With resin as their base ma­te­rial, Louise Olsen and Stephen Or­mandy built a de­sign brand that has en­dured for al­most 30 years. And it was a Queens­land con­nec­tion that helped put it on the map.

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - DESIGNERS - Story Me­gan Lehmann

Lovers of richly coloured, boldly wrought wear­able art owe a debt of thanks to the let­ter “O”. If not for the cu­ri­ously reg­i­mented ap­proach of the Univer­sity of NSW Col­lege of Fine Arts, which ar­ranged its stu­dents al­pha­bet­i­cally on the first day of term in 1983, a teenage Louise Olsen might not have sat next to a teenage Stephen Or­mandy. The two would never have be­come friends, then sweet­hearts and, even­tu­ally, artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tors, and Di­nosaur De­signs might have been snapped up as a name for some other creative’s weird Flint­stones-era fur­ni­ture range.

But she did. They did. And now the un­usual name has be­come syn­ony­mous with glo­ri­ously tac­tile jew­ellery and home­wares hand-made from resin and pre­cious metal – func­tional ob­jects of beauty that con­nois­seurs have been wel­com­ing into their lives for nearly three decades. “We met on the first day of art school and we just clicked straight­away,” says Or­mandy, 49, reach­ing for the hand of his busi­ness and life part­ner. “And we’ve been click­ing ever since.”

On the eve of their jet­ting off to Lon­don for the of­fi­cial launch of a new out­post – it is their ninth stand-alone store, join­ing shops in Bris­bane, Syd­ney, Mel­bourne and New York – the dy­namic de­sign duo wel­comed Qweek­end into their in­ner-Syd­ney studio to pre­view the new Christ­mas col­lec­tion, Ate­lier. Or­mandy is spat­tered head-to­toe in paint; the light-filled three-storey build­ing in the cul­tural hub of Straw­berry Hills also houses his paint­ing studio. Olsen, also 49, looks ti­dier, in skinny jeans and a del­i­cate flow­ered top from up­scale New York bou­tique A Dé­tacher. “It’s got beau­ti­ful padded sleeves, look,” she says. “It’s like a doona.” (Note: it’s not like a doona.)

It might have been al­pha­bet­i­cal kis­met that brought this cou­ple to­gether, but colour is what keeps them in synch. Their own ate­lier, or artist’s work­shop, is a hal­lu­ci­na­tory riot of fizzy or­ange and deep gin­ger, royal pur­ple, for­est and ar­ti­choke green, with eye-pop­ping stacks of ban­gles in fuch­sia and red. There are drifts of snow white and ivory that act as a kind of palate cleanser be­fore an­other wave of vivid colour hits: bowls in rich teal blue and prim­rose yel­low, and a clus­ter of vases in sun­set hues of ochre and pow­der pink. In the corner, look­ing like multi-hued jel­ly­fish caught mid-jig­gle, hud­dles a bunch of many-legged side ta­bles, part of last year’s foray into fur­ni­ture de­sign. Each piece, cast, pol­ished and fin­ished by hand here in Straw­berry Hills, forms part of a daz­zling pal­ette that makes you smile.

“I love them all,” Or­mandy says. “I love play­ing with all sorts of colours, and not just colours but tone. The re­la­tion­ships be­tween colours, and the tonal shifts, are what re­ally make it in­ter­est­ing.” He picks up a large plat­ter fea­tur­ing a whirlpool of coloura­tion. “It’s quite so­phis­ti­cated once you get into the study of it; what kicks in your mind and why do those colours work to­gether. There’s a lit­tle bit of science there but it’s mostly just a feel for it that we’ve de­vel­oped over the years.”

Di­nosaur De­signs opened its flag­ship Queens­land store in Bris­bane’s CBD Win­ter­gar­den Shop­ping Cen­tre in June 2012, and Queens­lan­ders took to it like acrylic to can­vas. “Ev­ery city has its own taste and sense of colour,” says Olsen, “and Bris­bane loves colour. They re­ally cel­e­brate colour, which suits us down to the ground. There’s a very bold cus­tomer in Bris­bane, quite flam­boy­ant and ad­ven­tur­ous. You know if you send an ex­tra­or­di­nary piece up there, some­one will buy it.”

Mel­bourne favours warm colours, while Syd­ney loves cool blue shades; New York­ers are drawn to or­ganic greens and “we’re just about to dis­cover what Lon­don likes”, Or­mandy says. The de­sign­ers were in­vited, along with 12 other re­tail­ers, to open a court­yard shopfront in Lon­don’s Soho as part of Fir­m­dale Ho­tels’ quirky new Ham Yard Ho­tel ur­ban re­de­vel­op­ment project.

