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Sarah Parkes of Smalltown

Studio Visit

27th January, 2012
Lucy Feagins
Friday 27th January 2012

Knotted Egg pendant light by Sarah Parkes - aka Smalltown

Custom installation for Avido Restaurant and Wine Bar in Sydney. Photos - Will Reichelt

Two-tiered macramé plant holder by Sarah Parkes

Residential commission - custom chandelier by Sarah Parkes

You know what's amazing?  It's amazing when the initiative and unique skill of one person, at a particular moment in time, seems to single handedly drive a design trend in a certain area or city. I think sometimes it just takes one inspired creative to start making something new and distinctive - and before long that idea forms it's own trajectory and becomes part of a a city's collective consciousness.  And then it pops up everywhere!  I am sure Melbournians will have noticed this recent trend of incorporating oversized macramé installations into hospitality, retail and commercial interiors.  This idea has been springing up in lots of new venues in the past couple of years - but I'm willing to wager that's almost entirely due to the unique talent of Melbourne designer Sarah Parkes - aka Smalltown!

As you'll learn below, Sarah started out in graphic design, before turning to jewellery design - which in turn led her to discover macramé.  It wasn't long before her small macramé accessories had been superceded by commisions for quite complex oversized installations.  In just 3 years Sarah has put her macramé stamp all over Melbourne - and a little of Sydney too!  Her output is impressively prolific - she's worked on a great variety of shop, restaurant and bar interiors, and aside from her large, custom commissions she also makes smaller hanging baskets and accessories for sale via her website.

I'm sure if you live in Melbourne you will have spotted a little of Sarah's work around town - now you can finally put a name to the knots!

Massive thanks to Sarah for her time with this interview and all the great pics!

Creating macramé installation and products for a living seems like a very niche and unusual career path! Tell us a little about your background – how did you first discover macramé and what path led to what you’re doing now?

I studied graphic design quite a while ago, and since then have followed several different creative paths.

About 3 years ago I started a jewellery label, and for my second collection I learnt how to macramé. I taught myself from old 70’s craft books that I had collected. Around that time friends were designing the interior of the new Claude Maus store in Melbourne and asked me to make a large knotted hanging. I loved the jump into oversized, working with large guage rope and seeing the beauty of the big chunky knots. That was quickly followed by two huge plant hangings for Space Furniture in Richmond which cemented my obsession.

For some reason macramé totally clicked with me creatively and I realised its endless potential. It can be purely decorative or, due to the strength of the rope and knots, it can also serve a practical purpose, such as suspending something. I really only use a couple of knots, it’s the way I put them together that creates the design. My brain enjoys the symmetry, pattern and neatness of it all. Knots have a history and symbolism and there is something beautiful about them. I’m pretty obsessed I guess and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Jewellery and accessories by Sarah Parkes of Smalltown

Where might we have seen your work?

I have interior pieces in Claude Maus boutique, Fur Hairdressing and The Brix and Lupino restaurants in Melbourne, Avido Restaurant & Wine garden and The Ivy in Sydney. Xmas 2011 windows for Kookai clothing stores. I’ve done installations for the last two Australian Tennis Opens. Some people might have seen my Knotted Egg light in magazines or on blogs.

Claude Maus store - Melbourne

Custom installation for Champions Bar - Australian Open 2011

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

I had a baby last year so my work pratice has changed quite a lot. My partner also works for himself so we’re doing the baby juggle between us at the moment.

I do my emailing and other businessy things in the morning at home. I have a lovely big studio space on Smith St, in Collingwood. I either take my daughter South there with me for a couple of hours or I’ll get a full day in there to myself. Once I’m there I try not to leave or get distracted and there’s no computer either... studio time is very precious!  Currently I’m either filling orders for my lights and plant hangings or working on commissioned pieces. So there’s generally a lot of knotting going on.

Hanging knotted pendants at Portmans, Sydney

Can you give us a little insight into how your business structured?  How does work find you? Do you have any helpers / collaborators to assist with the bigger projects you work on?

My business structure is pretty loose!  Promotion is not my strong point so work has always found me. It’s especially good now as I’m not working full time and I seem to have a nice flow of projects happening. I always think there’s an exciting job around the corner. I’ve been so lucky to have worked on a succession of great projects with fantastic clients who trust me and allow me free reign creatively. Each job has challenged and pushed me in unexpected ways. I enjoy the collaborative process with the client as they come to me with an idea and it’s often something I wouldn’t have done myself.

I usually do everything myself however my partner often helps me out. He’s a builder, very practical and has strong guns which is invaluable for some of my pieces. On a recent job for Kookai I had to produce window hangings for stores nationally and he was required to cut up 4kms of rope into 8m lengths!

Kookai Christmas windows - Macrame wall hanging by Sarah Parkes of Smalltown

I would love to train someone up to help and this would take a lot of time and effort but it’s something that I’ll look at in the future. And then there’s the part of me that wants to do everything myself. However my aim is to get someone to make my ‘product’ pieces such as the lights and plant hangings and I can concentrate on commissioned pieces which is what I love.

Custom window installation at Bloom, South Yarra

Which other designers, artists or creative people do you admire?

All my friends are creative and doing their own things so I’m constantly inspired by what they do.

Can you list for us a few resources across any media you tune in to regularly for creative inspiration?

I don’t have much time to trawl the net or read magazines. It’s always good to get a fix of internet browsing though to see what’s going on out there in the big world.  Most of my inspiration currently comes from my materials and the craft itself.

Amo La Vida decorative hanging

What would be your dream creative project?

An amazing, big commissioned piece with an unlimited budget.

Installation for The Brix, Fitzroy. Photo - Hilary Walker

What are you looking forward to ?

I think there’s so much scope with macramé and I’m always looking forward to the next possible job. I have some exciting potential projects in the works and the possibility of an overseas job this year. When I get the time I’m also looking forward to doing some more experimenting with different materials and processes such as dyeing. There’s so much to do and not enough time!

Installation for Lupino restaurant, Melbourne

Melbourne Questions

You favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I love living in Brunwsick... it’s low key, neighbourly and with lots of little interesting places. And Sparkly Bear (shopping centre) is a just short walk away.

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

I don’t go out much now and we love cooking at home. My partner tries to make me eat more meat products and the ribs he bbq’d up last week were the best yet.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

At home cooking up mexican eggs and entertaining South.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Staying home and watching bad tv on a Saturday night is cool. The Three Amigos and Blazing Saddles double header last weekend was killer!

Pot hangers - made to order (make contact via Sarah's website)

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email