Studio Visit

Louise Olsen & Stephen Ormandy of Dinosaur Designs

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
22nd of February 2013
Louise Olsen and Stephen Ormandy of Dinosaur Designs at their Sydney headquarters, with Skipper the dog!  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Pieces from Dinosaur Designs' new 'The Art of Black White' range, on display at their Sydney headquarters.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Detail from Louise Olsen's office.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Stephen working on sculptural forms in his office.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Stephen working on sculptural clay forms.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Detail from Louise Olsen's studio pinboard.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Ok all, bear with me while I get a little bit 'starstruck schoolgirl' for just a moment. I have loved Dinosaur Designs since FOREVER.  When I was in high school I would browse their Chapel street store with my Mum, lingering forever at each colour-filled cabinet, requesting specific bracelets and colour combos for my next birthday.  So you can imagine my excitement last week, when I had the incredible opportunity to meet Dinosaur Designs creative directors Stephen Ormandy and Louise Olsen, and to visit their Sydney headquarters, where the DD team design and manufacture their entire range.  For me, this is like 8000 times more exciting than a visit to the flight deck in an aeroplane or anything like that. Dinosaur Designs are the ultimate Australian design brand.  Their signature style is instantly recognisable – an eclectic blend of chunky, tactile shapes, combined with the most brilliant, intuitive sense of colour.  The business was originally founded by Louise Olsen, Stephen Ormandy and Liane Rossler in 1985, who were art students at the time, selling their handmade creations at Sydney’s markets.  Dinosaur Designs' incredible path to success from these humble beginnings is well documented - they're now a household name both here and abroad, with seven stores in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and New York, and many more stockists worldwide.  Their impressive creative output has won Dinosaur Designs numerous awards and accolades over the years, also spurring collaborations with brands such as Louis Vuitton and Paul Smith.  2013 marks their 28th year in business.  Twenty-eight years! Every single perfectly formed vase, bowl and accessory you have ever admired at Dinosaur Designs was made here, under one roof, at Dinosaur Designs headquarters in Redfern.  A visit to this hive of activity confirms instantly just what makes this revered Australian brand so special.  Each DD creation is designed, formed, hand poured and sanded in their Sydney workshop, by a growing family of talented designers, jewellers and makers.  On average, each piece passes through seven sets of hands before leaving the studio.  The integrity of this approach is so refreshing in an industry often consumed with mass-manufacture. And of course, it means no two Dinosaur Designs pieces are ever quite the same. Many moons ago when I first started this little old blog in 2008, I was so lucky to meet and interview Dinosaur Designs' founding partner Liane Rossler, which was such a thrill, and so encouraging when I was a little fledgling blogger!  Today I feel a whole lot more grown-up (!), yet equally excited to revisit this iconic Australian design brand, with a behind-the-scenes tour and interview with husband and wife team Stephen Ormandy and Louise Olsen! Enormous thanks to Stephen and Louise for their generosity with this interview, and to Heleena at DD for hooking it up!  That's one major tick off the bucket list.
Tell us a little about each of your backgrounds – what did you each study, how did you meet and what path led you to launching Dinosaur Designs in 1985?
Louise - I was born in Watsons Bay in Sydney. I grew up surrounded by art, my Dad is John Olsen and my Mum, Valerie, was also a beautiful painter. Our home was always filled with paintings, books and artifacts of inspiration. When we were really young, Dad had his studio in the living room and Mum’s was in the spare room, and the smell of turpentine and oil paint was always in the air. When I finished school I went straight to art school and majored in painting, drawing and art history, then I did a post grad in painting. I met Steve on the very first day of art school. The classes were grouped alphabetically and with him being Ormandy and me being Olsen we were put together. I remember when we met I had this incredible sense of destiny; that we’d met before. We became best of friends immediately but we both had partners at the time. It was two years before we became a couple. Steve - I was born in Melbourne and my family moved to Sydney when I was 10. For a young boy obsessed with surfing it was like coming to paradise. I spent most of my free time at North Steyne in Manly. I remember always wanting to be an artist. When I was in kindy I was obsessed with painting and maybe someone told me I could do this as a career. It’s been my career choice ever since I can remember. I finally achieved my dream of attending art school and on the first day I met Louise!  I was like Rodger Rabbit looking at Jessica Rabbit!  Stay cool I thought, I’m going to love art school! At art school we met Liane Rossler and the three of us started making clothing and selling it at the markets as a way to make money to pay for our paints. The clothing wasn’t a great success for us but we were selling brass jewellery that I’d been making and selling to boutiques around Sydney. We were also selling hand painted tee shirts that Louise had been making and also selling to boutiques. Liane painted some balsawood earrings that sparked the idea for hand painted jewellery. Then Louise started experimenting with fimo, which added a sculptural element and it just took off, so we all started painting fimo. Fimo was exciting and immediate, but lacked the quality we needed so we started to explore other materials. Luckily, one day our stall was next to artist Geoffrey Rose, who was making pop sculptures in resin. He suggested we started using resin and shared his knowledge with us. For a time we shared a studio space with him in the old Pie Factory in Darlinghurst.
