Less is more

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Dawn Picken goes inside the stu­dio of Ge­orge& Willy

A pair of young Kiwi i ndus­trial de­sign­ers are gar­ner­ing awards, fans and sales across the world for their min­i­mal­is­tic yet prac­ti­cal prod­ucts, such as clothes dry­ing racks and pa­per rolls. Mount Maun­ganui- based Ge­orge Wilkins and Will McCal­lum talk with Dawn Picken about their tran­si­tion from ti nker­ers to heads of de­sign stu­dio, Ge­orge & Willy.

Inside the ware­house at Ge­orge & Willy, founders Ge­orge Wilkins, 26, and Will McCal­lum, 27, un­stack some chairs and sit down for a chat. McCal­lum, the shorter and clean-shaven of the two, is wear­ing a Hawai­ian shirt, and says it’s a Fri­day tra­di­tion.

“You can’t have a bad day when you’re wear­ing a Hawai­ian shirt,” he ex­plains. He was vis­it­ing a shop in Hawaii that sold sec­ond-hand shirts a cou­ple of years back, stum­bled upon an abun­dance of them, and in­spi­ra­tion struck.

“I just couldn’t help my­self. I bought heaps and gave them to ev­ery­one at work.”

The rule at the stu­dio is any­one who shows up without a fes­tive top on a Fri­day must shout the staff cof­fee.

It’s kind of l i ke be­ing cre­ative and be­ing or­gan­ised don’t go hand- i n- hand.

“I had mine on this morn­ing but it was wet from the wash­ing ma­chine,” Wilkins says, who dons a striped polo shirt and shorts. “There’s a bit of fine print around it,” McCal­lum adds.

The Hawai­ian shirt pol­icy is a re­flec­tion of the cul­ture here at Ge­orge & Willy, as is the mes­sage en­shrined in painted let­ters on a ceil­ing beam: ‘HAVE FUN.’ The slo­gan also ap­pears on the brand’s prod­ucts boxes and la­bels.

Clearly, work and play are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. Call it the mil­len­nial mind-set: these are young busi­ness own­ers for whom work/life bal­ance is an es­sen­tial, not a nice-to-have.

The duo, plus about four other staff, op­er­ate a de­sign stu­dio and work­shop based in Mount Maun­ganui. By most ac­counts, the pair’s cu­ri­ous na­ture and pas­sion for build­ing sim­ple-yet-use­ful tools for them­selves led them to go into busi­ness with the moniker Ge­orge & Willy.

The early days

Wilkins and McCul­lum first met when they were 12-year-olds hit­ting the slopes at Mount Ruhapehu, but both tin­kered in garages and work­shops through­out their child­hoods. Wilkins says his grand­fa­ther taught him to work with wood. To­gether, they built cab­ins, decks, and a cow­shed, as well as re­stored boats.

His grand­fa­ther has held onto those projects. Mar­cus Wilkins Se­nior stopped off with a box of trea­sures to show Idea­log: a swim­ming man, fish, boat, munch­ing goat, tea towel holder, magic float­ing pa­per clip and a chew­ing gi­raffe. One toy is in­scribed, “Happy Bday gran and Mar­cus love Ge­orge.” Wilkins Sr shows each item one by one, fin­ish­ing by say­ing, “...and that is a very, very good puz­zle.” The toy fea­tures a se­ries of pre­cisely cut and fit­ted ‘L’ shapes and pegs which move between the ‘L’s.

He said his grand­son be­gun build­ing the items in early ado­les­cence from the age of eight.

“The things he built, he worked out from see­ing them on the TV...I’ve al­ways en­cour­aged him to be do­ing things and think­ing for him­self. If he has an idea, [I’ll say] ‘let’s have a look’ and see if he can im­prove it.”

He said af­ter one of Wilkins’ best friends died in Fe­bru­ary while paraglid­ing from Mount Maun­ganui, his grand­son built a cof­fin for his late friend. “That’s the sort of thing Ge­orge will turn his hand to. He’s a very kind and gen­er­ous per­son, as well.”

