Way back in 2012, in the days when I went out to photograph every single story for this website all by myself (man, I’m glad we have a team now!), I met Jem SeligFreeman and Laura Woodward of Like Butter. Partners in both life and in business, Jem and Laura were running their own prolific little design and fabrication studio in Kensington, creating simple, affordable furniture and storage solutions in a tiny little studio. Their business was formed in 2007 after Jem, an industrial designer by trade, and Laura, a sculptor, took a leap of faith and invested in a CNC plasma cutter, shipped all the way from Nevada, USA.
Jen and Laura are still working from the Young Husband Woolstore warehouses in Kensington, but the past three years have seen enormous growth for this industrious little start up. With modest ambitions, Like Butter’s client base has grown significantly, small jobs have turned into bigger jobs, and a tiny, dark little studio has expanded into a fully kitted out timber workshop. Today, Like Butter have five part time staff and one full time project manager.
Like Butter divide their time between commissioned work, and developing their own range of handcrafted furniture and storage pieces. I’m convinced their furniture collection, constructed almost entirely in plywood, is the most affordable locally crafted furniture you will find in Melbourne, with shelving units started at $660, and pigeon hole units starting at $295.
To view the full range, visit the Like Butter website – purchases can me made via email, or you can arrange a time to pop in and purchase directly from their North Melbourne workshop and showroom by appointment.
Tell us a little bit about your background – what did you study, and what path led you to launching Like Butter?
We met at a house party of mutual friends in 2005, drunk and not knowing that our parents then lived within 2kms of each other in rural Victoria. We immediately started making things together, designing naïve structures like a fold up house, short films and animations.
In 2007 Laura, a sculptor, needed laser cut stainless steel parts for a new work, so we imported our own machine from the US. A plasma cutter, agricultural compared to laser, but it did the trick.
We never launched Like Butter as such (maybe we’ll have a 10th birthday party) it just happened and we ran with it, a slow organic progression led by gut feelings and intuition.
In 2009 Jem took on the day-to-day operations full-time, and Laura took a step back to focus on her sculptural practice. We still manage the business together and collaborate on the big projects when they come in.
How would you describe your work, and what influences your distinctive aesthetic?
Jem: I love simple, lightweight, efficient. If I have to name influences I say things like balsa wood aeroplanes and plywood billycarts I made with my Dad as a kid. My parents deliberately left the yard messy with scraps of timber and forgotten prams, perfect fodder for a kid to play and make things.
I still dream of billycarts and cubbies, I’m planning a Bucky dome for the office as a place of escape from the workshop bustle. Process and systems often drives my aesthetic, I let the tools steer the form, working with them to derive an outcome that is fast and efficient.
How did you originally get into furniture design and production?
Dan Honey and Sonia Rentsch, who were working for State of Design festival at the time, commissioned us to make a whole bunch of simple plywood furniture in 2011. Having only really used steel up until that point, we began the investigation into plywood that still continues today. Our ply crates were born, people wanted to buy them, we found ways to make them more efficiently, created systems and workshop procedures, hired staff, made some crazy tools that are best left as trade secrets, and here we are.
We love systems. Designing processes and systems is one of our favourite parts of the job now, and part of Laura’s PhD was about systems theory. Jem’s been getting into Kanban and other amazing Japanese industrial production techniques. It’s fun, it’s the next challenge in making a business work long term.
What’s one of your favourite pieces to make and design?
Jem: Plyangle, it’s awkward, our customers don’t like it but I love it. Taking a sheet of thin material and making it super stiff with some ribs taken from crate offcuts. That transformation makes me happy.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of your business and creative process? How do you manage the day-to-day side of the business, while making all of your furniture and products in-house?
Jem: Tom who works for us often refers to the Like Butter inbox as our ‘email monster’. It constantly needs feeding, it’s a challenge to stay ahead and not be consumed. I try to break up my day between admin and workshop time, being on the floor is great, as I’m not the best verbal communicator. I rely on my hands to learn and understand a process myself before I can relay that information to staff.
Designing new product is the same, I need to pick up some steel rod and start bending, sitting down to sketch only gets me so far before I get frustrated and need material in my hands. Design is about intuition for me, and just doing what feels right and making stuff.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Jem: Laura and I will always get coffee together, it’s a ritual to start the day, enforcing some down time before an 8am start at the studio. John is our full-time project manager, so if time permits we’ll go over the day’s deadlines and deliverables, but more often than not we just crack on with the most imminent deadline. We tend to have about 30 custom jobs and product orders on the go at any one time, so managing it to all to arrive on time is a mission.
Lunch tends to be on the go, then the workshop officially shuts down at 3pm but it’s rare to be home in daylight. Dinner with Laura and an episode of the latest HBO serial tends to cap the night.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Kim Victoria, jeweller. Kim made our wedding rings, she’s doing great things!
Sonia Rentch, art director. Sonia is a dear friend doing amazing work in New York at the moment.
Ainslie Wills and Lawrence Folvig, musicians. Pretty much our besties, they make good things and have just released a new EP.
Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
Instagram is about the only platform we properly engage with, so many amazing people making awesome. A constant reminder to push harder and make better work!
What has been your proudest career achievement to date?
Jem and Laura: Does getting to marry your business partner count? Let’s go with that.
What would be your dream creative project?
Building a house is on the list for both of us, maybe a few. We have too many ideas to get into one project so we’ll need to spread them out!
What are you looking forward to?
A big commission that is on the cards, we can’t say much about it yet other than it’s like nothing we’ve ever done before and will be by far the largest, most complex piece we’ve had the opportunity to design and build.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
Kensington, we really don’t get out much. It’s slow and quiet, a real village feel.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?
Jem: Laura bakes to wind down at the end of the day. She makes, hands down, the best cake I’ve had.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Most weekends are spent at the studio, but when time permits Castlemaine is our preferred escape. Catching up with family getting some paddock time in.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
The cafe True North in Coburg. Nadia is the best and it’s a joy to see her running a tight ship with so much love and good business sense.