Stephen Ormandy's studio pinboard.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Dinosaur Designs is one of Australia's most iconic and celebrated design-based businesses. Did you ever anticipate from Dinosaur Designs humble Paddington Markets debut that the company would one day grow to include stores in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and New York, become a fixture in fashion / homewares editorial spreads for over two decades? Did you have a grand master plan for the business, or has the growth of Dinosaur Designs been more spontaneous / organic?
Louise - We’ve always been spontaneous and organic – it’s in our nature. We never planned to have a big business, we just wanted to pay the rent and paint. We still work as artists – we weren’t trained as business people but we have learnt along the way. We’re lucky that we have a great team behind us. There’s no way we could do all the things we do without them. Steve - Over the years we’ve had to learn to be more methodical and structured as we’ve grown, but we always try to leave room for the spontaneous and the unplanned. When you employ 75 people, you have a great responsibility to keep the business going so you do make plans and have to learn about cash flow and balance sheets and profit and loss and HR and a million other things, but you have to still retain the ability to play, explore and be creative (and surf). Sometimes it’s a challenge to keep the balance, but we manage.
The handmade, tactile nature of your products has become Dinosaur Designs' biggest point of difference in the market. It's incredible that despite the immense growth of your business, each piece is handmade in Sydney under one roof! How important has it been for Dinosaur Designs to keep manufacturing in-house, and what challenges has this commitment to local production presented?
Louise - It’s always been an important part of our design process to design our objects in-house. There’s a certain spirit in the piece or object that comes through, where you can identify who it’s made by and how it’s made. People often forget that all our pieces are handmade in Sydney. We could definitely make a lot more money if we paid people overseas a few dollars an hour to make our pieces, but it’s not just about the money for us. We really feel we’d lose something by going offshore. For us, it’s also about supporting talented artisans and an industry of creative people in Australia. If it’s important to you and you want creative industries to survive in Australia, you have to support it through your employment practices and the choices you make when you shop. Steve - Our work is like a 3D poem, which is read through touch. We achieve this by keeping the production at home. The challenges are that we don’t mass produce anything and that we sometimes miss out on being stocked in some of the great stores around the world because we can’t meet the price point they need.
Erin from the Design Development team in the resin workshop, where all Dinosaur Design vessels are poured.   This is where the magic happens!!  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Our readers will be thrilled to see a little behind the scenes peek at the Dinosaur Designs head office and studio! Can you describe briefly the process of developing a new collection from start to finish – i.e. from initial concepts to sketching, prototyping, to producing the ranges for the stores? How many hands does each Dinosaur Designs piece travel through on this journey, and what is the timeframe of developing a new collection from start to finish?
Louise - All of our collections start in our sketchbooks. Steve and I discuss stories and themes and then start sketching ideas. It takes about six months from start to finish, and then we move in to production. Steve - On average it’s probably about seven pairs of hands, but it really depends on the piece. We make the original piece in clay, which is then prototyped in resin, which then needs fine-tuning. We then make a mould and cast it before it’s hand sanded and hand finished.
OK, I am well annoyed that I can't remember this cute boy's name.  DOH.  Will update as soon as someone from Dinosaur Designs lets me know! UPDATE, cute boy's name is: Josh Bush. Anyway, he is making a clay 'sketch' for a new vessel design.  He is laughing because he reckons his creation looks a little weird to start with!  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Not only are you two business partners but also real life partners! Do you have a secret to managing a healthy relationship and a successful business simultaneously?
Louise - We both share a passion and love for creating both at home and at work. Dinosaur Designs never feels like work, it’s a way of life that we both love. Steve - There’s no management – we got lucky!
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Dinosaur Designs? How is your office structured, how many people do you employ, and are you still each very involved in the design process day-to-day?
Louise - We’re still very hands-on in the business, which does pull us in different directions. But first and foremost we’re designers. We design everything at Dinosaur Designs, this we have done for the last 28 years. Richard, our general manager, tries to give us as much time as possible to design but we also have to deal with the business side of things and keep on top of what’s happening in the stores. We have a sales manager, a head of development, a production manager, an accountant and a marketing manager – just to name a few! We currently have about 75 members of the team across the studio and our stores. Steve - We’re still based in Redfern, Sydney, which we love as it’s in the hub of Sydney and going through a fantastic cultural awakening; galleries, restaurants, bars, showrooms and design stores are all opening up. We have a great, light filled studio that is becoming a creative hub for us and our team, all of whom are creative outside of work. We also have a fantastic roof space for parties! We renovated our company structure in 2008 in consultation with a business coach. We are artists, and not trained in business, and we found the organic way we grew was no longer working. It was a period of great change for all at Dinosaur Designs, and some self reflection was needed. With every burst of outward growth you need to balance it by then focusing back on the company.
Meg, Dinosaur Designs' wholesale manager sorts product for distribution.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
When a career spans 28 years there are sure to have been a few highlights along the way! What have been one or two of your favourite milestone / projects / collaborations over the years?