McCal­lum’s fa­ther, Bill McCal­lum, also said his son showed an early in­ter­est in man­u­fac­tur­ing, pot­ter­ing around the home work­shop. The fa­ther and son made out­door fur­ni­ture and fash­ioned knives from saw blades.

“His in­ter­est re­ally seemed to wax and wane a lit­tle bit.”

But at school around age 14, McCal­lum made a lit­tle wooden pa­per roller for his mum for Mother’s Day. A sim­i­lar roller made of alu­minium has now be­come one of Ge­orge & Willy’s best-sell­ing items.

“They’ve done a lit­tle bit of ad­di­tional de­sign and flashed it up a bit,” Bill McCal­lum says. “It’s very prac­ti­cal. It’s still sit­ting on our kitchen bench by the phone. It was ex­actly the pro­to­type – a bit big­ger and clunkier, but equally as func­tional.”

Not ev­ery­thing was a hit – Bill McCal­lum re­calls a cube stool with rope weaved across the top, another present for Will’s mum, Prue. “It weighs about 150 pounds [68 kilo­grams]. While it’s beau­ti­ful-look­ing and a very clev­erly de­signed piece, the heavy steel frame made it a lit­tle less util­i­tar­ian.” He said McCal­lum has since learned about func­tion­al­ity and prac­ti­cal­ity, de­sign­ing lighter-weight, more por­ta­ble items to sell and ship.

Af­ter parting ways, Wilkins and McCal­lum bumped into each other again later down the track at the Univer­sity of Otago, where they were both study­ing busi­ness. Wilkins earned a de­gree in man­age­ment, while McCul­lum got a de­gree in mar­ket­ing. Both mi­nored in de­sign. Their first joint univer­sity project was kit­set wooden he­li­copters, which were then sold as part of a fundraiser. The ex­pe­ri­ence gave the pair con­fi­dence in their abil­ity to make prod­ucts people wanted to buy

– as well as a taster of what was yet to come.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing univer­sity in 2012, they plied their trade from McCal­lum’s par­ents’ work­shop and then Ge­orge’s par­ent’s old boat shed, where they built items and re­ceived reg­u­lar vis­its from courier trucks. McCal­lum’s dad Bill says they en­coun­tered some is­sues with the house and shed be­ing based in the mid­dle of a res­i­den­tial area. “They had a visit from the City Coun­cil ask­ing about their per­mits and the fact they re­ally weren’t al­lowed to run a com­mer­cial ven­ture in a down­town back­yard.”

McCal­lum and Wilkins moved into their first leased prop­erty in Mount Maun­ganui shortly af­ter that, and are now onto their third premises near Tau­ranga Air­port.

Bill McCal­lum says de­spite the pair com­ing across as quite ca­sual in their ap­proach, they run a tight op­er­a­tion.

“They’re a half-dozen young people who re­ally en­joy their work. It ap­pears in­for­mal, but is re­ally quite struc­tured.”

As for the busi­ness name, Ge­orge & Willy, Wilkins and McCal­lum say they couldn’t think of any­thing else.

Top billing wasn’t de­cided by a PR firm or a mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant, ei­ther. “We did pa­per, scis­sors, rock,” Wilkin says.

We say since we don’t have a [phys­i­cal] store that our prod­ucts are only as good as the photos, so we put quite a l ot of ef­fort i nto photos.”

De­sign ethos

Struc­ture around the de­sign process of prod­ucts is some­thing the duo used to strug­gle with.

“We’re nat­u­rally quite dis­or­gan­ised,” McCal­lum says. He said when in­spi­ra­tion would hit, they’d start a new prod­uct with ex­cite­ment, and then aban­don it and move onto some­thing else.

“But now we’re kind of to the point where we just want to make this prod­uct and do it re­ally well and get it fully sorted and fin­ish it and move onto the next one.”

