Bay and making a living as a woodworker remained a great financial challenge. I was offered a role in Brisbane as the production manager for the Furniture Manufacturing Company of Australia (FMCA), so we moved to Brisbane in 2005. After two years I took on the role of project manager for Space Furniture/Poliform managing high end fit outs all over Queensland. These two jobs really opened my eyes to the broader industry of furniture manufacture and interior fit out. Since those days I have worked in numerous roles on a diverse range of projects, when it comes to furniture manufacture and interior fit out, I don’t think there is much I haven’t seen.


Prayer Table, silky oak. Photo: Jon Linkins

AWR: You’ve travelled an incredible number of roads in your journey as an artist and a marketer and business manager. What are some of the highlights?
Meeting artist Angus McDonald in 2004 led to the creation of Moo Design – a furniture project that was all about humour and viewing woodwork as art. We exhibited in some leading Australian retail galleries and attended exhibitions in the US and the UK, Moo Design won a prize in AWR and Bungendore Wood Works Gallery’s Studio Furniture 2008 show. Moo Design also worked on the Mawsons Hut Project producing replicas of original campaign furniture used by Mawson and his team. One of these pieces may be seen at the Mawson’s Hut Replica Museum in Hobart.

During this period I also worked as operations and project manager for Marxcraft working on super-yacht interiors – that time was definitely a highlight. The level of detail and quality demanded by these types of projects is staggering – however you are working on the best interiors imaginable with the best possible tradespeople.

In recent times I was lucky enough to visit the Pfeil factory in Switzerland. This company produces a world class product sold everywhere – what a privilege. This visit reminded me of why I got into making things in the first place'


Rivera chairs (Moo Design), American white oak, cowhide. Photo: Jon Linkins

AWR: For a while you were working in other parts of the woodworking industry, marketing for specialist suppliers. What did you get out of this experience?
JM: Post the GFC the Australian super-yacht scene was dwindling so I decided to make a change and pursue my growing interest in marketing. I won roles working as a marketing manager for both Gregory Machinery and Carbatec, these experiences taught me an enormous amount about the woodworking industry as a whole. During this time I developed a broad international network of toolmakers, designers and woodworkers and attended numerous factory tours and events. I have become particularly interested in events and retail marketing – I am currently studying an MBA at Queensland University of Technology and planning the next phase of my career in these areas.


Valentine Mirror, Tas blackwood. Photo: Jon Linkins

AWR: What is your main interest as a designer now?
JM: While I am studying I am busy renovating and building furniture for our home in Brisbane. Designing and making for myself has been quite an enlightening experience – now I am the customer juggling aspirations and budgets. Dealing with other interior providers is giving me new insights into the customer experience and helping to rethink and ‘redesign’ the way I would deal with my own future customers whoever they are. I guess I have moved from designing objects to framing and designing solutions to business problems and opportunities.

AWR: Who are your woodworking and non-woodworking heros?
JM: I find inspiration in a broad range of artists. Sam Maloof and George Nakashima’s work opened the door to craft for me. Judy Kensely McKie showed me that it’s ok to have fun with furniture and that craft and art is the same thing fundamentally. Brett Whitely and Van Gogh taught me about colour and movement. Business leaders such as Jorgen Vin Knudstorp (Lego CEO) and Angela Aherndts (Burberry CEO) inspire me through their deep understanding of the market and the customer. And Bruce Springsteen is great to play as loud as possible to keep you moving in the workshop when the day is almost over.


Matrix Low Table, wenge and glass. Photo: Jon Linkins

AWR: What is the hardest challenge that new makers face?
JM: Becoming a maker is a huge challenge as there is so much to consider and accumulate in order to operate effectively. Further to this, making is not traditionally a lucrative pursuit. New makers must find ways to be productive, keep costs down and make a decent living without working themselves to death in the meantime.

AWR: Do you have any quick tips for makers as far as marketing themselves goes?
JM: Be authentic: Be true to yourself and true to your customer. Know what you are good at and focus on that, know what you are not good at and compensate for it. Project authenticity and people will notice.

Emphasise with your customer: Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and understand their needs. Design your customer approach based on what they need not on what you need – it’s amazing how few operators actually do this.


Ottoman (Moo Design), Tas blackwood and paint, cowhide and leather. Photo: Jon Linkins

AWR: What sort of benefits do you see for makers attending a conference type event such as AWR L!VE?
JM: When you’re a maker you are often alone working in your studio. Events such as LIVE give makers the opportunity to meet others involved in the industry working at all levels. By meeting others you understand that you are not alone, you all face similar challenges and this is an opportunity to discuss and learn from each other on how to move forward.

I have learned in my time that you cannot be an island – building relationships and working in teams is the key to success.
Learn more about John Madden here

Buy tickets to AWR L!VE here

AWR L!VE is proudly sponsored by:



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