“[Chef] Bill Granger is a good friend of ours – he has a restau­rant in Lon­don – and he’s been en­cour­ag­ing us to open there,” Or­mandy says. “We’d al­ways dreamed of ex­pan­sion but this just came out of the blue.” Olsen adds: “It’s like the uni­verse pro­vided in a way, but we were ready to do it at the same time.” The duo’s ties with Lon­don go back to 1989, when they were fea­tured in an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum and their wares were picked up by lux­ury lifestyle stores Lib­erty and Har­vey Ni­chols. This month, a se­lec­tion of pieces will be on dis­play at de­signer Paul Smith’s flag­ship store in May­fair.

The Paul Smith col­lab­o­ra­tion is one of many that have kept Di­nosaur De­signs, 29 years old this year, from grow­ing creaky with age. In 2013, the de­sign­ers teamed with up­mar­ket cloth­iers Jac + Jack to cre­ate a line of colour-dipped beach tow­els and, ear­lier this year, Olsen col­lab­o­rated with de­signer Toni Mat­icevski on a strik­ing range of tubu­lar wrist and neck cuffs stud­ded with Swarovski crys­tals. They’ve de­signed tu­tus for the Aus­tralian Bal­let, pro­vided ac­ces­sories for Carolina Her­rera fash­ion shows and, in 2004, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Louis Vuit­ton, they de­signed resin pieces for a one-off chess set. One of the high­lights of their long ca­reer, the two agree, was be­ing com­mis­sioned in 2011 to cre­ate a se­ries of sculp­tural plat­ters – the largest resin pieces they’d ever de­signed – to cel­e­brate the

fifth birth­day of Queens­land’s Gallery of Mod­ern Art. “GoMA is such a great space,” Or­mandy says. “It’s very ex­cit­ing for Aus­tralia to have that in­vest­ment in con­tem­po­rary art.”

Na­ture is core to the duo’s in­spi­ra­tion, with past col­lec­tions based around Aus­tralian co­ral and sea­weed, na­tive birds and flora. “I don’t know if you can put a fin­ger on it, but I do think there’s an essence of Aus­tralia in what we do,” says Olsen.

Creative stim­u­la­tion comes from the in­ter­play of light and colour at their ocean­side ad­dress – they live in Bronte with their 15-year-old daugh­ter, Camille, who fea­tured in their Seed Pod cam­paign ear­lier this year and is show­ing early signs of a creative spirit. As the daugh­ter of cel­e­brated Aus­tralian painters John Olsen and Va­lerie Strong, Olsen also grew up steeped in art. “I grew up in an en­vi­ron­ment where a lot of vis­ual con­ver­sa­tions would go on,” she says. “My par­ents were quite rig­or­ous about colour re­la­tion­ships and what worked.” RESIN IS A HIGH-QUAL­ITY, THERMO-SET PLAS­TIC, to­tally man-made. But in the hands of Or­mandy and Olsen, it takes on a sen­sual, or­ganic char­ac­ter. Whether translu­cent or opaque, their ra­di­antly coloured ob­jects seem to glow from within, whis­per­ing an in­vi­ta­tion to reach out and touch them. One piece in the new col­lec­tion doesn’t whis­per – it yells. It’s called Puz­zle, and Or­mandy de­signed it with youth­ful mem­o­ries of Tetris in mind.

“I wanted some­thing you could set up as a sculp­tural el­e­ment in the home,” he says of the six-piece resin set, which sits neatly as a cube or can be dis­man­tled to cre­ate your own ar­chi­tec­tural- look­ing sculp­ture. “It en­cour­ages in­ter­ac­tion. It’s like a big kid’s toy that tests your think­ing and logic. Once it slots to­gether, it’s so sweet the way that fi­nal piece pops in.” Is it easy to solve? “If you’re my daugh­ter, you solve it in a split sec­ond,” he laughs. “But I cre­ated it and it com­pletely did my head in. To this day, I’m still dumb­founded how she did it so quickly. I said, ‘Oh, that’s a fluke’, so I pulled it apart and she just went doop-doop-doop and solved it again!”

The Ate­lier col­lec­tion em­braces pre­cious metal and resin jew­ellery, as well as home­wares, soaps and can­dles and, for the first time, linen nap­kins, wood­block-printed by ar­ti­sans in Jaipur, In­dia. Fol­low­ing on from the puz­zle theme, Olsen’s jew­ellery pieces – in resin, ster­ling sil­ver and brass – fea­ture in­ter­lock­ing shapes and bold geo­met­ric forms. Or­mandy has de­signed a set of sculp­tural vases to com­ple­ment the napery, and used a new cast­ing tech­nique to give each piece a painterly stroke of con­trast­ing colour. The vases, in co­ral, aqua, navy and clear, are named Bot­tle, Boul­der, Co­coon and Studio. “We have a nam­ing day on each col­lec­tion, where we sit down with the new range and it’s crunch time – the prod­ucts have to be en­tered on the com­puter sys­tem so they need to have a name,” says Olsen. “When you put all the pieces to­gether they kind of tell you what they want to be called.” Or­mandy looks for­ward to nam­ing day for an­other rea­son: “It means the col­lec­tion is com­plete, so the pres­sure’s off for a minute.” He is jok­ing, of course. The cou­ple’s bound­less en­thu­si­asm for mak­ing art means it never feels like work. “It feels more like liv­ing a creative life,” Or­mandy says. “We just love it to bits, and we’re so thank­ful we are still able to do it af­ter nearly 30 years. Aus­tralia has re­ally em­braced what we do, which has been a won­der­ful gift for us.”

