OK I’m just WARNING you – If you’re getting a bit tired of hearing about outrageously successful local design businesses then you probably should think twice before reading today’s interview! Melbourne designer Cindy-Lee Davies has done so incredibly well with her home-grown design studio Lightly, and is showing no signs of slowing down! Since launching the company just 6 years ago in 2005, Lightly now stocks retailers across Australia and internationally… and Cindy-Lee has collaborated with major international brands including US retail giant Anthropologie and Kate Spade! Amazingly, Cindy-Lee still designs every item herself, manufactures 90% of her product range in Australia, and maintains a close-knit team of just 6 staff. And I thought I was busy!
I recently attended the opening of Lightly’s shiny new showroom and studio in Collingwood… WOW It is truly such an incredible space, and marks a very exciting time for this growing business. The new space incorporates offices, warehousing and distribution centre and trade showrooms. It’s the first time Cindy-Lee has had a centralised hub from which to base all aspects of her business, and it’s already inspired her to look into producing larger pieces including furniture (loving the new Mooo Stools!).
Perhaps most excitingly, Lightly’s new space also incorporates a retail showroom on the ground floor! This presents a fantastic opportunity to see the entire Lightly range in one purpose-designed space, and gain a little insight into the workings of this super successful local business. Say hi from me!
Brand new Lightly showroom!
3 Glasshouse rd Collingwood (near corner Wellington)
Tell me a little about your background – what path has led you to what you’re doing now?
Grew up on a farm in WA, schooled in Perth, took some time to travel before becoming very interested in design. I started my studies in Industrial design in Perth, then moved to Melbourne about 13 years ago to to study Furniture Design at RMIT. When I left Uni I started a company called Props Design doing fit-outs for cafes and props for film and set design, alongside a short stint at the NGV and Curator for Fringe. I spent two years developing a film called ‘Chaise Charade‘ with Justine Caleo, which humourously documented the relationship humans have with chairs – we screened it in the south of France at a Design Biennale and sold flip books to pay our way!
During this time I started work in the Lighting industry where I worked for 7 years as a lighting consultant for architects and interior designers. I managed companies such as Mondo Luce, Gineico and Euroluce lighting, representing Italian lighting such at Fontana Arte, Flos, Luce plan and Oluce to name a couple. Mainly I specialised in drawing up lighting plans, specifying what lighting would suit specific interior or exterior space. This experience in lighting was invaluably – keeping me in touch with both international design and the industry here in Australia. Fortunately my mother’s maiden name was ‘Lightly’, so the marriage was perfect when I launched my own collection. I still worked part-time in lighting for two years prior to going out on my own in 2007.
You started off in 2005 with a nostalgia-inspired lighting range – but these days Lightly’s extensive range includes ceramics, rugs, furniture and more. What inspired the move into objects and homewares, and do you still design every single thing in the range all by yourself!?
I have been designing lights since 2000 and still love designing lights – we have just launched the new Knit light Joanie and Rope lights, and I still consult in lighting for interiors. We moved into homewares and objects to expore new design methods and technologies. We wholesale the range to gallery stores locally and internationally, so you have to think about freight and small apartment limitations. Now that we have the brand new 300 sqm space I think you may well be seeing a lot more larger pieces come back into fruition!
We now have over 90 products which all reflect some past craft or ‘newstalgic’ reference, whether it be the Norma hot water bottle vase, Crochete tyres, knitted lights or butterflies from reclaimed saucers. Dubbed “Nanna technology” we still marry the aesthetics of traditional craft with cutting edge technology.
Yes I still design it all myself …. We have collaborated with two other designers for two products – Samantha Parsons on our Blueprint collection of bone china plates, and Nikki Gabriel with the new Joanie Knit light made from 100% merino and Angora wool.
The vast majority of your products are still made in Australia – what is the reason for this decision, and has it been a challenge maintaining your production here?
Yes we still produce 90% of the products in Australia. I think it is really important to work with local resources as much as possible. It is in my blood, being a farmer’s daughter I guess. Although it’s worlds apart from my day-to-day reality – it is my roots, working with what you’ve got and supporting the local community. We do set up production for clients offshore, depending on the quantity at times. I think the challenge is finding the quality of some materials here and craftsmanship of some processes.
Your business has gone from strength to strength in recent years – you’ve received many accolades for your success and have forged relationships with reknowned international retailers including Anthropologie! What has been your proudest achievement so far?
