Digging Deeper into Design
ST: Tell me a little about yourself, your time in archaeology and how you began on the path of making.
BT: I grew up in rural NSW, and went to Sweden at 17 as an exchange student. When I came back, I did a degree in history and languages, which lead me into ancient history. While studying archaeology for my masters in Ancient History at ANU, I was invited by my professor to go and work in Syria. I was excavating outside Aleppo on the Euphrates in a very small village, where Alexander’s generals crossed the Euphrates to invade Persia. Each year I would go and work on conservation, or we’d be up on dig sites – I worked on the Acropolis at one point.
The view every morning was down the Euphrates river, you’d see white chalk cliffs and hear the donkeys bray in the villages, and you’d work with the local people. It was very idyllic. We would find things there that were incredibly powerful. Single pieces of pottery that were inscribed with kalos, the Greek word for ‘beautiful’… things that you might dig up that bring meaning to life and design. And I think that was the real kicker for me. I knew what I wanted for my future, though I wasn’t quite sure of the medium yet.
ST: How did that translate into the origins of Bison Home?
BT: After my last season, I realised I really loved the design side. So I taught myself about glaze technology, my partner bought me every book we could get on designs and form, throwing and pressing, all the techniques associated with ceramics, and I gradually built up a team. I designed my work with very clear reference points, from the time I’d spent in Scandinavia and also Japan. I wanted the form to speak to people, and not the decoration. Because quite often, people obscure beautiful design, or they hide bad design by patterning it very heavily, and I wanted to avoid that.
ST: Can you share some of your ethos behind the business?
BT: What I hear from people – whether it’s my customers, or stockists I work with across the country, or even people from magazines – is that they’re looking for truth to the design, and honesty in the production processes behind it. A sense that what they’re getting is more than spin.
Bison Home is in our 22nd year now. Right from the very start, I wanted for people to understand that things have multiple lives. It’s my responsibility to create things that have value for beauty and value for utility.
ST: What strikes me about your pieces is that they have quite a singular, unadorned quality. Tell me how you arrive at those designs, and a little about your process.
BT: It’s purely serendipitous! I put a lot of me in what I create. My milk bottles, for example: my grandmother used to force feed us as little children, and had these milk jugs on the table. A couple of them had their handles broken off, but she’d never toss anything out. I remembered that sensation of pouring the milk, and I tried to capture that. It was one of my first shapes and it’s still incredibly popular.
ST: Are there any other pieces in your collection that represent a personal connection?
BT: Every single object has a story, even the colours have a story. With the blown glass that I’ve started working with – there’s the Bora Bora tumblers, or the Murao hi-ball glasses – the colours and the idea for those actually came from anodised cups that my parents had when I was very little. They had six colours in them, and they came in a pouch that they would take each weekend when we went water skiing. My brother and I would fight over which colour we got, and that stuck with me. And when I translated that to glass, and tell that story to people, it seems that so many people have that same recollection. Because that product was ubiquitous in Australian colour for 20+ years.
ST: When you are developing a new line of products, does the medium suggest itself to you first?
BT: I now work in porcelain, stoneware, light blown glass, heavy faceted blown glass, and with fabric. And I might see something in wood and think, ‘gosh, that would look beautiful in glass’. One of the beauties of studying classical objects – say for instance Roman glass, or Hellenic pottery, or Byzantine pieces, or even the Hittite figurines – is that what you often get with excavated artefacts is that the colours may have been abraded. And when the patterns have gone, you’re left with the essence of the object. And I think in a way, that’s kind of how I approach it.
ST: How would you describe the Australian aesthetic?
BT: What’s really interesting is that I’ve never seen so much diversity in design, making and creativity as I have in the last 10 years in this country. I think part of that is to do with immigration to Australia in the last generation or so, and part of it has to do with social media, in terms of having much more exposure to regions of the world that may not necessarily have been profiled much in magazines, or in cultural publications and art gallery collections. It also spills into food. As much as people may not consider it a key thing, when you’re designing glassware or ceramics, generally these are used – with the exception of decorator pieces – for serving and entertaining. So these various food and cultural references shape the way you design objects, because there’s a difference between a bowl you do for a laksa, and a rice bowl. There’s so many different types of cuisine in this country, a consequence of the evolution of our cultural mix, or our national identity.
ST: If you – hundreds or thousands of years from now – were to unearth one of your own creations from the ground, what would you hope that people saw as the legacy of the work that you do?
BT: That good design is enduring. That simple design has a beauty in every age, in every period of history. I’d hope people appreciate it, no matter what generation or cultural framework they place it in. One thing I’ve got in my cabinet is something I found in an ancient rubbish tip in Syria, which is a piece of pottery – a foot ring with a fingerprint in it. And it’s probably one of the most important things I have. The significance for me is that all of those hundreds of generations back, a person made this object, and I’m looking at it now and remembering them.
ST: That’s very powerful.
BT: Yes it is! And it’s far more significant than branding, more important than style or market position. It’s the basis of who we are as people, and our interaction with others. And that’s what design should be about.
ST: Let’s talk about what you’re exhibiting at DENFAIR 2019.
BT: It’s my first time to be showing at DENFAIR, so I want to show both the Bison Home collection, which is my classic range of stoneware, decorator pieces, blown glass, all of that… and then the quirk factor is the Brian Tunks collection, which is my faceted glass, possibly some fabrics I’m working on with and NGO and a community of weavers in India. And I may also put some other elements into that, decor pieces and lighting. I’m just finalising the designs on those at the moment, and they’ll be under my name.
They’re another strand to the brand, taking it outside the utilitarian and adding another layer to the depth of the visual. So when you look at the objects, you see different influences coming through in both collections. You’ll see more of my interiors and designer fit out pieces. That’s what I’ll be launching there. And a few surprises.
ST: Tell me about the decision to create the Brian Tunks collection, and how it represents a new direction or departure from Bison Home.
BT: I call it my mid-life crisis collection! It’s about me wanting to work outside the framework of the design aesthetic that I had firmly established with Bison. Which is very clean, pared-back, functional and beautiful. What I wanted to do with Brian Tunks was develop that and take it further, which allowed me to work with other materials. I work with this fantastic community of weavers in India who are part of a government-funded NGO collaborative. Working with artisans and crafts that are mind-blowingly complex gives you great capacity to inject whimsy into design, which is what I want to do. I’m not interested in insta-fabulous. I want things that have a beauty about them, or a surprise detail, or a story behind it that brings meaning. So that’s why I took it that direction.
I want design to be chaotic, to have a level of complete disregard for the rules, as well as a reference back to nature, because, by god, that’s where the best design inspiration comes from.