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Less is more: inside the studio of George & Willy

A pair of young Kiwi industrial designers are garnering awards, fans and sales across the world for their minimalistic yet practical products, such as clothes drying racks and paper rolls. Mount Maunganui-based George Wilkins and Will McCallum talk with Dawn Picken about their transition from tinkerers to heads of design studio, George & Willy.

Inside the warehouse at George & Willy, founders George Wilkins, 26, and Will McCallum, 27, unstack some chairs and sit down for a chat. McCallum, the shorter and clean-shaven of the two, is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and says it’s a Friday tradition.

“You can’t have a bad day when you’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt,” he explains. He was visiting a shop in Hawaii that sold second-hand shirts a couple of years back, stumbled upon an abundance of them, and inspiration struck.

“I just couldn’t help myself. I bought heaps and gave them to everyone at work.”

The rule at the studio is anyone who shows up without a festive top on a Friday must shout the staff coffee.

“I had mine on this morning but it was wet from the washing machine,” Wilkins says, who dons a striped polo shirt and shorts. “There’s a bit of fine print around it,” McCallum adds.

The Hawaiian shirt policy is a reflection of the culture here at George & Willy, as is the message enshrined in painted letters on a ceiling beam: ‘HAVE FUN.’ The slogan also appears on the brand’s products boxes and labels.

Clearly, work and play are inextricably linked. Call it the millennial mindset: these are young business owners for whom work/life balance is an essential, not a nice-to-have.

The duo, plus about four other staff, operate a design studio and workshop based in Mount Maunganui. By most accounts, the pair’s curious nature and passion for building simple-yet-useful tools for themselves led them to go into business with the moniker George & Willy.

It’s kind of like being creative and being organised don’t go hand-in-hand.

George Wilkins (left) and Will McCallum.

The early days

Wilkins and McCullum first met when they were 12-year-olds hitting the slopes at Mount Ruapehu, but both tinkered in garages and workshops throughout their childhoods. Wilkins says his grandfather taught him to work with wood. Together, they built cabins, decks, and a cowshed, as well as restored boats.   

His grandfather has held onto those projects. Marcus Wilkins Senior stopped off with a box of treasures to show Idealog: a swimming man, fish, boat, munching goat, tea towel holder, magic floating paper clip and a chewing giraffe. One toy is inscribed, “Happy Bday gran and Marcus love George.” Wilkins Sr shows each item one by one, finishing by saying, “...and that is a very, very good puzzle.” The toy features a series of precisely cut and fitted ‘L’ shapes and pegs which move between the ‘L’s.

He said his grandson begun building the items in early adolescence from the age of eight.

“The things he built, he worked out from seeing them on the TV...I’ve always encouraged him to be doing things and thinking for himself. If he has an idea, [I’ll say] ‘let’s have a look’ and see if he can improve it.”

He said after one of Wilkins’ best friends died in February while paragliding from Mount Maunganui, his grandson built a coffin for his late friend. “That’s the sort of thing George will turn his hand to. He’s a very kind and generous person, as well.”

McCallum’s father, Bill McCallum, also said his son showed an early interest in manufacturing, pottering around the home workshop. The father and son made outdoor furniture and fashioned knives from saw blades.

“His interest really seemed to wax and wane a little bit.”

But at school around age 14, McCallum made a little wooden paper roller for his mum for Mother’s Day. A similar roller made of aluminium has now become one of George & Willy’s best-selling items.

“They’ve done a little bit of additional design and flashed it up a bit,” Bill McCallum says. “It’s very practical. It’s still sitting on our kitchen bench by the phone. It was exactly the prototype – a bit bigger and clunkier, but equally as functional.”

Not everything was a hit – Bill McCallum recalls a cube stool with rope weaved across the top, another present for Will’s mum, Prue. “It weighs about 150 pounds [68 kilograms]. While it’s beautiful-looking and a very cleverly designed piece, the heavy steel frame made it a little less utilitarian.” He said McCallum has since learned about functionality and practicality, designing lighter-weight, more portable items to sell and ship.

