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Interview · Anna Charlesworth

Creative People

28th June, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Friday 28th June 2013

The desk of metalworker Anna Charlesworth, at her Williamstown workshop.  Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Custom light fitting by metalworker Anna Charlesworth , wrapped in white plaster in Anna's signature style. Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Anna's studio pinboard.  Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Anna tweaks her latest lighting design.  Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Metalworker Anna Charlesworth in the forge area at her Williamstown workshop.  Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

There is a lot to love about Melbourne metalworker Anna Charlesworth.  Firstly, how many women do you know who spend their days in overalls and safety goggles, pottering around an enormous metalworking workshop, creating custom wrought iron gates and incredible handmade metal light fittings!?  Not many!  It's tough, highly skilled work, and possibly the most unlikely occupation for a softly spoken, slightly shy Mum from Fitzroy North.

Secondly, aside from her incredible skills and work ethic, Anna is just so warm, friendly and entertaining, its impossible not to like her.  Her responses to our interview questions had me giggling more than one whilst editing this story!  Her dream project?  'If was to be truly honest, to work on Survivor, making the props for the immunity challenges. I'm waiting for Jeff Probst's call.' she says!  Brilliant.  I was also encouraged to hear about her secret affection for Officeworks (!), and her admission that at least 50% of her travel shots from any overseas holiday are of metalwork!  (Perfectly reasonable I reckon).

Anna is a unique Melbourne maker, having worked in metalwork and glass since 1989.  She picked up many of her skills initially during an informal apprenticeship with well known Melbourne artist Mark Douglass, who was part of the ‘Whitehall’ collective of artists based in Footscray at that time. Since 1995 Anna has worked on her own projects in a Williamstown workshop she shares with friend and occasional collaborator Neal Millard of Nathan Wrot Iron.  Here Anna produces wrought iron doors, screens, furniture, balustrading and custom light fittings. Most of her pieces are custom made for architects, designers or private clients.

For a more detailed look at Anna's industrious output, do visit her website!  You can also check out her own home in North Fitzroy, which we featured back in May, and which showcases many of her own lighting and hardware designs!  (Anna is so modest, her proud hubbie Peter Stephens had to point them out to me during our shoot!  I'm so glad he did  - thankyou Peter!).

Tell us about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you're doing today?

I did an Arts degree at Melbourne University, and went travelling once I had finished my degree. I headed off to Spain as I had been learning Spanish at uni and loved it. I then continued to live in Barcelona for a while, which really inspired me architecturally and artistically. The sense of design was everywhere, from the otherworldly Gaudi buildings to the more modern bars, restaurants and shops. It was all very sophisticated and unlike anything back home. Being there got me thinking about studying Industrial Design once I got back to Australia.

How did you originally become involved with metalwork?

In around 1989, Mark Douglass, who was then part of the Whitehall group of artists based in Footscray, was looking for someone to do some general helping out and assisting, and I applied and got the job. It was here that I first learnt how to slump glass in a kiln, and  the basics of welding and forging steel. It was an apprenticeship by immersion. Mark was fearless about taking anything on, which was good for me in lots of ways, it taught me to jump straight in the deep end and be equipped to handle whatever came my way.

Wrought iron door commission by Anna Charlesworth.
How would you describe your design aesthetic and and what influences the style of your work?

Even though my work is decorative, it also has to be functional. You want to end up with something that is aesthetically pleasing that also operates effectively.

For me often the best influences for new ideas comes from looking at metalwork in other countries. I take lots of photos of metalwork if we travel overseas. Some of the most beautiful metalwork I have seen was in Lebanon. When you see metal gates or windows that have been there for hundreds of years, you can't help but have a good look at it to appreciate the workmanship. It is definitely no exaggeration when I say that 50% of my travel shots are of metalwork - don't worry there are still some of the family holiday too!

What general processes are involved in the creation and construction of your designs? Do you work alone, collaborate or outsource any significant tasks?

Usually my clients have an idea of what they like stylistically before we meet up. I still have a lot of photos in albums (pre digital age!) that people can look at, and that can help narrow down what they are looking for. Sometimes it's hard to convince people who want something 'really simple' that those jobs can take just as much time as a more ornate piece. I usually attempt a drawing to give the customer an idea of what the finished product will look like. Considering I can't draw to save myself it's usually a leap of faith on the part of the customer!

All the materials are then ordered and you start cutting. A lot of tweaking goes on to make something you can be proud of. I agree that 'God is in the details', because even if it's something no one else notices, making small improvements as you go adds up and you will eventually end up with a product that you would be happy to have in your own home. I am also always checking in with the customer during the manufacturing of the job so there are no nasty surprises once something is made.

