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Kate Stokes of Coco Flip

Studio Visit

I remember when Melbourne designer Kate Stokes launched her first commercial lighting design, the Coco Pendant lamp, back in 2010.  With it’s unique turned timber base and curved aluminium shade, this striking new piece really put Kate’s fledgling studio, Coco Flip, on the map.  The Coco pendant won three awards at Fringe Furniture in Melbourne that year, and quickly gathered accolades and extensive publicity both locally and internationally.  Not surprisingly, it’s still one of Kate’s best selling designs.

8th August, 2014

Kate Stokes and her partner Haslett Grounds in their  Melbourne studio. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

The Melbourne studio of designer Kate Stokes and her company, Coco Flip. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

Coco Flip studio details, with black Coco pendant hanging overhead. Photo – Eve Wilson. Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files.

Coco Flip studio details. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

 

Making scale models for new products. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

Studio details, including mini scale models of Coco Flip’s Bucket table. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

Coco natural light shades in progress. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

Studio details at Coco Flip.  Mr Cooper lamps on trestle table, Puku Ottomans to right, Coco Flip turned timber pendants in progress on floor.  Photo – Eve Wilson. Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files.

Spun copper ‘Mr Cooper’ lights by Coco Flip. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.

Designer Kate Stokes in the Coco Flip studio! Photo – Eve Wilson. Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files.

Lucy Feagins
Friday 8th August 2014

Since those early days, Kate’s business has grown dramatically.  Coco Flip now produces a range of other products including Kate’s popular ‘Mr Cooper’ spun copper and brass pendants, Puku ottomans, and quirky Bucket table.  But although her product range, notoriety and customer base have grown, there are some things about Kate that haven’t changed.

As she outlines below, ever since growing up in rural WA, Kate has been a quiet achiever, a thoughtful observer of her surrounds.  This calm, measured sensibility certainly translates to her work, where she aims to offer simple, timeless design, pared back to achieve a sense of balance and restraint.  ‘There’s no need to over complicate things’ she explains below, ‘I think the most successful furniture pieces throughout history have been really simple ideas, superbly executed and crafted with integrity’.

Kate is passionate about local manufacturing, and works with a number of Melbourne based specialised manufacturers to create her products.  As she explains below, they are the unsung heroes of the local design industry!  ‘Their skills, patience and discipline are rarely celebrated, but without them we’d be completely lost’ she says.  Although it is always a challenge to offer competitive pricing when manufacturing locally, Kate says she wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘We’re not interested in mass production and we can’t compete on price with large companies who have everything made offshore, but that’s okay’ she says below, adding ‘I’d prefer people buy less and value things more’.  It’s statements like this which reveal Kate’s unique approach to running her business – after all, it’s not a position you would expect of most designer / manufacturers!

Kate and her partner Haslett are expecting their first child soon, which has brought new focus to their business.  They’re looking forward to welcoming a new studio manager in their Collingwood studio, which, aside from giving Kate a much needed maternity break, will also signal a new phase for the business.  ‘It’s an exciting time’ explains Kate, ‘this will allow me to take a step back and focus on being a mum, and also focus more on the creative side of the business and less on administration and production’.  We wish you all the best with this next chapter Kate and Haslett!

Coco Flip products are available nationally at stockists including Cult, Tongue and Groove, Design Farm, Workshopped and Designcraft.

Tell us a little about your background – what did you study, and what path led you initially to lighting design?

I grew up in Western Australia in the small town of Donnybrook for the first seven years of my life, before we moved to the ‘big smoke’ in Perth. It wasn’t a typically creative upbringing, my parents were both GPs, but they were always incredibly supportive and open-minded and I think they instilled a sense of curiosity about the world in both my brother and me, which has helped us form our own unique career paths. I am the younger and quieter sibling and I was much more the observer of the household, quietly contemplating my surrounds.

I began to take a strong interest in art towards the end of high school, but I also enjoyed science and maths, which led me initially to study architecture, as I felt it was a natural pairing of the left and right sides of the brain. However, my urge to travel quickly overtook my desire to learn AutoCAD and I spent a number of years working abroad in Europe and North America where I developed a fascination with mid-century furniture, particularly Danish modernism. I got a real kick out of going to furniture showrooms and flea markets and decided that the scale of product design appealed much more than that of architecture.

I enrolled in an Industrial Design degree at Curtin University back in Perth and tried as much as possible to spin the projects towards furniture and lighting. In my final year I was fortunate enough to be part of a group exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair, which gave me a small taste of how intensely competitive the international furniture market is.

After graduating in 2006 I took a creative development role at Little Creatures Brewing which was a huge blessing, as I acquired skills in graphic design, marketing and project management which have been so valuable in setting up and running a small business. All of those things that you don’t get taught at university!

I made the move to Melbourne at the end of 2008 and worked with State of Design Festival in a communications role, which gave me a great insight into the various creative people, practices and design events in and around Melbourne. It was the best crash course in the Melbourne design scene I could have hoped for and again, I gained some valuable experience in marketing and worked with some brilliant minds.

In 2010 I decided it was time to take the leap and start my own small business with a focus on furniture and lighting design. With some helpful direction from previous colleagues, and an ArtStart grant from Australia Council, Coco Flip was born. I initially worked from my living room and the State Library, and have since occupied various studios in the city and Collingwood as the business has grown.

How would you describe the style of your work, and what influences your design aesthetic?

I aim for my work to tread the fine line between simple, timeless design, and unique pieces that have character and presence. The focus is on honest materiality and processes, and I always try to pare back the design to achieve a sense of balance and restraint.

