This story was first published in Design Online in December 2014.
A LARGE road map of Australia hangs on the wall next to the dining table in industrial designer Fabio Biavaschi’s Brunswick East apartment.
It’s in pristine condition and a perfect conversation starter. A carefully drawn silver line traces the coastal highway that leads from Perth, to Carnarvon and along the north-west reaches of the country up to Darwin. From there, the silver line follows the Stuart Highway south to Alice Springs and Uluru, travels south again and then at some point, cuts across to country NSW, then Sydney and follows the east coast south and around to Melbourne.
Sitting nearby are his award-winning chairs, MEK_ac01, for which he won the Commercial Award at VIVID, Vibrant Visions in Design at Decor + Design earlier this year. Biavaschi has had a busy five months since then, developing relationships with potential manufacturers and retailers. But his 12-month driving holiday around Australia with his partner Chjara Perego Meroni still gives him great joy.
Biavaschi talks animatedly about the places they visited. The landscape, for the most part, is in stark contrast to the small town of Cantù in the north of Italy where he grew up. It’s a region that is rich with generations of craftsmen and furniture makers whose skills have helped to build the reputation and fame of high-end furniture companies such as Poliform, Cassina and B&B Italia. These companies and their factories are scattered between Milan and Como. It’s an environment that inspired Biavaschi to study industrial design at Politecnico Di Milano – a university in easy commuting distance of Cantù.
“When I first arrived here in Melbourne I started looking for designers like me to see what they were doing,” Biavaschi says. “I actually started when I was in Italy to do some research and look at different designers because it’s interesting to see what’s going on.” Design blogs and social media made his task easier to manage.
Soon after arriving in Melbourne, Biavaschi met furniture designers Ross Gardam and Keith Melbourne through other industrial designers. “They were very kind,” says Biavaschi. Gardam and Melbourne gave him sound advice about exhibitions and design competitions to consider as a way of introducing himself to the broader design community and promoting the chairs that he had designed. They suggested he enquire about VIVID because of the potential to make new connections within the furniture industry.
After doing further research and chatting with VIVID curator Caroline Caneva, he found that he satisfied the criteria and submitted his project for review. “I first presented this chair in Milan in April for the Salone del Mobile and it was good but it was probably too busy,” he says of the week-long annual international furniture exhibition which attracts almost 300,000 visitors. “There are lots of people and at the same time less attention because there is so much to see.”
On the opening day of Decor + Design in July, Biavaschi was standing with a friend at the VIVID awards presentation. He assumed the winning designers had already been notified. He was relaxed and simply there to see the presentation and make the most out of the opportunity as a finalist in his category. A large number of visitors to the exhibition are interior designers and he was keen to see how they would respond to his flat-pack chairs.
When Biavaschi heard his name announced as the winner of the Commercial Award he couldn’t believe it. “I was nervous in a second. I was very happy. I didn’t think it was possible.”
VIVID submissions must be new release designs no older than 18 months and be ready to make in small production runs. Caneva says that designers with up to five years of professional practice may enter.
“The judges were impressed by the whimsical nature of Biavaschi’s piece,” she explains. His design harks back to the childhood experience of assembling building blocks and components in something of an all-consuming game. Caneva says the judges were impressed by the sustainable nature of the project which does not use glue. Colours can be updated in line with new colour trends to extend the lifespan of the design. “Ultimately,” she says, “the judges felt the design was beautifully resolved and had a refined simplicity.”
Biavaschi was a constant presence on the VIVID stand for the four days of the exhibition and he has since met with several industry connections to discuss further opportunities to develop his collection. He has also sold several pieces to private customers since the exhibition.
Several small retailers, who are interested in working with young designers at the beginning of their career, also showed interest in his work. Another of his chairs has just landed in THE NEST 45, a showroom on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour which retails Italian brands such as Modulnova, Lago and Khaos.
These first pieces of the MEK_ac01 collection were made by a maker in Cantù who is a supplier for B&B Italia. But Biavaschi has found that there is a particular market for Australian made products. “I’m now trying to find someone from here who can make the collection for me and at the same time distribute it,” he says.
Alternatively, he is open to working with an independent maker and an independent distributor to help him promote his furniture. Biavaschi has added two stools to the collection and is currently developing a bookshelf.
He prefers to work closely with the maker so details can be adjusted and resolved with each prototype. The resolution of even the smallest details such as the radius of a corner or the direction of the timber grain can be the difference between a design that is highly resolved and one that is not. His award winning MEK_ac01 chairs are proof of that. Biavaschi adds that he would rather not have to simplify a design just to make it easier to make. A good collaboration between designers, makers and companies is the key to establishing a successful furniture collection. “I never wanted to be and I cannot be a maker in Italy because they are so good.”
“It’s totally different in Italy. In Italy you are a designer. You design for the company and the company makes the furniture which is good in some ways but not in others,” he says. “You design but you don’t have the control of the piece so the company may change it a little bit. There is a big process of marketing and distribution but you don’t have the control.”
Biavaschi is highly motivated and established a boutique design studio in Italy where he worked on retail and interior projects and designed bespoke furniture for three years. His small sketchbooks are filled with expressive sketches to which he returns when looking for ideas and inspiration for new designs. Black loose leaf A5 pages with white freehand drawings look like mini artworks.
He acknowledges that it’s comforting to have a ready-made library of ideas to draw on when new design competition opportunities arise. He recently submitted an entry for a second local design competition and is already arranging prototypes for another piece.
With several projects on the go, Biavaschi’s focus today is on integrating trends in new technology and manufacturing with traditional materials and methods. Several prototype components are due to be collected by a specialist manufacturer who Biavaschi has sourced through industrial design friends. Another component of the design awaits further design investigation. There are several months before he has to decide if this is the design he will submit for VIVID 2015.
For all his optimism and success so far, the issue of his temporary visa is never far from his mind. Biavaschi and his partner hope to settle in Melbourne. But he has a deadline to meet and can’t make any major investments in his work or build up stock levels until the issue is resolved. He hopes to find a company that will nominate him as a designer so he can apply for another visa.
“I love Melbourne and I would like to stay in Australia and I would like to work. My visa deadline is May 2016 but I want to find a solution before then,” he says. “The weather is perfect, there is work to do and the work-life balance is good.”
In the meantime, Biavaschi and his partner prepare to spend the Christmas and New Year holiday with his parents who are making their first long haul flight to Australia. They want to explore the Mornington Peninsula and add a few more silver lines to the road map of Australia.