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.
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.
“PUZZLE” IS LIKE A BIG KID’S TOY THAT TESTS YOUR THINKING AND LOGIC. IT’S SO SWEET THE WAY THAT FINAL PIECE SLOTS IN.
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.