I do work alone but rely heavily on Neal Millard of Nathan Wrot Iron (who shares the factory space I work in) for feedback on the engineering side of things. We sometimes collaborate on larger jobs. I also would go bonkers if I just worked on my own. Neal is the only person I know that I could have spent the last 20 years working alongside, I've been very lucky to have that friendship.

Details from Anna's workshop.  Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Anna forming red-hot steel at the anvil!  Sean and I were amazed by this process - it seemed very 'Asterix' to us!  Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of your businesses? Where are you based, how is your studio structured? What are you working on at the moment?

The factory space is in 'Wiltona' - halfway between Wiiliamstown and Altona. We are surrounded by other factories. We have the main factory space with large benches, welders, steel racks and tools. Out the back we have a paint shed and a forge that houses our power hammer and anvils.

At the moment I am finishing some brass wall lights for a Melbourne-based architect and about to start on a large gate. I'm also making up some prototypes for some pendant lights to add to my website.

Brass wall lights by Anna Charlesworth, for her own home in Fitzroy North (as seen here back in May!).  Photo - Brooke Holm, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
What does a typical day in the life of Anna Charlesworth involve?

The first few minutes are spent trying to figure out what day it is and remembering what I have to do!  Then it's the usual school drop off for my 12-year-old daughter Nina. If I don't have pilates I go straight out to work collecting anything I might need on the way.

Often by the time I have done some paperwork and other errands I only get around 5 hours to be physically working on something before I turn around and head home to meet or collect my tweenager. Pete is the cook in our house, so once homework and other domestic things are done we get to eat something delicious for dinner. I love crawling into bed early or watching some appalling reality telly before the light goes out!

Details from the Williamstown workshop Anna shares with Neal Millard (Nathan Wrot Iron). Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.
Which local creative people are you loving at the moment?

Urchin – A Fitzroy based collective of entrepreneurs, poets, illustrators, photographers, and film makers. Travis Garone founded the Movember movement. And Sam Morgan patiently made my website.

Juleiaah Boheme – A Brunswick based singer who also gives inspiring singing lessons.

Mira Gojak – A local sculptor and painter who has a lovely but still tough way with circular shapes. She works really hard and is very dedicated to her art.

Karl Millard – An exquisite jeweller and metalworker. He works from his workshop in Brunswick.

Sarah Parkes from Smalltown – She makes macramé everything, even lighting. It's fantastic.

Can you list for us 5 specific resources across any media that you turn to when you're in a need of a bolt of creative inspiration?

I regularly visit 1stdibs and could endlessly scroll through their selection of lighting and furniture.

I am fond of any books about old metalwork and sculpture, we have a bit of a collection at work I will take a look at when in need of some instantaneous inspirations.

I do the blog rounds, with TDF and the Contemporist being two of my favourites.

I also love Instagram and the amazing artists I follow on there.

Radio National 621 is also a daily must for me, and has become my soundtrack at work where I get to hear and learn about what goes on in the world.

What would be your dream creative project?

The best creative projects I have done in the past have always been a collaborative effort with other artists, sculptors, set designers. Contributing to a piece of art is heart warming.

I always enjoy doing custom creative projects with architects Meacham Nockles McQualter, who designed our house. I am in awe of their clever ideas and beautiful aesthetic.

Doing the various light fittings, handles, posts and gates for our home was a dream project definitely. But if was to be truly honest, my dream creative project would be to work on Survivor, making the props for the immunity challenges. I'm waiting for Jeff Probst's call!

What are you looking forward to?

Continuing to make things for as long as I can. If I wasn't in denial about my eyesight I would be looking forward in general a whole lot more.

OK we got pretty excited about the ANVIL!  So cartoony! Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

North Fitzroy of course! It is a very relaxed suburb. Lots of families and older residents that came from Italy back in the '50s. A low percentage of posers up our end of the 'hood. Good food and coffee to be had, and some industrious young folk setting up community businesses. When I walk the dog along Merri Creek it feels like the countryside.

What are your favourite fossicking spots to buy the tools of your trade?

Lost Ark Collectibles in Williamstown. James and Michael have fantastic treasures in their shed and also restore furniture. All my pots at home came from them. Elizabeth Trading in Kew is the Aladdin's cave of lighting components. Any hardware store always has potential, and I also have a weakness for Officeworks.

What and where was the last great meal you had in Melbourne?

A selection of dishes at Abla's in Carlton. It's always delicious and welcoming.

Where would you be on a typical Saturday morning?

Usually court side at my daughter's basketball game yelling important instructions like 'RUN!' and 'DRIBBLE!', I don't know what they would do without me.

Melbourne's best kept secret?

Altona swimming pool. Clean and you get the lane to yourself!

Anna at the forge.  Photo - Sean Fennessy, production - Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

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