This story first appeared in Design Online in March 2015.
ADAM BRISLIN describes his Preston workshop as a busy hive of creation. It’s a place where designer makers with compatible skills and trades are part of a non-profit self-funded cooperative called Worco that has been operating since 1979.
There’s a blacksmith, a lute maker, homeware designers, wood turners, steam benders and other furniture designers and makers. It’s also where Brislin established his handcrafted furniture business, Beeline Design, in 2010.
“It was something that I had always wanted to do,” Brislin, says of establishing Beeline Design. He is originally from Bunbury, Western Australia, and established a passion for woodcraft as a teenager. “I just had to do some other things before I was ready to settle down into starting a small business.” Those other things included leaving his home early in his career to travel to London where he found work making high end bespoke timber flooring and where he met his partner Lucy, originally from Melbourne.
Together, they set about establishing the Beeline Design brand with the aim to create a unique and distinguishing mark that was immediately identifiable to clients. “I came up with the flying honey bee as it does a little dance when he finds honey and lets the others know where to come to,” Brislin explains of the image a friend designed for him. “I got a branding iron custom made so I can burn that onto timber.”
As a teenager at school, he was offered the opportunity to train in woodwork twice a week in the evenings and this proved to be a pivotal moment in his young life. Students were able to make whatever they wanted out of any materials that were available which suited Brislin perfectly. He says that the idea of plodding along and building pencil boxes and then moving onto the next project wasn’t for him. The flexibility and lack of set projects encouraged exploration of the medium and he was hooked. “I was so keen and eager that I used to just read woodwork magazines and books and I used to try to devour as much as I could about woodworking,” he says. He continued with the evening classes, adding to his tool collection until he completed school. He then completed a pre-apprenticeship and an apprenticeship and extra TAFE courses in wood turning to develop his skills even further.
Brislin was also fortunate to find work with John Ablett who was one of the only woodwork craftsmen in the area at the time and who taught him the craft of wood turning and wood carving. They would also sawmill their own timber to make furniture and sculptural pieces for Ablett’s gallery. The experience solidified Brislin’s training across the different genres of woodworking. It was also around this time that he was nominated for Young Australian of the Year for WA for his work in the creative arts.
Now settled in Melbourne with a young family, he finds himself working between his fulltime job with an architectural joinery company and working to develop Beeline Design. But the environment at Worco has become a home away from home which he says he was fortunate to have found at a time when there happened to be a space available. He describes it as “a community co-op that incubates a lot of small businesses that are generally of the trades.” It covers all the woodworking facets and is a tightly held group with many members who have been part of the organisation for more than 25 years.
“It’s quite hard to find a workspace where you have all these other tools on hand and we have facilities here to operate our business and a lot of members who are very experienced and knowledgeable in a lot of things who are there to guide you and mentor you as you are building and developing your business.”
He is busy prototyping ideas for Decor + Design where he will be exhibiting at Design Bazaar for the first time. After five years of building a client base of stockists for his range of Calypso Stools, Le:Six Trestle Table and taking on commissions for custom projects, now is the right time for Brislin to expand his core range of handcrafted furniture. He is open to meeting new stockists from around the country and aims to launch up to five new designs for the residential market which also lend themselves to commercial or hospitality projects. Brislen hopes this new range will capture the imagination of interior designers and generate more exposure for his business. He can customise designs for project work and has supplied custom pieces to existing stockists who want to try out new pieces for their store.
Since establishing Beeline Design in Melbourne, Brislin has also noticed a difference in preference for timber species between the west and eastern states of Australia. He did his apprenticeship using predominantly jarrah timber; a durable hardwood that varies from rich red to red browns and some lighter tones, and which he says is a big seller in the west. But on the eastern seaboard he has noticed a trend for blond, lighter toned timbers.
For small batch production pieces like the Calypso Stools, he mainly uses blond timbers such as Tasmanian oak, Stringybark, Mountain Ash and a host of similar native species including recycled timbers which he sources from the salvage yard conveniently located at the front of the Worco workshop. Imported species like American Walnut and American Oak are typically used for custom furniture.
As a designer maker, Brislin wants to develop designs that feed his soul and give him joy. His passion for creative woodwork and for designing and making his own furniture has been his motivation from an early age and is something that he will continue to do in this hugely competitive market.
His dream is to eventually focus on Beeline Design full time and to settle into a space large enough to house a gallery at the front with a workshop out the back. Working with Ablett all those years ago, he enjoyed the connection with gallery visitors and seeing their interest in works in progress. “You can spend that bit of extra time with them and explain the processes and currently what is getting made and they feel like they are getting to see something quite unique as well,” he explains. It would also mean that he could get to know his customers better by making direct sales.