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Weekly Chew: Apartmento and Meluka owner Stu Bowman on not being a design victim

Weekly Chew: Apartmento and Meluka owner Stu Bowman on not being a design victim

Forget the old adage ‘form follows function’, says Apartmento owner and designer Stu Bowman—creating cool furniture that’s functional is more about proportion, balance and simple good taste.

Who the heck are you?

Stu Bowman, owner with wife Melissa, of Apartmento and Meluka furniture brands. I was born and bred in Auckland, went to what is now Unitec and studied Industrial Design, lived in Sydney and London for 10 years and returned 13 years ago. I joined Apartmento in 2000 and took it over in 2005. We started Meluka in 2006. Apartmento is a niche designer, manufacturer and retailer of high quality residential furniture. Meluka is a slightly more 'middle market' offering—it has a tighter range and is less 'bespoke' than Apartmento. 

What inspires you?

I am still inspired by the simple fact that we have generated two quite distinct furniture brands that we manufacture in Auckland, which people seem to quite like! It’s not always easy but we have a super team at our factory and stores who all enjoy meeting or exceeding our clients’ expectations of quality and service on a regular basis. We know we're only as good as our last delivery and having a vertically integrated operation allows us to genuinely stand behind our product.

5 things that influence you every day?

The alarm clock, the stress or otherwise of getting the kids to school (although to be fair I only have to drop one off, Melissa does the actual real work there!), the state of my coffee (temp, milkiness, can't be burnt!), how many guys are sick at the factory (winter can be a cruel time to be a furniture-maker!)

What are the essential ingredients that make for great furniture design?

What makes great furniture design is pretty subjective but I reckon there are some non-negotiables. The initial concept has to be clear and concise. The 'intention' should be obvious, whether that’s to be light and frivolous or starkly utilitarian. I never believed in the 'form follows function' argument that cropped up during 'high-brow' industrial design discussions. This is clearly un-true. Some of the world’s greatest designs reject this.  Just look at the world’s only super-sonic commercial aircraft, the Concorde. If ever the 'form follows function' argument was supposed to stack up you'd think it'd be in aircraft design, but the Concorde was deliberately shaped as it was, then 'engineered' to fly.

So form doesn’t necessarily follow function. But that doesn’t mean a piece of furniture shouldn’t be functional. Clearly furniture is, more often than not, designed to fulfil an actual need. All furniture designers need to take into account the basics of ergonomics, function, comfort.  The real trick is to produce a design that fulfils these generally utilitarian requirements while also ticking the hardest box and that is designing something that is beautiful or cool or has something, often hard to define, that gets the juices flowing. In the end, it comes down to having good taste. It’s amazing how rare that commodity is in all facets of design.

What sets Apartmento designs apart?

Having been on the scene for more than a decade, its true there is a certain Apartmento 'look'. I'm not convinced of Apartmento's absolute uniqueness but I'll accept our look is the result of, generally, one person putting pen to paper and committing to a certain design direction. I'm motivated strongly by proportion, I like things to have an innate 'balance'. I think generally speaking 'long and low' looks 'cool' so I'm often chasing that aesthetic. I want details to work both as construction while always adding to a successful visual impact. I want our clients to be able to turn a piece of Apartmento furniture over and clearly see the quality. We use American white oak as our timber of choice so this also provides a touchstone for our look.
 
I don’t believe in an aesthetic that is so pared down its bland. I like simple but I also base my designs at times on some pretty traditional forms and manufacturing techniques. The other clear distinction about Apartmento furniture is its build quality. Every piece is hand-crafted by a single highly experienced furniture maker. There is no 'production-lining', the one craftsman prepares the stock, builds the piece, carefully prepares it for staining and delivers it to our in-house paint shop where the actual staining takes place.  During this process there are several key 'peer reviews' within the factory, with the clear goal that standards are maintained.

Tell us about your latest designs?

Our most recently completed new designs include the Sula Coffee Table, the Roma Tub chair and the Scholar dining chair. 
 
The Sula Coffee table is a classically proportioned round coffee table.  It has solid oak legs with a unique sweeping arc design and a solid clashed veneer top which is 'quartered' to produce a subtle grain pattern.
 
The Roma occasional chair is my take on an absolute design classic.  The Tub chair form is very old and can be traced back to Roman times!  We've used a mix of upholstery and oak to create a very finely proportioned and detailed Tub chair that I believe perfectly combines traditional forms with contemporary aesthetics.
 
The Scholar dining chair is influenced by the Scandanavian movement so prominent in many contemporary pieces. It’s a pretty intensive chair to build with a CNC milled arm/back rest in combination with turned oak legs and an upholstered chair pad. Again, to me, it captures the blend of traditional and contemporary perfectly.

Sula Coffee table

New directions, new projects?

We've spent a great deal of time recently on our Meluka brand. A huge number of new products have been generated along with heaps of product collateral. We're increasing our re-seller network carefully with retailers who 'get' what the Meluka brand is all about.  It’s a super clean, contemporary yet accessible aesthetic. We like to think of it as the modern day Shaker look!

Your favourite design/furniture classics of all time?

I’m really not hugely motivated by what people might call design classics—I glaze over a bit when people go on and on about certain designers, it all seems a bit 'try hard' to me. I'm either lazy or I'm genuinely not a design victim. However, as mentioned above, I have always been influenced by the Shaker design movement of the American mid-west. The Shakers were a self contained religious sect predominant in the late 17th to late 19th centuries that has had a huge influence on furniture design. They were renowned for their simplistic, austere way of life and hard work ethic. Their furniture was beautifully made and unlike the ornate design movements at the time very simple in its form. 
 
The other designer I do admire is the frenchman Christian Liagre. To me he defines the new trend of combining the traditional with contemporary forms. He layers his interiors beautifully and certainly isn’t afraid to use decoration in his furniture design. Christian Liaigre pulls off what others try and miss. Basically he has superb taste and you can’t learn that.

Favourite café?

People café at the top end of P road is my new local and apart from the fact that twice this week there have been no Heralds, it is superb! 

Pet Hates?

Formulaic architecture that relies on concrete, glass and white walls, Mike Hosking, people who drive 90 kms in the overtaking lane (actually even if they're doing 100 I still hate them trying to police the roads themselves), teenage parties at our place.

Styled White Otis

Edward and Sto

Frank, Scholar, Sto

Harvo Table and Scholar Chair