I think the most successful furniture pieces throughout history have been really simple ideas, superbly executed and crafted with integrity. There’s no need to over complicate things. Proportion, detail and function are the most important aspects of any product. If you don’t think about those things when you look at it then I think the product has been successful.

I also believe there should always be a story within each piece. It needs to be more than just another light or chair, and hopefully there is enough intrinsic value that the pieces last a lifetime and beyond.

You specialise in contemporary furniture and lighting that is designed and manufactured in Australia – why is this element of your business important to you and what challenges do you face maintaining this commitment to local production?

I get so much pleasure and satisfaction from engaging with local manufacturers in Melbourne – it’s an integral part of the practice and those relationships are absolutely vital. There’s an art to finding the right people to work with locally, but I honestly can’t imagine doing things any other way. I always begin researching manufacturers mid-way through the design process. Their capabilities and experience then start to influence the product itself.

Of course there are plenty of challenges that go along with making things in Australia, the obvious one being price. However, it’s important for us to educate people about why our products cost what they do, and people seem to understand the value of ‘local’ more and more. We’re not interested in mass production and we can’t compete on price with large companies who have everything made offshore, but that’s okay. It’s a niche market and I’d prefer people buy less and value things more.

Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of your business – how is your studio structured, how many people to you employ and do you outsource any significant tasks?

Coco Flip is a very modest small business in itself, but there is a wide network of people who we work with to achieve what we do. It was just myself in the studio until April last year, when my husband Haslett joined to lend a hand while also setting up his own architecture practice, Grounds Architecture. There have also been a couple of superstar interns that have spent time in our studio helping out for short periods along the way.

As we’re about to have a baby, we are currently in the process of hiring a studio manager to take on the day-to-day running of the practice. It’s an exciting time as this will allow me to take a step back and focus on being a mum, but it will also let me focus more on the creative side of the business and less on administration and production.

Beyond the studio we have a number of distributers in Australia and abroad who we wholesale to. They represent our products fantastically and we’ve been incredibly fortunate to be adopted by companies such as Cult, Tongue and Groove, Design Farm, Workshopped and Designcraft. All of our stockists have real integrity, and share our passion for authentic, timeless design.

Then of course there are all of the manufacturers in Melbourne who we outsource the making of various components to. They are the unsung heroes of design! Their skills, patience and discipline are rarely celebrated, but without them we’d be completely lost.

What does a typical day involve for you?

I like to start the day with a bit of exercise, usually a brisk morning walk or a jog around Fitzroy Gardens and the MCG. I then ride to our studio at The Compound Interest in Collingwood, plan the day ahead and deal with anything urgent before wandering down the road to Cibi for a coffee.

Throughout the day there’s always some administration to be done – answering emails, processing orders, ordering stock, writing invoices etc. I regularly visit our manufacturers to pick up stock, discuss production and talk through any issues to keep things running smoothly. We package everything back in our studio, so some days are spent assembling products and taping boxes.

As well as the daily tasks of running a business it’s important that I find time to switch focus and work on new ideas. I enjoy sketching away from the studio where there are less distractions, as well as model making and researching materials and new avenues for production as concepts develop. As a small business owner it’s fortunate that I enjoy wearing many hats.

Which Australian furniture or lighting designers or creative people are you liking at the moment?

Melbourne is bursting with creative talent, and it feels wonderful to be surrounded by a genuinely supportive bunch of people working in furniture, lighting and beyond. I really respect Tait for their dedication to local production and the way they’ve consistently evolved their business over the last 20 years.

Working within The Compound Interest we are amongst so many clever and inspiring businesses such as Chorus, The Field Institute and United Measures to name just a few. I’m also lucky to have many talented and supportive friends such as Sophie Moorhouse Morris and Charlotte Swiden who both run their own creative practices.

I love what Field Experiments is currently doing and I think that Sydney based Henry Wilson will be one of the defining designers of our time.

Can you list for us 5 resources across any media you tune in to regularly?

Thisispaper – to peruse in a quiet moment at work.
Apartamento Magazine – to read about real people and places
This American Life – for podcasts to listen to while walking.
Dumbo Feather – for a fresh perspective.
The Saturday Paper – to keep up to date with the news each weekend.

What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?

Coco Flip enables me to have incredible creative freedom, as all projects are self-initiated. The only real restraints are finance, time and manufacturing capabilities, so it would be amazing if they didn’t exist! I really love the idea of working on some limited edition collector pieces and also more small-scale products for stores such as Mr. Kitly and Dagmar Rousset.

What are you looking forward to?

Becoming a mum and spending time at Greens Pool in Denmark, WA this summer with my family.

 

MELBOURNE QUESTIONS

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I’m guilty of existing within the inner-north bubble of Fitzroy and Collingwood. Home and work are only a short ride apart and I never tire of walking the back streets, admiring the beautiful terrace houses and having an incredible range of cafes, galleries, stores and parks on our doorstep.

Where in Melbourne do you buy the tools of your trade?

Almost everything we buy comes from the outer suburbs of Melbourne’s industrial zones. You’d be amazed at what goes on inside the most ordinary looking warehouse.

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

Brunch at El Chino in Fitzroy North. They have a cheery vibe, friendly staff and delicious food without any pretense.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Reading the paper at one of our local cafes or getting out of town to somewhere along the Great Ocean Road.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

My friend Claire has created a lovely weekend ritual called the ‘bat walk’. Seeing the colony of bats flying overhead at dusk is pretty magic and the walk along Merri Creek, past the animals at Collingwood Children’s Farm and into Yarra Bend Park is the perfect escape from inner city living.

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