Jon Goulder: A legacy of original design
Jon Goulder, designer and maker. Photo: Ryan Cantwell‘Just because you’re a highly skilled craftsperson doesn’t mean you have a right to make a living from it’, says fourth generation maker Jon Goulder. Interview by Adam Markowitz.
Jon Goulder is a hard man to pin down. Both in terms of actually getting him to sit down for an interview, but also in defining him. His output spans 20 years and most states of Australia, with work in the permanent collections of the type of state institutions that sport impressive acronyms (AGWA, AGSA, NGV, NGA, Power House, TMAG). He’s headed furniture workshops at major craft institutions and universities in as many states. He’s invited to the sort of parties at Milan Design Week where people wear hats indoors.
I could jump online right now and buy production pieces of his from five different respected independent Australian furniture and lighting retailers. He’s taught a generation of contemporary designers and makers across the country. He’s currently working as a senior designer for the Australian branch of an internationally renowned Norwegian architecture firm, on projects around the globe. His stories on Instagram are either him or his kids tearing down a mountainside on a bike splattered in mud. Definitely a hard man to pin down.
Stak Stool, 2000. “The piece that started my design career. It was all about the tooling and the process.’
When I think about designer makers as both an idea and a profession in Australia, there are probably only a handful of people I could name that have been able to continuously maintain a successful and relevant practice over many years, and even fewer that have been able to find respect emanating from both sawdust covered workshops and copic-marker wielding designers.
To someone like me, in a fairly continual state of existential crisis owing in part to the different and not always meshing facets of my own practice, Jon represents someone who has been able to connect the dots and build a viable, respected and relevant example of a contemporary designer maker practice. It can be done. Look at him. So I relished the opportunity to sit down and ask him some questions, and I think his answers were revealing and encouraging, not in a ‘this is how you can be me’ manner, but rather ‘this is how you might be you’.
Leda Seat, 2004, aluminium and one sheet of plywood. Power House Museum Collection. Photo: Blue Murder Studio
Tell us about your early years – how you found your way to making.
I couldn’t wait to leave school and left at 15. My mum was a school teacher. She allowed it to happen as I was clearly not scholastic. I went to work in the family upholstery factory in Mittagong, NSW. Lots of dining chairs, chaise lounges, restoration work. I developed a lifelong distaste for ornate Victorian furniture.
What led you to choose to further study in Canberra?
After five years at the factory I found I had developed an inherent tacit knowledge. I was so bored at the end of the day. I had to keep progressing in my career, in my knowledge, understanding and skill, and keep evolving. Ten years passed before I went to Canberra. I was a carpenter, travelled extensively. I did a number of snowboarding seasons around the world. I went to Canberra School of Art when the party stopped, age 30. George (Ingham) only took six a year. It was really hard to get in – I spent 12 months getting my portfolio together, lobbied, knew what I wanted, and zeroed in on it. I wanted it bad. George was the one for me.
Calypso Lounge, 2006, stainless steel, upholstery. Collected by the Art Gallery of WA. Photo: Bo Wong
I’m interested in your early training with George Ingham, and how it shaped you as a designer maker.
For the first whole year we weren’t allowed in the machine room. Hand tools only. Eight hours a day, five days a week. If you were late you were frowned upon. It was full-on. Lots of history, theory, discussions. We’d learn the history of steel pre-post WWII and differences in steel, and why you should buy a pre-war tool. Bridge building. Construction. We had set projects, starting from a breadboard through to a chair. We made a lot of our own tools by hand and always had three or four projects on the go.
I went at a great time as it was when they had decided to embrace design. George would set a brief but we were encouraged to design around his parameters. Even from the breadboard. Many people didn’t get on with him, but I did. It was a very master-apprentice arrangement and he expected to be respected as the master. If you didn’t, you’d have a tough time. I’d done an apprenticeship so I understood that arrangement straight away.
Amore Mio Chair, 2008, rock maple, upholstered ply shell. Wesfarmers Private Art Collection. Photo: Michelle Taylor
What sort of impact did this have on your own professional development?
Everything I am, my patience, my ability to design, is all George. It was his way of seeing the world, or his way of seeing your career. Starting your next design when you are halfway through the project you’re working on. To never stop, to keep progressing. He’s the reason I’ve made so many things, and pursued a certain excellence in the craft.