Hav­ing me­thod­i­cal staff mem­bers who help po­lice the two’s cre­ations helps. “It’s kind of like be­ing cre­ative and be­ing or­gan­ised don’t go hand-in­hand,” Wilkins says with a laugh.

The pair share the phi­los­o­phy of Pablo Pi­casso, who said, “Art is the elim­i­na­tion of the un­nec­es­sary,” as well as the ethos of the late Ap­ple founder Steve Jobs, who was ob­sessed with elim­i­nat­ing but­tons and com­plex­ity.

McCal­lum’s min­i­mal­ist de­sign aes­thetic has him con­stantly seek­ing to make items sim­pler, sleeker and bet­ter. “It’s get­ting rid of any­thing that doesn’t need to be there.”

Both now grasp the dis­par­ity between craft­ing one item and out­sourc­ing a model for pro­duc­tion on a larger scale. They’ve learned how to work with man­u­fac­tur­ers to de­sign prod­ucts that can be made more af­ford­ably in New Zealand and over­seas.

Wilkins says fea­tures that work for ten items won’t work for 500. “Which might be drilling 10 holes per prod­uct - that’s 100 holes, but if we’re do­ing 500 prod­ucts, it’s sud­denly like 5000 holes.”

Around 60 per­cent of their cre­ations end up in the hands of cus­tomers based over­seas, which helped earn them the Emerg­ing Ex­porter of the Year award at the 2017 Bay of Plenty Ex­port NZ Awards.

The judges wrote: “Ge­orge and Willy’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit is sec­ond to none. With ded­i­ca­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion, they have de­vel­oped a well-re­spected brand with a true New Zealand qual­ity fo­cus. Their struc­tured de­sign de­vel­op­ment pro­to­cols and clever use of dig­i­tal plat­forms has also en­abled them to cre­ate a unique team en­vi­ron­ment to op­ti­mise the pas­sion, skills and en­thu­si­asm of their val­ued team around them.”

A Day in the Life

Wilkins and McCal­lum start their work­days with an early run, fol­lowed by a ba­con-and-egg break­fast.

They’re in the work­shop by 8AM, send­ing out or­ders to around the globe. Then through­out the day, they work on cur­rent projects and pro­to­types and talk to cus­tomers, some of whom make sug­ges­tions for new items or a de­sign fea­ture that’s even­tu­ally in­cor­po­rated into a prod­uct. One ex­am­ple was a re­quest for a dry­ing rack. “Then some­one says, ‘I want a pul­ley light switch’,” McCal­lum says.

Out of this col­li­sion of ideas was born one of the duo’s most re­cent and now best-sell­ing prod­ucts: an ad­justable-height dry­ing rack. The user shifts it into po­si­tion up near the ceil­ing us­ing a rope and pul­ley.

Mostly, Wilkins and McCal­lum make items they’d want to own them­selves. They’re cur­rently de­vel­op­ing new shop signs – one is a mounted flag, the other, a small wooden sign. “It’s re­ally sim­ple stuff,” McCal­lum says.

“Your shop sign's re­ally im­por­tant. It’s kind of the first thing that people see when they’re on the road. It’s quite a fun thing to make be­cause you can just make blank ones and then people can just get their logo put on it.”

The com­pany’s big­gest sellers (be­sides its pa­per rollers) are shop signs and fire starters.

McCal­lum says he got the idea for the fire starter con­cept from the Amish in Amer­ica, who soak a por­ous stone in lamp oil, and then set it onto a fire be­fore pil­ing it with logs. No kin­dling is re­quired.

While Ge­orge & Willy’s prod­ucts are not overtly Kiwi – no sil­ver ferns, tiki or sheep mo­tifs – they are de­signed with a back-to-ba­sics, sim­plis­tic ethos.

