When I call to speak to Australian designer Henry Wilson, he is in the French Alps visiting the family of his partner, Emilie Delalande. Skiing is on the agenda, then he will travel to Paris for a project with skincare brand Aesop. He can’t say too much, but it involves three bronze pieces for an exhibition at the Salone del Mobile in Milan.
Aesop’s founder, Dennis Paphitis, was an early supporter of Henry’s work, commissioning him to create the interiors for their Balmain and Crows Nest stores, the latter a collaboration with Emilie’s interior design studio Etic. Henry confesses his real interest lies with industrial design; the works of Studio Henry Wilson include a series of sculptural, utilitarian pieces cast in bronze and aluminium: the Surface Sconce Lamp, Thoronet Dish and the Vide Poche – a dish for your phone, change, keys and other pocket paraphernalia.
It all began with the A-joint, an elegant component comprising a box and a wedge. The idea came from a plastic saw horse bracket, which caught Henry’s practically-oriented imagination. He reengineered the angles, cast it in metal, and transformed the piece into an aesthetic, versatile product that could be used to make furniture. There are now several permutations of the joint. Its success made the studio commercially viable and as Henry puts it, ‘bankrolled the fun stuff.’
To produce the A-joint, Henry worked with a foundry in Australia, using the industrial process of sand casting. Production plates are made in a positive of the form under manufacture. Both sides of the plate in turn are impressed into a fine, oily sand mixture to create the two halves of the negative mould. The pieces are finished using another industrial process called rumbling, which gives Henry’s work its warm, soft lustre. A rotating vessel, much like a cement mixer, is shovelled full of gravel, river stones, water and polishing compound. The pieces are put inside then left for 24 hours. ‘It’s very low tech,’ Henry says, ‘but achieves a beautiful finish: it simulates what might happen if something was washed around in the sea for years.’
Henry has had a broad creative education. He studied fine woodwork in Australia, which he describes as technical and hands on; many fellow students went on to work as musical instrument makers. Henry followed his passion for the manufacturing process to the Design Academy in Eindhoven, Netherlands, where he studied industrial design, and found the impetus for his business. ‘The idea that you could start something of your own, drawing on your own resources, and get by, appealed to me,’ he explains. Henry made the move back home, and found a supportive community in Sydney.
’What I like about a creative process is it’s always evolving,’ he says. ‘You might come across an old spanner in a flea market and think, that’s a beautifully resolved object, or you might walk into Brancusi’s studio in Paris and be inspired.’ It’s interesting that Henry should mention Brancusi. Brancusi’s famous adage, ‘simplicity is complexity resolved,’ echoes a phrase from Henry’s website, ‘beauty is a resolved outcome.’ ‘Yes,’ he agrees, ‘I find it comes back to manufacturability. I get a buzz out of something being refined enough to produce in bulk. There’s a resolution to a design when it can fulfil those requirements. It unlocks a combination of logic and beauty that resonates with the person using it.’ He is quick to clarify that he grapples with the issue of an optimum level of production, beyond which this quality is often lost.
The industrial manufacturing processes and materials Henry employs give his pieces a satisfying heft, but there’s always lightness in his approach. The Vide Poche, for example, plays on the negative space and double sided design inherent in the sand casting process. It’s also slightly tongue in cheek. Meaning empty pocket, the Vide Poche is inspired by something Emilie, who’s French, would refer to when Henry was searching for his keys, ‘when she wasn’t thinking in English.’ ‘It was a playful project I never thought would sell, but people responded to them,’ he says, laughing a little.
Despite the emphasis on metal casting, Henry values his hands on training in woodwork. ‘My woodworking teacher, Dr. Rodney Hayward, was a very skilled man,’ he tells me. ‘He always said wood is the ultimate material to master because it’s so unforgiving: if you have the patience, dexterity and touch to work wood you’ll be able to understand other materials.’ Student and teacher later collaborated on part of Henry’s thesis project, the Timber Anglepoise, built from a collection of old Anglepoise parts. Dr Hayward made everything Henry couldn’t find in timber, including the painstakingly detailed hollow, mitred armature. Henry’s studio has been involved in several collaborations since, such as The Paperweight Project with paper engineer Benja Harney and artist Bianca Chang, which developed light shades made from folded paper, held by a heavy bronze clamp. Again, Henry describes these projects as playful, but they also manifest the resolved simplicity he values, and its consequent elegance and beauty.
What is clear is Henry’s genuine fascination with design, and his affection for the people he works with and the objects he creates. ‘The dialogue between the maker, manufacturer and user goes some way to explain a design philosophy, to me. That storytelling,’ he explains. ‘Even if it’s subtle, I like it when there’s something about an object that people can grow to love: little things that make you go, “that was good of them, to make it like that.”’