I can’t say a particular moment has defined my career, but I think it is a combination of creative rewards and opportunities help propel you to the next stage. Doing the Fall windows for Kate Spade internationally was a rewarding contract, but probably of late I think finding over 5,000 saucers that were heading to landfill in China for Anthropologie USA, and turning them into a product (whilst nursing a broken arm!) was definitely an moment in time. I have enjoyed working with Anthropologie on a few products. We also collaborated on a pop-up resturant for the Royal Academy London last year, but I would have to say generally I get as excited & passionate about every new product as the first.
Having my own studio & showroom that we can call home is pretty special right now, especially since I have brought a lot of the heirlooms from the Lightly family property to the space, so it makes me feel complete being surrounded by the objects that I love.
How is your business structured? Do you employ anyone or outsource any significant tasks?
We have 6 staff that cover roles such as admin, book keeping, production / despatch and accounts, along with people we subcontract to. My husband Willie (aka Cursor ctrl) works on our wonderful images and catalogues.
In we work closely with three factories where part of the work (depending on the material) is made or formed, I am usually there at least one day a week working. We then usually prep, sand and finish back in Collingwood. Some of the products are all hand made, so the process for these happens entirely in our studio.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced since setting up your company? Are there any key lessons or tips you can share with others who might be looking to start up a small design-based business?
I would also say prioritise health and wellbeing balance. Having your own business is very consuming, especially when you run on passion and adrenalin. It is important to set boundaries and try and have a bit of balance introduced into your daily lives, eat well and get physical. I am possibly the worst example of ‘relaxing’, but be aware of your limitations, strengths and weaknesses.
ALSO IP (intellectual property) – boring yes but very important.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Up at 5.30am and head to yoga in the city where I have been training for last 9 years (keeps the calm), then to work in Collingwood, usually by bike (depending on the day), to start by about 8.00am with cereal at the computer and big cup of tea – my most productive and quiet time. Spend the rest of the day multi tasking from the studio, to the showroom, to answering questions or replying to emails. I try and leave work by 6.30 (new resolution) depending… go to a spinning class and then cook or head out, do a conference call or email overseas clients then fall into bed.
Where do you turn for creative inspiration when beginning a new piece or new series – nature, travel, books, the web etc?
All sorts of places including the web, I have a bit of a filing system (digital and paper) of things that inspire me, I collect references, odd objects, snap shots of colours or textiles. I get a lot of inspiration when looking for old crockery especially saucers in the last two years, and the places I end up getting them from.. I can often be found inhaling dust and mothballs in some crooked op shop!
Travel is very inspiring – I love Tokyo, it’s one of the most stimulating places to go for a visual feast, and Asia for a spa retreat once a year, simple people, good clean food and back to basics.
Which other artists / designers / creative people do you admire?
A few links to a couple off the top of my head.
Grandi Flora in Sydney – Saskia Havekes, an amazing florist we have worked with.
Asylum Studio in Singapore who used our Belle Lights for a fit-out last year.
What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?
I think open up a Lightly Spa retreat somewhere & or become a trained nose in the south of France and design a beautiful collection of perfumery, then my life would be truly complete, having studied herbal medicine when I just left school.
What are you looking forward to?
Getting into designing the next collection.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
Collingwood of course. I lived in the area for a long time in my university days, in big cold warehouses, so I have a lot of fond memories. There are some great restaurants & bars old and new on Smith & Gertrude street, along with some great stores to shop. I am partial to a soy chai at Birdman Eating and probably cant go past Fatto a Mano without a treat at least once a week. They do great Gluten free bread and biscuits, even pizza!
Your favourite shop to visit in Melbourne for locally designed homewares and gifts?
There is fabulous new Lightly showroom in Collingwood!
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
I would have to say the City Wine Shop Melbourne is a bit of a favourite – easy, local and European feel without pretension. You have the Supper Club and Siglo upstairs and the European next door – take your pick.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Flower Market 6.00am – I love the sensory experience & quite often we do events and table arrangements. Spinning class 9am, then to the studio for a bit of quiet time without everyone around to design.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
6.00am in the city – very interesting characters greet you at dawn. Also the bike path along the Yarra from Studley Park Boat House Fairfield to Federation Square, past the Collingwood Childrens farm, and Kew – Great ride on a sunny day!