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Michael Grassi, Tomek Archer and Henry Gresson of NOMI

Studio Visit

4th July, 2014
Lucy Feagins
Friday 4th July 2014

Nomi Furniture for The Design Files

Woodstack chairs and Dove Dining table by Australian furniture brand NOMI, photographed at NOMI's office in Sydney.  Photo - Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.

Nomi Furniture for The Design Files

Woodstack chairs and Dove Dining table by Australian furniture brand NOMI, photographed at NOMI's office in Sydney.  Photo - Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.

Nomi Furniture for The Design Files

From left, Michael Grassi, Henry Gresson and Tomek Archer of NOMI at their Sydney HQ. Photo - Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.

Nomi Furniture for The Design Files

Michael Grassi of NOMI chats with his business partners at their Sydney HQ. Photo - Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.

Nomi Furniture for The Design Files

Discussing finishes and details. Photo - Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.

OK so we profile talented designers and creatives here every week, but I have to say, I'm especially pumped about today's interview, because I'm genuinely excited about the potential for Sydney start-up NOMI.  Founded by friends Michael Grassi and Henry Gresson, with creative director Tomek Archer just 9 months ago in October 2013, NOMI really is something new - offering customers an unprecedented opportunity to customise and purchase their own locally crafted furniture from a broad range of affordable, cleverly designed base models.

'NOMI is about offering beautifully designed and hand crafted furniture pieces that people can customise online and purchase at affordable prices' says co-founder Michael Grassi. 'Once a customer selects their custom options, their order is sent directly to our manufacturer to make that bespoke piece'.  As present, all NOMI's products are hand crafted by local furniture makers in Melbourne.

What it perhaps most exciting about NOMI is its potential to fill that elusive gap between mass manufactured value and designer price tags.  For a long time this has been a real challenge in the Australian market.  Those in the market for a new dining table, for example, until recently, have essentially had two choices – a cheap and cheerful imported option priced around $400, or something sourced at a designer store, priced in excess of $3000. The gaping hole in the market between these two options seems to have been largely ignored by local designers until now, simply because it’s just incredibly difficult to design and manufacture furniture in Australia at an accessible cost. Australian designers have, until now, been left acknowledging this obvious gap in the market, but unable to fill it.

To combat this challenge, NOMI has taken a lateral approach, utilising rigorously efficient design, packing and processing methods to offer a high quality, solid timber product that is genuinely affordable. NOMI have gone back to the drawing board, experimenting with a range of products cleverly designed for self-assembly, based on Tomek's clever joinery system that enables each piece to be easily assembled at home using only a coin (no tools required!). Flat-packed furniture need no longer be associated with flimsy materials and poor craftsmanship. Instead, NOMI's impressive offering proves that that flat-packed furniture using solid, quality timbers can indeed be designed to last, and has real potential to fill that elusive gap between mass-market and high-end design for Australian customers.

Offering an impressive debut range of flat-packed furniture including tables, storage systems and seating, NOMI's range is currently available only online, and delivered within 28 days to most capital cities. 'For NOMI, our vision was to make designer furniture accessible on a national scale,' explains Henry Gresson, 'not just in high-end boutique stores in the major cities.' The flat-pack approach provided the ideal platform for this model, allowing this lean start-up the flexibility to offer an impressive debut collection of quality furniture at accessible prices.

Designed by creative director and award-winning Sydney product designer and architect  Tomek Archer of Tomahawk Studios, NOMI's range is a sleek, contemporary collection pared back to its most fundamental forms.  As Tomek explains below 'The NOMI range is essentially a study of familiar furniture types such as a domestic dining table, a folding chair, a work table, and so on, that have been stripped back to their most fundamental qualities. The idea has been to evolve and refine this design language to optimise efficiencies in materials, production, distribution and assembly'.

So, suddenly, there is a new option for Australian furniture buyers.  You can now buy a quality, locally made solid timber dining table starting at $1200. UNHEARD OF.  And about time!  I really wish these guys all the best... something tells me this could be the start of something very big!

Tell us a little bit about each of your backgrounds – what did you study, how did you all meet and what path led you to launching NOMI in 2013?

Michael - The three of us are all long term friends, with a shared desire to start a business and do something a little different. The three way partnership grew organically after numerous conversations. Myself (Michael) and Tomek on product design, manufacturing and logistics, and myself and Henry on technology, marketing and online retail platforms.

I studied Property Economics at University of Technology, Sydney and my professional career has been focused in the property development space. I have been involved in various large scale urban regeneration projects working with Architects, Town Planners, Government, Banks and various other stakeholders to redevelop parcels of land into active mixed use precincts.

Tomek studied Architecture at Sydney University and at the University of New South Wales. Over the past 10 years Tomek has been involved in various projects including designing furniture as well as musical pursuits, playing percussion for Vanshe, Sneaky Sound System and British group The Klaxons. Tomek now runs his own architectural practice ArcherBreakspear.

