Interview with Jacqui Burnes
After taking out the top prize at the 2016 Mercedes Benz Design Awards with her functional and drool-worthy Lily Tray Table, Nancy Ji is already wowing us with her entry into the furniture design world. Although only new onto the scene, Nancy has continued to impress after winning the Craft Victoria Emerging Designer Award at this year’s Fringe Furniture 31 Awards with her innovative terrazzo occasional table, ‘Archie’. Recently, Craft got together with the architect-slash-designer to talk about tables, juggling free time with ‘make time’ and what exciting things she’s working on next.
Your first furniture piece, the Lily Tray Table, took out the top prize at the Mercedes Benz Design Awards, which is now part of the Tait Furniture range. What made you take the leap to design furniture?
There is a saying “from a spoon to the city” which describes a design approach that can be applied across different scales. As an architect it was quite a natural step to design furniture. I saw the call for entries one weekend and decided to give it a go. Working on furniture is appealing as it tends to be a lot faster due to the smaller scale. It has been great working with Tait on the Lily Tray Table in their Thornbury factory. It’s quite surreal being a part of the prototyping process and see a product come to life.
You’ve made a highly successful career in architecture, working to bring grand scale urban projects to life. How do you apply your knowledge of architectural design to create functional objects on a smaller scale?
A lot of knowledge is directly transferrable, such as clear communication of ideas and working at a detailed 1:1 level. A more subtle skill would be generating the conceptual ideas behind the product, even if my thought process is not always immediately apparent to the public. For example with the Lily Tray Table, the shape of the tray was inspired by nature, by a water lily. This idea translates into something that is both beautiful and functional. And when the tray is removed, there is an element of surprise. With the Archie table I wanted to create something playful but still embody a bigger idea which is sustainability, material efficiency, and challenging notions of waste. Working in architecture has taught me that design has the power to solve problems and engage in a broader agenda that is beyond pure aesthetics.
How do you juggle your full time job with your creative practice?
I have been working at Bates Smart Architects, an architecture office in the city since I graduated from Melbourne University. As a young architect there is so much to learn every day that I feel like a sponge soaking it all up. Working on my own projects in my spare time is an important creative outlet that compliments my professional work. It gives me a chance to apply the design thinking I was talking about before, at my own pace and in my own way. The limited time forces me to only work on projects I am really passionate about.
Recently here at Craft we’ve been wowed by your latest design, ‘Archie’ – an occasional table created sustainably from a single piece of terrazzo that slots seamlessly together in four parts. Tell us, what was the ‘spark’ that brought Archie to life?
The idea of using a whole sheet of material as a starting point intrigued me as it sets up the challenge to only use one type of material in the most efficient way. I played around with cutting shapes from some cardboard and landed on the simple idea of cutting a circle out of a rectangle, the circle is the table top and the ‘off cut’ becomes the arch shaped legs. As such the design minimizes waste and is also easy to flat pack. I chose Terrazzo tiles as a material as it comes in standard sizes and many fun colours making it perfect to mix and match.
You’ve also spent time collaborating with your partner Mitchell Eaton under your collective label MINA MINA. Is it handy to have that level of creativity present at home and can you tell us a little bit about your projects together?
The first projects we worked on together involved going to Bunnings and making our own furniture for our apartment. It grew quite naturally from there, working on self-initiated projects that interest us or just purely for fun. It definitely helps to have someone to discuss ideas with and be honest when it comes to critique. We work on a combination of our own and joint projects ranging from architecture, furniture, clothing, model making, Christmas cards, tote bags…a little bit of everything! We also teach a design studio together at Melbourne University.
Who are your creative heroes?
I spent a few months working in Tokyo as a student which has shaped my design sensibility. I love the work of Japanese architects and designers like SANAA and Nendo. Closer to home the design approach of architect Richard Leplastrier, he has a deep understanding and respect for the land. I am grateful for the mentorship I have received as part of Fringe furniture and Mercedes Benz Design Awards. It has been an invaluable experience learning from local designers whose work I admire including Coco Flip, Dowel Jones, Redfox & Wilcox and Tait. I am also inspired by designer couples who work together to produce amazing work such as Neri & Hu, Muller Van Severen, Daniel Emma and Studio Swine.
What sources do you turn to for creative inspiration?
I find travelling super inspiring. Visiting notable buildings, landscapes and experiencing different cultures are all very creatively stimulating. Another source would be other designers and disciplines such as fashion and art. There are also many talented designers and makers here in Melbourne, I love discovering their work at places like Craft Victoria and the NGV. I am also lucky to be surrounded by a lot of creative friends and colleagues who constantly inspire me.
This past 12 months has already been a whirlwind for you; from taking out the top prize at the 2016 Mercedes Benz Design Awards with your multi-functional Lily Tray Table, which was put into production by Tait Furniture earlier this year, to consecutively being awarded the Emerging Designer Award at the Fringe Furniture 31 Awards chosen by us here at Craft. Can you give us a hint as to what’s next for Nancy Ji?
I plan to continue to work on my own side projects as well as architecture to explore and test ideas across different scales and mediums. After talking to Sarah Weston at Craft I am keen to explore working at an even smaller scale in the form of objects and accessories. I am currently experimenting with resin casting to make my own material for the first time. Exciting times ahead!