Other fash­ions from the bom­bas­tic 1980s have come and gone and come again (hello, neon). But the cre­atives at Di­nosaur De­signs have never bought in to the tran­sient na­ture of trends, forg­ing their own dis­tinct, up­beat style and tweak­ing it through the years. The bold pieces hog the lime­light, but the range also in­cludes more sub­tle mo­ments, fine sculp­tural pieces in pre­cious met­als that have their own quiet ap­peal.


One wall of the third-floor studio is lined floor-to-ceil­ing with lit­tle wooden boxes: they hold archived pieces from ev­ery one of their col­lec­tions and serve to re­mind Or­mandy and Olsen of their legacy. “You’re only as good as your next range,” Or­mandy says. “You’ve got to work re­ally hard at stay­ing elas­tic and nim­ble and be­ing able to con­tin­u­ally meta­mor­phose what you do. It’s the chal­lenge of an artist, not to sit on your lau­rels, to keep push­ing ideas into other realms. Once you start be­ing a stu­dent at art school, that never stops.” Olsen chimes in with a more prac­ti­cal con­cern: “We’ve also got the re­spon­si­bil­ity of 80 peo­ple work­ing for us, and all the stores and pay­ing rents and obli­ga­tions – all of it keeps you on your toes.” IT WAS A QUEENS­LAN­DER who prompted the de­sign­ers’ move into their sig­na­ture resin. Olsen, Or­mandy – and a third part­ner, Liane Rossler, who left in 2010 and now runs the de­sign reuse project, Su­per­cy­clers – founded the com­pany in 1985 with $200. The trio were ma­jor­ing in paint­ing at art school and, to make money, set up a stall at Syd­ney’s Paddington Mar­kets. “When we started, our goal was quite small – to pay the rent,” says Or­mandy. The “rack of ridicu­lous­ness”, as they call it, orig­i­nally fea­tured screen­printed cloth­ing – “boy, they were some bad gar­ments,” Or­mandy laughs – be­fore they started sell­ing hand­made jew­ellery.

The orig­i­nal pieces were crafted from Fimo, but the cheap mod­el­ling clay blis­tered their hands and, also, “a cus­tomer in Queens­land told us she had to keep her Di­nosaur jew­ellery in the fridge be­cause it used to get all bendy in the heat”, Olsen says. That was the deal-breaker – Fimo begone. A neigh­bour­ing stall­holder in­tro­duced them to resin, which could be poured into moulds, and they were on their way to be­com­ing one of Aus­tralia’s most en­dur­ing brands. “We trained as artists spe­cial­is­ing in paint­ing, so it was like 3D paint, per­fect for us to ex­per­i­ment and play with,” Or­mandy says. “The great thing about work­ing with resin is that some­times you have an end goal but, in the process, of­ten the ma­te­rial can show you an op­por­tu­nity to go in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. That’s why it’s so im­por­tant to have an open mind.”

As we talk, the third-floor de­sign studio vi­brates with a steady hum of ac­tiv­ity. San­ders pol­ish, sil­ver­smiths sol­der. Un­der a big win­dow, a woman sits thread­ing black and cream lozenge­shaped beads. Groovy peo­ple with top-knots and de­signer clothes drift in and out. Or­mandy and Olsen have sep­a­rate but ad­join­ing of­fices; each one is a kalei­do­scopic clut­ter dom­i­nated by a mood board pinned with per­sonal to­kens of in­spi­ra­tion. It’s clearly a work­place. But it also feels like an ex­ten­sion of home.

“We be­lieve hav­ing a happy en­vi­ron­ment has a pos­i­tive ef­fect on what’s pro­duced here,” Olsen says. “I grew up with two artists, and I see it as a way of life.” Do they make any at­tempt to keep their work and pri­vate life sep­a­rate? They both laugh. “How do you do that?” Or­mandy says. “There are enough rules. You don’t want to go mak­ing rules about what you talk about when and where.”

“We tried that for a while – not talk­ing about work at home,” adds Olsen, fin­ger­ing the fine-spun ster­ling sil­ver neck­lace she’s wear­ing. “But then we couldn’t bear it. It’s a fun con­ver­sa­tion, any­way; it’s our pas­sion, we love it. It doesn’t feel like work. It’s just the way we live.”

Di­nosaur duo … Louise Olsen ( also open­ing page) and ( above) with part­ner Stephen Or­mandy; ( clock­wise from top) their store in New York City; vases from the Ate­lier col­lec­tion; Or­mandy gets hands-on; his Tetris-in­spired Puz­zle.

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