Henry Gresson studied Commerce at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Henry has been involved in various start-ups in the online and technology space, and offers a wealth of experience across marketing, sales, digital production, customer support and web development.

NOMI is amazing in that it allows customers to customise designer furniture online that best suits their space, then have it delivered to their door. How did the concept originally come about, and how long was this idea in development?

The idea originated when I was looking to buy a desk. I was after something relatively simple, but I wanted to have certain elements tailored to suit my own space. I didn’t want to purchase Ikea, I wanted something a little more substantial, something that would last.

All the great furniture pieces I loved were in boutique stores and offered at extremely expensive prices. So it became evident that there was a genuine lack of designer furniture in the mid market. Furthermore, no one was willing to sell their products tailored to my personal needs.

I was convinced there was an opportunity to create something new, so together with long term friends Tomek Archer and Henry Gresson we set about developing a business around the idea of custom designer furniture, available online at an affordable price point.

How would you describe the style of your work, and what influences NOMI’s aesthetic?

Michael - The style and the way we try to work at NOMI is to strive to be innovative in everything we do – from product development, to our online store through to manufacturing and distribution. We try and find new ways of doing things at every opportunity.

We are influenced by a broad spectrum of people… great designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Hans Wenger and Jasper Morrison. We are also influenced by great business minds such as the Rockefellers, Steve Jobs and of course Ikea’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad.

Tomek - While many of the product designs I have created since establishing Tomahawk Studios have been individual pieces, I have always wanted to develop a range of basics that were developed around a common theme, so they could be considered a 'set'. The NOMI range is essentially a study of familiar vernacular timber furniture types such as a domestic dining table, a folding chair, a work table, and so on, that have been stripped back to their most fundamental qualities. The idea has been to evolve and refine this design language to optimise efficiencies in materials, production, distribution and assembly.

NOMI is the perfect platform for a range like this, because it takes this sensible starting point and offers customers the option to then customise the proportions and finishes of the products, to create something so unusual that no manufacturer would ever commit to making it in volume. I think that is the potential anyway! While the basic range is reminiscent of the kind of modesty that we can appreciate in English and Japanese philosophy, and in the work of designers such as Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa, this idea of consumer customisation is hyper-contemporary and allows the social media generation to finally re-engage with the production process in a way that is reminiscent of how furniture was made to order before mass production made sameness was the norm.

NOMI_blacktable

Dove dining table by NOMI.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of NOMI – how is your studio and factory structured, how many people do you employ and in what roles? How do you manage the day-to-day side of the business while still working your other jobs?

Michael - Like most start-ups, we work out of a shared studio space in Sydney. This is where the business is run from. From here we develop concepts and ideas for new products, plan and implement new upgrades to the website, liaise with our manufacturers, communicate with customers and so on.

Other than myself, Henry and Tomek, we have a marketing and sales manager, a production and logistics manager and a sales assistant. So there are 5 of us internally, in addition we work with our manufacturer and web developer and various other suppliers and stakeholders that all contribute to making NOMI possible.

Nomi Furniture for The Design Files

Michael, Henry and Tomek of NOMI appraising their 'Storytellers Chair'. Photo - Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
Which Australian designers, artists or creative people are you liking at the moment?

Michael – I recently saw the Jezebels at the Opera House and thought they were incredible! I love the work that Henry Wilson is doing, he is a real talent and inspiration. Sydney tailor Patrick Johnson is also an inspiration, aesthetically he has a beautiful offering and he’s also built a very impressive business.

Henry - I'm inspired by Australians that are building innovative businesses that are disrupting traditional industries. We are lucky to be in the middle of a very exciting period where businesses are incorporating technology into their models to achieve this. Locally, two players leading the charge include Ruslan Kogan, from Kogan technology and Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar.

Tomek - As I'm writing this I'm on holidays... Currently in Croatia at For Festival, which is in its second year and without doubt the most incredible music festival I've been to. Set over four days across the idyllic islands surrounding Hvar it has been great for me to catch up with musicians I haven't seen in a while. The festival has been created by Stephen Pavlovic of Modular Records, and the lineup this year included stand-out new Sydney-based band, Movement... Recently I've also enjoyed Director Daniel Askill's video for Sia Furler's track, 'Chandelier' which I expect most people would have seen by now... And there are good things happening in Tasmanian art, design and architecture at the moment, with some young practices such as Room 11 Architects making great contributions.

Can you list for us 5 resources across any media (i.e. specific websites, magazines, blogs, books, TV or other media) you tune in to regularly?

MichaelTED, Instagram, Flipboard, Monocle and The Design Files!

Henry - I have been turning to content aggregators like Flipboard and Zite. They search the web for the best content and learn what you like, and what you don't. For my tech fix I check in with Techcrunch and BRW is a great Australian business publication.