Once you’ve had that indoctrinated into you – it’s an old school Bauhaus–esque philosophy – you do what I’ve done, which doesn’t necessarily make a great deal of money, but you have a huge body of work. I’ve sacrificed everything to make the next piece – it’s like a drug. Pieces have cost huge amounts of money at times – when I start making and I have a vision of that end piece, nothing else matters. Everything else around me is irrelevant and second.
I think that is best represented in my later work with the water-formed leather Settler’s Chair. It’s a never–ending succession of steps towards mastering the material, and it never stops – it’s a constant pushing of yourself and a craft. That’s George’s philosophy. It’s a way of life. To never stagnate – he wanted us to make flamboyant failures over conservative success. Because then you’re on that edge, risking it all. Never be in your comfort zone, because when you’re there you’re not really learning, you’re not progressing.
Wesfarmers reception furniture by Jon Goulder and Malcolm Harris, 2008. Wesfarmers Private Art Collection. Photo: Adrian Lambert
How have you grappled with the divide between design and making?
At George’s I didn’t do the dovetail project out of protest. I thought it was irrelevant and I knew I could do it on a machine. That was my stance. I’ve never seen what I do as woodwork. I almost don’t see my medium as wood. I’ve never been in love with the grain. I see it as a material, my vehicle, how I can get from A to B. I’ve never been attracted to that side of woodworking – perfecting the perfect joint.
Wood has always been a means to an end for me. Because of my history I naturally was attracted to it. But I explore other materials in my work: there’s steel, upholstery, leather. Wood is a component but rarely the full story. I would not claim to be an amazing woodworker, especially compared to the people I’ve been around. I’m more interested in the form – it serves a function.
Glissando Credenza, 2009, walnut, stainless steel. National Gallery of Australia collection. Photo: Bo Wong
You are one of the few in the country who are accepted and respected by both design and craft worlds. How have you been able to cut through?
I’ve always tried to deliver outcomes that industrial designers can’t. It's really all about saying: ‘Try and copy me if you want – you won’t be able to. This is my skillset; this is the craft that I’ve developed. I own (this space)’.
It’s one thing to design a collection and walk away and have someone else make it. It’s another entirely to turn around and make every piece yourself with the investment and the tax on your body. That chaise lounge for example – just to understand how that thing went together and to carve that back section – it was madness! That’s how you can describe it. Madness. It was a year on the bench to make the (Broached Collection).
I think where woodworkers miss it, is that they reproduce work. They copy. They are rarely making original things. My goal from the outset was to never put something out into the market that had been done. This is my time on the planet, I want that legacy of designing original work.
LD Desk, 2010, full view and detail, laminated ply, walnut. Art Gallery of WA collection. Photo: Bo Wong
Everyone says ‘everything has been done’. I don’t think the Calypso Lounge had been done. I don’t think the Settler’s chair’s been done. The Glissandro Credenza. Maggies Basket – they hadn’t been done before. It wasn’t taken from Pinterest.
I see a lineage in the language of your 2006 Calypso lounge and the 2020 Broached chaise lounge, but also divergences. Do you feel there’s been an evolution in your design approach? Because of George, I’m always trying to do things that are original. If you look at my work in its time, I’m trying to make things that are not heavily influenced by other work, or generic. The Stack stool for example, is a one-shot lamination. Three legs, three different ways. I ended up making over 100. It was all about the tooling
and the process. Making things that other people wouldn’t make. Leda Seat – all CNC’d from one flat sheet.
FORM Wallshelf, 2011. Free form carved walnut. Wesfarmers Private Art Collection. Photo: Bo Wong
A lot of my early work was influenced by being at UTS and having access to the facilities there. I’ve almost become more of a woodworker as I’ve gotten older. I guess that’s to do with the increasing accessibility of (CNC). At that time I found myself standing beside designers like Adam Goodrum, Trent Jansen, Charles Wilson. Fifteen years ago (industrial designers) couldn’t access woodworkers. There wasn’t a 5-axis router in Australia or highly skilled manufacturers like Evostyle. So I always had a point of difference.
One of the most threatening times in my career was when industrial designers were able to produce commercially viable pieces of furniture from local factories. And they were beautiful. They could make whatever they wanted at a wholesale price point, in Australia, in wood. So at that point I started playing with leather. I did Maggie’s Basket, which is one of my favourite pieces, which in turn influenced the Settler’s Chair – so I was out on my own again.
