Designer of the Month

Luke Mills of Lumil

Kensington, VIC, Australia

Stana Krndija

Lillie Thompson

A couple of weeks ago we had the pleasure of meeting the super talented and ever so humble New Zealand-born Melbourne-based industrial designer Luke Mills. There are a few things you need to know about Luke:

  • He spent two years living and working in Hong Kong and has a toolbox of enviable travel experiences.
  • During his time in Hong Kong he was designing museum spaces and taking weekly ceramic classes.
  • He launched his brand LUMIL this year and presented his lighting objects at the DEN Fair.
  • He exploits manufacturing techniques and tools to achieve the best version of simplified objects.

Actually there is a lot more to this young designer who quickly formed relationships in the industry and continues to collaborate with the likes of LifeSpace Journey, to produce beautiful furniture pieces of structural and sustainable integrity. His brand LUMIL is characterised by natural materials, including timber (his favourite), ceramics and terracotta, with a focus on function and longevity.

We can all be guilty sometimes in referring to objects as simple and minimal, and not recognising laborious processes behind the scenes. That’s why Luke is committed to exploring new techniques and using prototyping and 3D modelling as key elements in his design process, with every object starting out as a sketch first. But what does it take to simplify objects and get to this point? Well, we invite you to read on and you will start to see Luke’s values and ethics to simplification without ever compromising on the aesthetics.

His love of taking natural materials and translating them into new context through organic hand turned processes is evident throughout his latest range – TILE. Constructed out of terracotta and walnut, the lighting objects hold a strong resemblance to Chinese roof tops while maintaining a subtle aesthetic of understated beauty and symmetry. Inspired by his times in Hong Kong, nightly ceramic classes and slip casting on the roof top of his apartment in 40 degree heat, TILE takes us on a journey that didn’t come without its challenges. Enjoy!

How do you characterise your design and aesthetic?

My design starts off complicated with many sketches on paper and goes through several phases until it’s simplified. For instance, the HAT pendant series had a few components to it until I found a subtle aesthetic to keep things simple where it all clips together. The importance of good aesthetic is to show the form, which is not always straightforward.

Your lighting designs feature natural materials, bold colours and clean lines. How do you go about establishing a design concept and an overall direction for your lighting pieces?

I’m constantly exploring new concepts, materials and processes. Sometimes they develop quickly into a design direction and sometimes they hit a roadblock and end on the shelf for a while. A new design direction is often a combination of meeting a particular need in a space and a material process I am exploring at the time. The approach is simplification and longevity that celebrates the form.

There is simplicity and character in both RAW and HAT series. Where did the inspiration come from?

Inspiration often comes from sketching and drawing, travels and the constant chase for adventure. I then like to influence sketches using CAD tool to enhance and highlight shape and form, removing anything that competes with the design. Again, simplification showcases materials more than anything else.

Your designs exhibit functionality and sustainability that fits both residential and commercial spaces. Is this something that is fundamental to your practice?

There is certainly a demand for functionality and sustainability and it’s definitely something at the forefront when working on new designs. Longevity of products excites me, to see them last as long as possible, to be scalable and fit large spaces like commercial lobbies or residential kitchens.

What are your favourite materials and manufacturing techniques to work with and why?

I have always had a soft spot for timber, as it’s so easy to work with; it reminds me of clay in some ways. And the irregular grain lends itself as a decorative feature. You can get a lot of structure and mould it in many different ways, showing its natural grain and beauty. I have done various pieces with timber; my collaboration with Life Space Journey explores different joint structures, shapes and forms. As for other techniques it often comes down to working with local artisans and manufacturers. There is a wealth of local manufacturing knowledge in Australia and being able to tap into this pushes a project a lot further. Flax fibres have been an area of interest but I still have not found a suitable application.

What are some of your methods of staying innovative and original in your design? i.e. travel, other industry influences, creatives…etc.

Art festivals and local events like DEN Fair provide fantastic new ways of connecting with new creatives and likeminded individuals. The chain of talking to one person and then bouncing onto another really expands innovation and ideas that you can circle back into your design. I find Melbourne has amazing pockets of communities and for me the biggest part is talking to other artists. If you try and design with your own skill set you are always going to be limited. And collaboration is what’s driving Australian design, a growing relationship between manufacturers and designers. You can walk into most factories and be taken seriously.