Louise - We’ve been really fortunate to work with some great people over the last 28 years, including collaborations with Louis Vuitton and Paul Smith, and to have been invited to exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. More recently we were commissioned to create six huge platters for an exhibition at Brisbane’s GoMA which was a great honour. We’ve also had pieces featured in a Caroline Herrera runway show and have been worn by Erin Wasson, Kate Winslett, Rachel Weiss, Elle Macpherson, Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Anna Piaggi, Alicia Keys. And then there was Kylie who was a fan in the early days, which was just fantastic! Steve - Opening our New York store was a huge milestone as it’s something we’d dreamed of for a long time. Actually making that leap was pretty scary at the time but we just knew we had to do it.
Which Australian artists, designers or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Louise - John Olsen, my Dad!  He’s 85 and still going strong. He’s working on two huge murals and he’s up and down ladders all the time. He’s an inspiration. Valerie, my Mum, she was a fine and delicate artist and always surrounded us with love and showed us the value of kindness. Cate Burton from Queen B candles, great candles and fantastic ethics. Kylie Kwong, amazing food, a beautiful person and again, great ethics. Saskia Havekes, we’ve known each other for years and it’s wonderful to see her become the most wonderful floral sculptor. Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson have been inspirations for generations. The beautiful simplicity of design of Jac & Jak. Marita Leuver, not only is she a great friend but she’s also a great graphic designer. She’s so much fun to work with. Martyn Thompson, Stephen Ward, Juli Balla and Eryca Green are the most amazing photographers and we love working with them all. Steve - Sarah Cottier and Ashley Barber of the Sarah Cottier Gallery, two friends we met at art school who now have the most incredible gallery. David Band, was an amazing graphic designer and artist. We miss him as a friend and a collaborator. John Coburn, a very old friend – we shared our very first studio with him in Kings Cross and still really admire his work. It was wonderful to spend time in the studio with him and watch him paint.
Stephen Ormandy in his studio.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Can you list for us 5 specific resources across any media that you turn to when you in need of a bolt of creative inspiration for a new brief or new project?
Louise - Nowness, The Quintessential MagazineGarance Dore, The Sartorialist, and Steve - We constantly consume all types of culture so for us it’s travel, travel, travel, travel and… did I mention travel? We’re pretty old school in that respect, but there’s something that infuses the whole way you see the world when you’re immersed in another culture.
What does a typical day look like for each of you?
Louise - It’s usually a 7.00am start. We live near the beach so a morning swim is the best way to start the day. Try and have breakfast at home. Then we drop Camille off at school before heading to the studio with a stop on the way for a coffee at our favourite café, Earth Food on Gould Street, Bondi. We’re usually at the studio by 9.00am. The first thing we do is catch-up with Richard our GM and the team, then it’s onto emails. Fortunately, most of my time at the studio is spent designing. I always have my work set up for the next day – often when I’m working on a design I pick up where I left off the previous day. There’s always meetings with the development team about a design I’m working on. My day does vary depending where I’m at with a design. I try and leave work by 6.00pm to spend time with Camille and cook dinner. It’s always nice to get home and have a glass of wine and relax and think about the day. As a designer you never really stop thinking about what you’re working on. My parents were the same and so is Stephen, when you’re in the process of creating you never stop thinking about the endless possibilities or what you need to do next - maybe it’s a colour or the form - it totally sweeps you up. Steve - Check the ocean, pack my surf gear in the car if it looks promising. Coffee, breakfast, time to sit (sometimes) or pick up a takeaway (mostly) coffee. Get to Dinosaur Designs and start on whatever needs doing, be it a finance meeting or getting on with designing the next collection. Finish at Dinosaur Designs and pick up Camille from school, head home, catch the news, then fail to get off the couch until bed time, do the dishes. Bed.
Louise Olsen in her studio.   Photo - Sean Fennessy.
What would be your dream creative project?
Louise - I’d love to design furniture. Steve - We’d love to create a large piece of public art.
What are you looking forward to?
Louise - The next collection. We’re heading back to design week in New York to launch my ‘Ocean’ collection with Martyn Thompson’s imagery. Steve - Continuing on the same journey with art and Dinosaur Designs and life, and a North swell due next Thursday.

Sydney Questions

Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?
Louise - Bronte, as we love living by the sea, and here we can go for a swim and enjoy the fresh sea air to breathe.  Seeing the colour of the water changing by the hour is so inspiring. Steve - Bronte, it’s where we live, with a beautiful beach, the sound of the ocean at night, trees full of birds, good cafés and close to the city.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?
Louise - My friend Millie’s baked nectarines with lemon thyme and raw double cream that she cooked at our home with friends. It was heaven. Steve - It’s a toss up between Sean’s Panorama in Bondi and the most amazing pavlovas and chocolate brownies made by our dear friend Julie Gibbs.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Louise - Swimming at Bronte, catching up on reading, doing things I don’t get time for during the week and there’s usually a bit of grocery shopping too! We do love our time at home; time to dream, rest and cook and have friends over. Steve - In the ocean, or at a café.
Sydney’s best kept secret?
Louise - Wholefoods House for wonderful organic food straight from the farm. We love the quality and integrity of this family run business. Steve - Not telling!
Louise Olsen knows how to make a moodboard.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.

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