enry Wilson talks more like an inventor or perhaps a rescuer of long-lost inventions than a furniture designer. He is sitting in front of a wall of his prized antique gadgets and is holding what can only be described as a rather unattractive white porcelain German toilet roll holder.
“This is one of my favourite objects. You look at it and, for me anyway, it is an object of incredible beauty,” he says. “Imagine you put a toilet roll in there; you don’t need an axle and, because it is glazed porcelain, the paper slides out easily — there is nothing to catch because there are no moving parts … [Artist] Henry Moore couldn’t sculpt that. And yet it wasn’t designed; it is that shape because that is how it works.’’
Wilson clearly has a passion for functional design and is quickly gaining a name for himself for his simple but beautiful furniture. He has just opened his first showroom in inner-city Sydney and his A-joint tables, desks and benches (based on a reinvention of a plastic saw-horse joint he saw in a hardware shop in the US) are appearing in homes and boardrooms across the world. He just finished fitting out Aesop’s new shop in Balmain from recycled materials and is making very popular bronze cast keys/ iPhone trays called Vide Poche (French for empty pockets).
He also loves hanging out in junkyards, finding “amazing objects” that have lain derelict in the piles of rubbish. He spent the past two years working out of a converted shipping container in Rozelle before graduating to a proper showroom. “Every time I see something, you are always gleaning potential from whatever you see,” the 31-year-old says. “That is what design is.”
It’s not surprising that Wilson was a fan of Lego as a child. According to his mother, an architect, he would “pull everything apart and leave it in pieces more often than not”. He admits he probably wasn’t much different to other kids at a similar age but says he always had an interest in art and design and how things worked. “I steered well clear of many academic things,” Wilson recalls. “That sort of began an overall interest in making and construction.”
He decided upon industrial design but got a “terrible” final score at high school and missed out on a university place in Sydney, so he had to go with plan B, which was art school in Canberra. He secured a place at Australian National University’s “very crafty” wood department. “It was [all about] lovely, lovely wood and how do we make lovely, lovely wood things,” he says of the course. A six-month exchange to the Rhode Island School of Design in the US (the “coldest year-and-a-half of my life”) exposed him to the basic principles of design again and refocused his approach to create functional rather than “lovely” furniture.