Tomek - For blogs I often visit Afasia and Dezeen.  Like most architects I have a growing collection of El Croquis monographs, I also enjoy Perspecta, the Yale Architectural Journal published by MIT Press, And the Venice Architecture Biennale is proving a really inspiring recurring exhibition to structure European trips around!

And while all these things are nice (and fairly industry specific...) the resources I probably use most would be ABC iView for iPad, and Instagram..!

Nomi Furniture for The Design Files

NOMI Woodstack chairs Photo - Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Michael – Its pretty chaotic at the moment given we are only 9 months old. But on any given day, I could be doing anything from reviewing new product designs and prototypes with Tomek, to coordinating and managing manufacturers, to dealing with existing and new customers, to coordinating exhibitions and displays of our products, to working on the NOMI blog… 'The Studio', to managing and employing new staff as well as day to day admin… the stuff we all hate like accounts and invoicing and so on.

Henry - Try to get a run in before heading into the office. On my way I'll check in with the NOMI team before getting to my day job! Most of our NOMI work is done after hours so once I have finished briefing our developers, designers, marketers and other freelancers, working on the NOMI project the typical day doesn't usually end until 10.00pm.

Tomek - If I don't have an early morning meeting on site somewhere with a builder, I'll try to catch the first ferry to my office in Walsh Bay. Each day is different but in any given week we'll have several architecture and design projects at different stages, whether it be concept design and preparing models and renders to communicate the proposal, or detailed design development in the computer, or reviewing samples and final shop drawings before production commences. Ideas for new products are usually developed outside work hours, when the phone stops ringing! I also try to visit the workshop once a week.

What would be your dream creative project?

Michael – other than expanding the NOMI vision, I would love to make a movie or TV series.

Henry - It's cliché but I'm feel that I am already working on my dream creative project. I love combining design and technology and NOMI brings these 2 passions together.

Tomek - I'm interested in designing places, spaces and all the parts that set the stage for various forms of cultural exchange. Whether it be a public square or a theatre or a concert venue or a gallery, all these 'types' of projects are essentially flexible spaces that can accommodate various forms of use. My dream project would bring all these elements together for a particularly special event!

What are you looking forward to?

Michael – Launching some new products. We have a few in the pipeline and we’re hopeful that these will be on the market over the next 6 - 8 weeks.

Henry - We are only just getting started with the NOMI project. We have so many exciting new products and innovations to add to the website. We have a clear vision of where we taking the NOMI and I'm looking forward to making this a reality.

Tomek - From my point of view, the moment a product or project is 'finished' is in fact the moment it begins its life. Design is all about projecting into the future to consider how something might be used in a particular way. What I always really look forward to is seeing the real life of products and projects once they have been released into the wild. It's always interesting to see whether they go where you might have expected, or into other contexts that weren't anticipated at all.

NOMI_yellowtable

Time Dining table (round) by NOMI

SYDNEY QUESTIONS

Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?

Michael – Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, because this area is so close to everything. It's close to the city, it’s also close to the beach and the Harbour. I also love it for all the great eating and drinking spots nearby.

Henry - I'd have to say Paddington. I have been living there since moving to Australia in 2006, and I just love the village feel, sense of community and great pubs. It very much feels like home.

Tomek - I have never lived in Bondi, though it's always tempting. I don't think anyone could deny the entire Bondi Beach situation is one of the most incredible public arenas in the world, and as Sydney's most urban beach it has all the great contradictions and challenges that enrich a community.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?

MichaelCho Cho San in Potts Point. It's just opened, and the designer George Livissianis and owners Sam Christie and Jonathan Barthelmess have done an excellent job. The space is really cool, simple and elegant. And the food is amazing!

Henry - Staying with Paddington, I'd have to say 10 William Street. I love the relaxed atmosphere, friendly waiters and great wine list. You have to try the Calamari Fritti.

Tomek - I've been in Europe these past 3 weeks enjoying the local cuisine, thinking about how my next great meal in Sydney will be at Hotel De The, a new restaurant and bar we have just completed next to the fire station on Victoria St, Darlinghurst. It is due to open in a fortnight, and has a very talented team of people involved so I'm expecting great things!

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Michael – At the gym hopefully… that is if I haven’t had too much to drink the night before!

Henry - To my girlfriend's disappointment I'd more than likely be working on NOMI.

Tomek - Having a long breakfast with friends near water someplace.... Or working.

Sydney’s best kept secret?

Michael – My parents place! Every Sunday my Dad makes fresh pasta. It’s the best pasta you’ll eat anywhere.

Henry - McKell Park, Darling Point. Amazing spot for a picnic - stunning views looking over the harbor .

TomekSydney Ferries are the most incredible public transport experience in the world. They are amazingly punctual, fast and reliable, though I expect they might not be very eco-friendly just yet. Pretty sure this tip would be obvious to any visitors but I think there are many locals who have never realised.

Nomi Furniture for The Design Files

Tomek Archer with his 'Woodstack' folding chairs.. Photo - Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.

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