But while their de­signs are not overly com­pli­cated, the struc­tures are de­tailed in their en­gi­neer­ing. Prod­ucts in­clude peg board shelves, cloth­ing racks made of gal­va­nized steel pipe and in­dus­trial socket clamps, as well as tres­tle desks en­gi­neered for ex­tra strength.

The desk has a matte polyurethane coat­ing to pro­tect its sur­face and lock­ing slots to keep the top sta­ble. It’s crafted from ar­chi­tec­tural grade ply­wood and 8mm black yacht­ing braid. Proof of the ob­ject’s strength is dis­played on the web­site via a photo of the desk sup­port­ing a ride-on mower.

In the work­shop, McCal­lum points out another new Ge­orge & Willy project – a wooden cafe let­ter board with the menu al­ready in place. Smashed av­o­cado, chilli ba­con butty and turk­ish eggs are among dishes on of­fer at this imag­i­nary cafe.

Some of the items Ge­orge & Willy pro­duce are made in New Zealand, oth­ers are en­gi­neered over­seas. The com­pany sources ma­te­ri­als that are hard-wear­ing and look nice, too – like birch ply­wood (for the peg boards), steel (for their draughts­man ta­ble – cur­rently sold out) and pow­der-coated alu­minium (for the pa­per rollers).

McCal­lum says he likes do­ing his own thing, but he’s learned to ask for what he needs and rely on em­ploy­ees to get the job done.

“I love hav­ing a team with us. It makes it fun com­ing to work ev­ery day. Staff of­fer dif­fer­ent opin­ions on plans and mod­els.”

A global fol­low­ing

Ge­orge & Willy’s store ex­ists only on­line, not in bricks-and-mor­tar.

The em­pha­sis on on­line shop­ping

and vir­tual com­mu­ni­ca­tion with their cus­tomers is why the team have laid out their web­site and so­cial me­dia sites with as much care as pos­si­ble.

“We say since we don’t have a store that our prod­ucts are only as good as the photos, so we put quite a lot of ef­fort into photos,” McCal­lum says. One item on the site – the daily roller – in­cludes 17 photos and a video for a sin­gle prod­uct. In­sta­gram is the com­pany’s dom­i­nant on­line chan­nel, with 29,000 fol­low­ers and count­ing.

Staff mem­ber Phoebe han­dles the on­line op­er­a­tions and show­cases not just the goods for sale, but what Wilkins, McCal­lum and their team get up to. Their blog fea­tures them road trip­ping around New Zealand, test­ing the Ge­orge & Willy mo­tor­cy­cle and build­ing a one-of-a-kind bas­ket­ball net made of leather and a charred wood back­board for Nike’s 30th an­niver­sary of its Air Max shoes.

For all the thrills of the ecom­merce game, the guys like see­ing where their prod­ucts will land in the world.

“Twenty years ago, you’d ex­port some­thing over to Bel­gium and you’d never see it again, but three weeks later we get tagged in a post,” McCal­lum says.

Wilkins says it’s also easy to pose ques­tions to cus­tomers via so­cial me­dia. “It gets you heaps of feed­back on a prod­uct.”

A photo and ques­tion, “What do you think of our new flag sign?” has earned hun­dreds of likes and a cou­ple dozen com­ments on In­sta­gram, in­clud­ing re­quests for or­ders. “Let us know when they are ready for ac­tion,” said one fol­lower.

World dom­i­na­tion

Wilkins and McCal­lum have al­ready started sup­ply­ing re­tail out­lets and cafes with items they craved for their own shop, like pa­per rollers and signs.

Now, they’re work­ing to build their brand world­wide, while per­fect­ing new de­signs.

They know what won’t fea­ture in their line-up. “I don’t think we’d be very good at mak­ing an app,” McCal­lum says.

“We’re not pas­sion­ate about it,” Wilkins says, re­fer­ring to the hy­po­thet­i­cal app. He says the no­tion busi­nesses must have the lat­est tech idea to be suc­cess­ful is not true. “We just do some­thing re­ally sim­ple re­ally well, then it’s all good.”

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