We sat down with Australian Furniture Designer, Caroline Olah, and asked her to share with us her thoughts and experiences as a furniture designer and business owner. Grab a cuppa and get comfy!
Tell us a bit about your background – What path originally led you to furniture design and manufacturing, and to ultimately building the REDDIE brand?
Funnily enough, I never in my life thought I would be a furniture designer! I started as an interior architect in Sydney after graduating from UNSW, then went on to work in Dubai, New York and Hong Kong. The initial seed for REDDIE began when I was working on a 12 story building project. The timeline was so tight, and I needed to find similar furniture pieces for each floor, just in different sizes and materials. There was no time to customise new pieces and no brand had the flexibility to customise existing pieces. I really just wanted to find well designed, simple pieces that I could tailor, but I couldn't...so I thought f*ck it, why don't I create a brand that does!
What were some challenges, if any, that you faced when building REDDIE?
The hardest part was finding a factory that was willing to customise each order, which was impossible. So much so that we ended up building our own. I was also pregnant with my first child during the search, so driving from factory to factory and getting rejected was not pleasant! But looking back now, that was easy in comparison to trying to get work done in the factory with 2 kids in tow!
Why did you choose Indonesia for manufacturing? Tell us a bit about your factory?
We chose Indonesia because of the craftsmanship. There are whole towns in Indonesia dedicated to furniture production, with communities of talented craftsmen in all aspects of furniture making. Andrew (my other half/biz partner) and I are both half Australian and also half Indonesian, we speak the language and we understand the culture so it was a perfect fit. Being based in Sydney with our largest customer base in Australia meant that it was also a short plane ride away!We initially started with a few carpenters and now have grown to a team of over 50, comprising of carpenters, blacksmiths, managers etc. The growth of our factory has been an organic process with a lot of lessons learnt along the way. Now the factory feels like home and we love bringing our children there.
You are a big advocate for being transparent about where you make your products, particularly in Asia. Why do you feel strongly about this?
I get disappointed when brands who make exquisite products in Asia don't openly disclose where their products are made in fear of the public perceiving it as bad quality. This perpetuates the myth that Asian made is bad quality, which is 100% BS. There are incredible craftsmen in Europe, Australia AND Asia, and the people who make these products deserve to be acknowledged. The world already feels so divided right now and if you are working with other countries you should be open about it.
Tell us about your design style?
I have a minimalist style with a love for mid-century modern design. Before REDDIE, my apartment was filled with Brooklyn vintage furniture from the '60s. So my designs can be described as minimal architecture meets mid-century details. It was very serendipitous when we found a team of craftsmen in Indonesia trained in traditional Danish woodworking. They taught me a lot about traditional furniture production and helped me take the pieces to the next level. We also like to acknowledge the materials and techniques used in Javanese furniture design by using local materials such as rattan, which adds an extra layer of richness. To me, good design is functional, not fussy and makes you look twice!
Does your architectural background influence your work? If so, how?
Definitely! I think every architect and interior designer should get into furniture as we understand the environment in which it is used. I approach furniture from the client-side. I start with a brief, often by listening to a client. For example, a client once said to me, "I would love a residential looking workstation" So, I then started sketching ideas and thinking about every aspect, 'How would I use it, could it fit into several styles of spaces, is it functional, will it enhance the way I work, can I customise it to suit my needs' and so forth. This then led to the creation of the NCW Workstation. I don't design for my ego, it's not about me it's about making the best possible functional product for a customer.
You work with a lot of architect and design studios on commercial projects - Tell us a bit about that.
When we launched it was the design community that specified our products from day 1. I guess since I was solving a problem that I faced as a designer, our products worked well as they could be tailored to suit each project. We have been fortunate to work on several awesome fit-outs for companies such as Google, WeWork, and many other hotel and restaurant projects.
What does being a conscious brand mean to you?
It means looking after people and the environment as much as we possibly can. We built an awesome team both in Australia and Indonesia who are all like family now, so we want to look after them. If they're not having the best time working for us then what's the point? We made a conscious decision to not mass produce, we make to order. We also use certified hardwoods and buy entire logs instead of pre-cut planks, so we can have maximum use of the tree. We make handcrafted homewares pieces with our wood off-cuts and are always looking for different ways to use our waste.
What's something you regret?
Not following my gut, and doing that thing I felt I 'should' do.
What are some values you live by?
Honesty and clear communication, always.
Your favourite item?
My Suzy Desk, the first piece we made. I've had people try to buy it... it's not going anywhere!
What's one thing other people may not know about you?
I HATE flying. Despite having to go to Indonesia all the time, flying was my biggest fear. So a year of no flying has been the upside of a difficult year.
What's something that you're embarrassed to like?
Celebrity gossip... I can't look away ... not quite on-brand when trying to be a high brow furniture designer!
What's it like working with your husband?
The worst - Just kidding! I really love it. We get to spend the day together and then get to go home and focus on the kids. It is sometimes hard to switch off the business partner relationship after hours though, but we are working to get better at that!