What do you feel is the most challenging part of being a designer today? If you could change one thing what would it be?

These days design is getting a lot more coverage which is a big advantage for young designers. The challenge however is designers are responsible for everything and they are essentially the jack of all trades. From conceptual designs to prototypes and finished products to marketing and social media to running their own studios. One thing I see changing is the collaboration between designers where more and more designers are supporting each other.

What are some of the benefits of simple and minimal design?

The ultimate benefit is the best version of itself.  To achieve simple and minimal is usually a process of elimination, slimming of the design to end up with minimal amount of fixtures, which helps the packing and assembling. That’s not to say I don’t get caught up on details, and it’s hard as a designer to give yourself an objective feedback.

Your products exemplify the importance of locally designed and made in Melbourne. In your experience, have you seen the influence in customers buying locally?

Yes certainly. I came to Melbourne 3 months before the first DEN Fair and it was my first introduction to Australian design. It was quite interesting to meet peers from the design industry who have been doing this for 5, 10 years. And it’s events like DEN that enable the relationship between local design and general public.

What can we expect from LUMIL next? Any new designs/projects on the horizon that you can share with us?

I have a few prototypes I am working on at the moment, with the aim of creating products to meet the international market.  The one in particular is a combination of Aussie textiles and brass wirework that is simple to construct and assemble from a flat pack. When prototyping and exploring new techniques, there is a relationship for the customer that comes to mind. I want them to experience a simple interaction of assembling the product.

Without giving away too much, I am also exploring leather materials and wall fibres for office spaces as well as more furniture projects with local textile designers, using CNC technology and 3D printing.

How would you describe your experience at DENFAIR 2017 and what does it mean for young designers?

DEN Fair was the official launch of LUMIL and our first product range. We spent a lot of time planning our booth design as it was our first public appearance. We were blown away by the response and are looking forward to next years’ event. The booth design is a bit of a highlight, it needs to represent the brand but is also a chance to have fun and create an installation/art piece.

What I appreciate about these types of events is the quick way to honest feedback from the industry and often it can be brutal. But it gives young designers direction where critics are straight to the point, where it’s black and white. Given its collaborative atmosphere, it’s competition on steroids, but also such a nice way to launch the product and actually be in control of creating your own impression.

Hanging in the studio is the new lighting pendant, featuring close resemblance to terracotta roof tiles, supported by a horizontal walnut bar. Intrigued by the original design, we chat to Luke about the new product and shine a little light on the story behind the TILE.

Why did you choose terracotta for the new TILE series?

Terracotta was an easy choice because it’s highly customisable allowing me to edit the design until the product is strong and expressive. The idea was to bring nature into space, capture its raw beauty and original colour without the need to paint and cover imperfections, but rather highlight the details in the profile.  Also we work with an amazing local ceramicist so being able to troubleshoot as a team makes a huge difference. Generally all of our projects involve working through a design with a local expert.

What is the inspiration behind the new product range?

My wife and I spent two years working and living in Hong Kong. We would travel to neighbourhood places every other week and it’s given us a toolbox of experiences that we still draw inspiration from. And sometimes it can be a couple of years later until something interesting strikes. During my time in Hong Kong, I started exploring ceramics, and ended up taking weekly classes at a small apartment that was filled with ceramic pieces from floor to ceiling. Soon I found myself slip casting on the rooftop of my apartment in 40 degree heat, surrounded by infinite roof tiles, rich in colour and perfect in scale. Ultimately this triggered new experiments, the constant chase of looking for new details and indirectly led to a product reminiscent to Chinese roof tiles. Conveniently named the TILE.

Did the creative process for the new product follow a similar method as your previous designs?

It certainly did. I’m constantly relying on principles of proportion and materiality to guide the processes I apply to natural materials. I had a lot of experimentation with different moulds, prototyping with laminates and pressed metals as well as techniques with clay and folding flat sheets.  I call this the process of elimination, and I might end up using these processes again in the future for new products.

What was the biggest challenge when working with terracotta?

It was probably the proportions, working on the strength and getting every detail in the profile right. The challenge was to make terracotta thinner and thinner without compromising strength and to get to that balance can take many, many attempts. And ceramics are sensitive to the right temperature, where the slightest crack can alter the overall piece.

To find out more about Luke & his products, visit his website here.

Photographed by Lillie Thompson.

Interview & words by Stana Krndija.

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