This website uses cookies to improve your experience navigating our site. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

OK, I understand

Meet Manapan, Furniture Makers In Arnhem Land

Furniture

500 kilometres east of Darwin is a remote island called Milingimbi. It’s the largest of the Crocodile Islands, and Yolngu people have lived on this land for over 40,000 years.

These days, around 1200 people occupy the area, including an Aboriginal-owned, high-end furniture business, Manapan Furniture, that has been quietly growing for the past 12 months.

15th June, 2018

The ‘Fire’ sideboard,  designed by Alexsandra Pontonio for Manapan Furniture. Photo – Courtesy of Manapan Furniture.

(Left to right) Terrence Baker, Josiah Baker and Shawn Yunupingu, makers at Manapan Furniture on Milingimbi Island. Photo – Christopher Tovo.

The ‘Fossil’ coffee table, designed by Liz Doube for Manapan Furniture. Photo – Courtesy of Manapan Furniture.

The ‘Art’ cabinet. Photo – Courtesy of Manapan Furniture.

Women on the remote Milingimbi Island creating woven baskets. Photo – Christopher Tovo.

Left: Sebastian Dhamarra and Jason Wanambi. Right: Terrence Baker. Photo – Christopher Tovo.

The ‘Linear’ sideboard, designed by Ashleigh Parker for Manapan Furniture. Photo – Courtesy of Manapan Furniture.

Shaun Yunupingu in the Manapan workshop. Photo – Christopher Tovo.

Left: Keith Wawurr and David Yarrang. Right: Milingimbi Island locals. Photo – Christopher Tovo.

The ‘Crocodile’ lamp, designed by Suzie Stanford for Manapan Furniture. Photo – Courtesy of Manapan Furniture.

The ‘Woven’ cabinet, designed by Chloe Walbran for Manapan Furniture. Photo – Courtesy of Manapan Furniture.

‘One of the most important parts about it is that as a white person [on Milingimbi Island], you’re in the minority,’ explains Mark White, director of Manapan, ‘you’re on [Yolngu] land, in their community, and you have to respect that’. Photo – Christopher Tovo

The ‘Art’ bench, designed by Jon Mikulic for Manapan Furniture. Photo – Courtesy of Manapan Furniture.

Given its remote location, all materials and machinery is brought in on a barge weekly, and all furniture produced is shipped out to Darwin. Photo – Courtesy of Manapan Furniture.

Sally Tabart
Friday 15th June 2018

‘There should be an Aboriginal piece of furniture in every single Australian embassy throughout the world – and that could be made by Manapan.’ – Mark White, director of Manapan.

Mark White, director of Manapan Furniture, has been working on developing the high-end furniture project for the past two years with the Aboriginal-owned not-for-profit organisation, Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (or ALPA). After heading up his commercial shop-fitting company, Ramvek, for three decades, in addition to working in other capacities with ALPA, Mark saw space to utilise his skills in a new way. ‘The best thing I knew was joinery’, Mark says, ‘so that’s how we decided to get involved’.

The basic principle of Manapan is simple. ‘Manapan actually means “together”’, Mark explains to me, and this namesake is echoed in the operations of the business. Together with the ALPA, Mark built a workshop on Milingimbi Island, which is owned by ALPA and operated by Yolngu. Master crafstman Rob Crisfield was brought on board to share cabinetry making skills with the local staff, and cutting edge designs have been contributed by six leading furniture designers from around Australia. All of the product is crafted out of the Manapan workshop using Australian timber. The idea of teaching and transferring lifelong skills between cultures seems like a pretty basic concept, but there’s really nothing like Manapan anywhere else in the country.

‘Our aim is to create a business that is commercially viable, where every cent of the money we make buys us new equipment or goes back into the community in some way,’ explains Mark.  

12 months into operation, and Manapan Furniture employs five people on Milingimbi Island full time, and has become somewhat of a hub for community activity. The ‘Woven Cabinet’ features a central panel of weaving incorporated into the design, which is created by a group of local women. Traditional spear making is used as a feature in the ‘Art Bench’, and kids from the local school are able to come up to the factory for work experience.

‘One of the most important parts about it is that as a white person [on Milingimbi Island], you’re in the minority,’ explains Mark, ‘you’re on [Yolngu] land, in their community, and you have to respect that.’

What the Manapan team have been able to create is quite remarkable. Given the remote location of Milingimbi Island, all necessary materials and machinery are brought in by barge every week, and everything they make is shipped out to Darwin. From there, pieces are loaded onto a road train to Adelaide, where they’re  distributed to their final destination. It’s quite a process, but one that the Manapan team now have down pat – ‘we are completely self sufficient, and the whole system is working’.  

Despite the measurable positive impact that Manapan is able to contribute to the local community, the rapidly growing small business has received little attention from the federal government; something that clearly bothers Mark. ‘I’ve written to many people explaining what we’re doing and have had zero back’, he tells me, ‘there should be an Aboriginal piece of furniture in every single Australian embassy throughout the world – and that could be made by Manapan. Why can’t we get it done by the people in Arnhem Land?’. It’s a question that begs an answer. 