Oh La La Chair, 2011, laminated veneer, stainless steel, upholstery. Art Gallery of WA collection. Photo: Bo Wong
How might designer makers better equip themselves in the contemporary market to be noticed and to compete?
Some designer makers have got stuck in the trend of chasing exhibition work. Market presence is key. You need something in the marketplace that is representing you, supplying you with passive income, developing relationships with distributors. It could be anything from a council market through to a high profile showroom.
Most successful designers and designer makers have that, different modes of practice that represent different income streams. There is a madness to the designer maker model. When George Ingham died we had a big symposium about the future of designer makers. When we asked for a show of hands as to who was surviving off their designer maker practice – out of hundreds, there were maybe three. The teaching of being a designer maker as a ‘career’ was an experiment – and it is one that failed, really.
Woodworkers are an exceptionally talented bunch – if you’re willing to sink the time into learning how to cut the best dovetails, you will get there eventually, you can teach yourself the best finishing skills. But they never really get the acknowledgement they think they deserve. They need to think on much larger terms and see a bigger picture. It’s really quite an introverted and self-indulgent pastime if you think the world owes you something because you’re a good craftsperson.
Aside from your work as an independent designer maker, you’ve held other positions, recently as Creative Director of Furniture Studio at the JamFactory craft centre in Adelaide, and currently as Senior Designer with the Australian arm of the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta. What led you to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to your practice?
Diversity of income. Just because you’re a highly skilled craftsperson doesn’t mean you have a right to make a living from it. A lot of designer makers suffer because they feel like they’re not making a living from a practice. What is a practice? Everyone needs to look at their practice as something much larger than standing at a bench.
This started with the Midland Atelier in WA, which was seven years of my life running an enormous craft workshop that had people like Nathan Day coming through to learn. Originally it was a means for me to have access to workshop and machinery, as well as community. Also to be involved in something. I’m a fourth gen maker on my dad’s side, but I’m a fourth gen teacher on my mum’s side.
I’ve always enjoyed professional life and being involved in something way greater than making a chair. Furniture has almost been my hobby while I’ve conducted professional life. But the professions I’ve chosen have allowed me to do what I want. It’s come at big sacrifices but it means I’ve been able to do what I want to do. I’m far more interested in working in teams these days. I just cannot waste five days of my life so I can go do what I want on the weekends.
Settlers Chair, 2018, water formed leather shell, blackwood frame, National Gallery Victoria collection. The laminated leather is self supporting without any internal reinforcement. Photo: Grant Hancock
How have you managed to retain your own creative vision and identity through this diverse practice?
I’ve always only worked part time – three days a week, to allow me the room to move. In not for profit arts organisations in Australia the pay is never great – so I think of it more as a retainer. But also in the same way George Ingham taught, I teach – from the bench. I work from the spaces I teach at. In the Jam they saw the Settler’s Chair and the Broached series come together. They helped me make it. And they learn from that, not just technically but what’s involved in realising it.
Maggie’s Baskets, a collaboration with Maggie Beer. Photo: Grant Hancock
What advice do you have for a young or emerging designer maker?
Just because you’ve trained as a woodworker and because you’ve done ten years at a bench and you’re a master craftsman, doesn’t suddenly earn you the right to make a living as a designer maker. To make a living you need diversity. My (independent designer maker) practice has always run on three streams of income: commission based practice; one-off collectible based practice; and design for production practice, sold through retailers – hitting a wholesale price point.
I think the sign of a good designer and maker is being able to straddle those three modes of practice. You should be able to design to a brief. It’s actually an enjoyable style of design – designing within tight parameters such as budget. The production mode of practice can lead you into industrial production of components. The table I sell the most of is a metal leg table with a granite top on it. I designed it very quickly, and it’s my best selling piece – ever! It’s about having an adaptable and broader mindset. And a range of skills. All interesting things to explore.
See your practice as something that is diverse. Design or craft related opportunities are diverse. And that’s what makes up the modern day practice – the ability to be agile. Don’t follow others. Create new and original modes of practice and work.
Learn more about Jon Goulder at www.jongoulder.com and Instagram @jongoulder
Adam Markowitz is a Melbourne architect and designer maker who was profiled in AWR#98. He has written several stories for Australian Wood Review magazine. Learn more at www.markowitzdesign.com
Broached Commissions Chaise Lounge, 2020, celery top pine, weaving by Liz Williamson, Art Gallery of SA Collection. Photo: Claire Summers