Living in both Australia and Japan for more than a decade, Liam Mugavin’s work is infused with both cultures and informed by materiality. An underlying simplicity in construction allows each piece of furniture to be an expression of material and structure – an element of intrigue complementing the otherwise deliberately uncomplicated forms.
Liam has been part of a continual cultural exchange between the two countries, transferring and contributing to ideas about design and craft in each. In doing so, he has also merged both cultures into his design work, drawing on the Japanese approach to express materiality with a simplicity in construction, fused with a visual element of intrigue to draw viewers’ attention.
Liam first moved to Japan in 2009 after studying industrial design at University of South Australia. One year teaching English turned into four years, during which time he also honed his interest in design and gained an appreciation for making. “I turned my bathroom into a little hobby workshop, making chopsticks, clocks and other small things for fun. From that, I became more interested in furniture,” he recalls.
Returning to Adelaide in 2013 to undertake a two-year training program at JamFactory, he continued to develop his craft and production skills. Liam also launched his own eponymous design studio that year, with his first piece, Tangle Table, reflecting an approach to design that has remained consistent ever since. “I want my pieces to have an element of intrigue in their materiality or structural design – an element that someone might not have seen before and that attracts the viewer to my work.”
For the Tangle Table, that intrigue lies in the interconnected triangles that form an eye-catching and visually deceptive composition. While this interlocked structure appears complex, the construction is simplified due to the rigorous design process. Each timber component and joint are identical, which enables it to be efficiently produced. “For me, this underlying simplicity and elegance in construction is the true beauty of the design. It aids the aesthetics, structure, function and production efficiency,” he describes. Similarly, the structure of his Hamra Chair consists of only three joints, but its form is somewhat of an optical illusion. The timber components are gently curved to appear paper-thin at the edges yet provide the necessary strength and stability through their depth.
Liam conceives and develops his designs by working hands-on and experimenting with materials, seeking to express their qualities and characteristics. It is a Japanese approach to design and craft that is particularly apparent in the Pebble Table, which has a polished brass tabletop and reclaimed Oregon timber base. The patina of the brass and rough texture of the timber express the age and enhance the beauty of each material.
Liam conceives and develops his designs by working hands-on and experimenting with materials, seeking to express their qualities and characteristics.
Living in Japan has provided Liam with the opportunity to work closely with Japanese design, materials and local communities. In 2017, he created a furniture series for Australia House as part of the Artists Residency Program and Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale – an art initiative that promotes cultural exchange between Australia and Japan. Liam worked with the Urada community to develop his furniture, each piece having a narrative that relates to the architecture, location and cultural heritage of the village.
His Gonbei Bench is made with timber from a farmhouse that collapsed in the 2011 earthquake, and the old joinery is exposed to pay homage to the craftspeople and carpenters who built the farmhouse. Echigo Sugi Table is constructed with Japanese cedar harvested and selected by a local forester. Subtle and meaningful details are cut into the underside and sides of the otherwise simple form to generate a visually deceptive piece, like much of Liam’s work. “It creates an illusion of thinness and frailty, while being incredibly strong,” he explains.
Living in both Australia and Japan for more than a decade, Liam Mugavin’s work is infused with both cultures and informed by materiality.
During the residency at Australia House, Liam and his wife decided they would move to Japan again, having been based in Sydney. This move in 2018 coincided with Liam’s first solo exhibition at Criteria Collection in Melbourne, for which he crafted eight chairs from hefty slabs of reclaimed timber. “The chairs are made with big pieces of timber with simple cuts assembled into interesting and sculptural shapes. The shapes are very much informed by the material and express the material, and the large cuts expose the finish and create the form,” says Liam.
Now living in Myoko in Japan, Liam does production and custom furniture for the Australian market. Custom pieces he makes himself, while production pieces are made by Australian craftspeople. He also restores, renovates and makes custom furniture for ski cabins and hotels where he lives. “To restore the building, do the interior design and make the furniture is a dream project,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to be in this situation.”
Liam is set to continue this all-encompassing approach to design as he develops furniture for Australia and Japan, collaborating with craftspeople in both countries. With each project, a transference of ideas, techniques and approaches to design and production materialises between the two – a process of cultural exchange grounded in craft.