When I asked Mark what he felt Manapan needed to grow to the next level, it was clear that he and the team have used this lack of funding and acknowledgement to date as a driving motivation. ‘We don’t need a handout, and we don’t want any money, we just want orders,’ he says, ‘give us an order to build joinery for every embassy throughout the world and we’ll make it happen.’

Mark and the Manapan team will be at Denfair today and tomorrow – you can find them at stall 105. Otherwise, the Manapan furniture range can be seen online or at their Melbourne showroom. 

Manapan Showroom
18 Wilson Street
South Yarra, Victoria

View Comments

Similar Stories

Indigenous Art

Shirley Macnamara, Weaver and Cattle Drover

An award-winning creative, weaving with Spinifex sourced from her own thriving cattle property near Mount Isa.
Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti

Indigenous Art

Maree Clarke's 'Thung-ung Coorang' Jewellery

A studio visit with the trailblazing indigenous artist and designer, who has just launched an exclusive collection with NGV's design store.
Eugenia Flynn

Art

The Adaptive Magic Of The Aurukun Sculptors' Canine Carvings

An intimate exploration of the contemporary significance of these 'elegant/disturbing/humorous carved canines', from our newest writer, Tyso...
Tyson Yunkaporta

This Week

Shopping

8 Local Creatives Making Furniture That Doubles As Art

Meet our favourite designers and makers pushing the limits of traditional furniture with their sculptural and striking pieces!
Christina Karras

Architecture

A Colourful Extension Inspired By Clinker Bricks

Wowowa’s Presto House is a vivid and respectful addition to a 1930s art deco home made from 'clinker' bricks.
Sasha Gattermayr
  23 hours ago

Art

Artist Cressida Campbell Is Finally Getting The Spotlight She Deserves

A new exhibition at the NGA brings together more than 140 works from the artist's life and unique practice.

A Day In The Life

A Day In The Life Of Costume + Production Designer, Catherine Martin

The four-time Oscar winning designer shares insights from her career working alongside husband Baz Luhrmann, and how she helped bring 'Elvis...
Christina Karras

Studio Visit

Kuku Yalanji Artist Tiarna Herczeg Creates Colourful Maps Of Country

The emerging artist shares how they found their creative voice and intuitive painting style, as their latest solo show opens in Sydney.
Christina Karras

Gardens

A Hawthorn Home Enveloped In Dreamy, Layered Gardens

This new family home is brought to life with lush gardens designed by Peachy Green – reminiscent of a flowering ‘woody meadow’!
Christina Karras

Architecture

The Treasure-Filled Sydney Home Of Two Global Art Collectors

House Gezellig by Studio Prineas reflects their clients’ love for modernist design principles and collection of fine art.

Homes

A Stylist + Podcaster’s Layered, Textured Seaside Home

Kerrie-Ann Jones’ renovated retro pad in Sydney’s southern beaches is a sun-drenched dream home!

Interiors

A Mediterranean-Inspired Holiday Home Right On The Water’s Edge

CLO Studios styled the interior of this new Noosa home (dubbed Sky Garden) with earthy tones and pieces by local artists.

Food

Julia's Irresistible Double Chocolate + Tahini Brownies

Is there anything more irresistible than a brownie? We think not! Especially Julia's, which come with double the chocolate, and a nutty swir...
Julia Busuttil Nishimura

Creative People

Landscape Studio Ayus Botanical On Creating Calming + Enduring Gardens

The husband-and-wife team of Ayus Botanical share the thoughtful processes behind their lush residential and commercial projects!
Christina Karras

Architecture

A Compact + Colourful Extension Of A Fun Family Home

Foomann Architects replaced this Melbourne home's dated extension with a personality-filled renovation, behind a vibrant pink door!
Christina Karras

Creative People

Artist and Yindjibarndi Elder Wendy Hubert On Mapping Country + Culture

Our new columnist Jirra Lulla Harvey talks to respected Yindjibarndi Elder, artist, Cultural Custodian and linguist, Wendy Hubert about Coun...
Jirra Lulla Harvey

Studio Visit

Kelly Thompson’s Playful Preston Showroom Clashes Colour In The Best Way

The clever creative behind online store, Makers’ Mrkt, gives us an inside look at her fun Preston stockroom-turned-store!
Christina Karras

Interiors

A Green New Addition For An Ageing Edwardian Home

Brave New Eco revitalises an existing Brunswick home for multiple generations with a new extension, natural material palette and clever use

Similar Stories

Indigenous Art

Shirley Macnamara, Weaver and Cattle Drover

An award-winning creative, weaving with Spinifex sourced from her own thriving cattle property near Mount Isa.
Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti

Indigenous Art

Maree Clarke's 'Thung-ung Coorang' Jewellery

A studio visit with the trailblazing artist and designer, who has just launched an exclusive collection with NGV's design store.
Eugenia Flynn

Art

The Adaptive Magic Of The Aurukun Sculptors' Canine Carvings

An intimate exploration of the contemporary significance of these 'elegant/disturbing/humorous carved canines', from our newest writer, Tyso...
Tyson Yunkaporta

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 bea@thedesignfiles.net