After parting ways, Wilkins and McCallum bumped into each other again later down the track at the University of Otago, where they were both studying business. Wilkins earned a degree in management, while McCullum got a degree in marketing. Both minored in design. Their first joint university project was kitset wooden helicopters, which were then sold as part of a fundraiser. The experience gave the pair confidence in their ability to make products people wanted to buy – as well as a taster of what was yet to come.

We say since we don’t have a [physical] store that our products are only as good as the photos, so we put quite a lot of effort into photos.

After graduating university in 2012, they plied their trade from McCallum’s parents’ workshop and then George’s parent’s old boat shed, where they built items and received regular visits from courier trucks. McCallum’s dad Bill says they encountered some issues with the house and shed being based in the middle of a residential area. “They had a visit from the City Council asking about their permits and the fact they really weren’t allowed to run a commercial venture in a downtown backyard.”

McCallum and Wilkins moved into their first leased property in Mount Maunganui shortly after that, and are now onto their third premises near Tauranga Airport.

Bill McCallum says despite the pair coming across as quite casual in their approach, they run a tight operation.

“They’re a half-dozen young people who really enjoy their work. It appears informal, but is really quite structured.”

As for the business name, George & Willy, Wilkins and McCallum say they couldn’t think of anything else.

Top billing wasn’t decided by a PR firm or a marketing consultant, either. “We did paper, scissors, rock,” Wilkins says. 

Design ethos

Structure around the design process of products is something the duo used to struggle with.

“We’re naturally quite disorganised,” McCallum says. He said when inspiration would hit, they’d start a new product with excitement, and then abandon it and move onto something else.

“But now we’re kind of to the point where we just want to make this product and do it really well and get it fully sorted and finish it and move onto the next one.”

Having methodical staff members who help police the two’s creations helps. “It’s kind of like being creative and being organised don’t go hand-in-hand,” Wilkins says with a laugh.

The pair share the philosophy of Pablo Picasso, who said, “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary,” as well as the ethos of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, who was obsessed with eliminating buttons and complexity.

McCallum’s minimalist design aesthetic has him constantly seeking to make items simpler, sleeker and better. “It’s getting rid of anything
that doesn’t need to be there.”

Both now grasp the disparity between crafting one item and outsourcing a model for production on a larger scale. They’ve learned how to work with manufacturers to design products that can be made more affordably in New Zealand and overseas.

Wilkins says features that work for ten items won’t work for 500. “Which might be drilling 10 holes per product - that’s 100 holes, but if we’re doing 500 products, it’s suddenly like 5000 holes.”

Around 60 percent of their creations end up in the hands of customers based overseas, which helped earn them the Emerging Exporter of the Year award at the 2017 Bay of Plenty Export NZ Awards.

The judges wrote: “George and Willy’s entrepreneurial spirit is second to none. With dedication and determination, they have developed a well-respected brand with a true New Zealand quality focus. Their structured design development protocols and clever use of digital platforms has also enabled them to create a unique team environment to optimise the passion, skills and enthusiasm of their valued team around them.”

A Day in the Life

Wilkins and McCallum start their workdays with an early run, followed by a bacon-and-egg breakfast.

They’re in the workshop by 8am, sending out orders to around the globe. Then throughout the day, they work on current projects and prototypes and talk to customers, some of whom make suggestions for new items or a design feature that’s eventually incorporated into a product. One example was a request for a drying rack. “Then someone says, ‘I want a pulley light switch’,” McCallum says.

Out of this collision of ideas was born one of the duo’s most recent and now best-selling products: an adjustable-height drying rack. The user shifts it into position up near the ceiling using a rope and pulley.

Mostly, Wilkins and McCallum make items they’d want to own themselves. They’re currently developing new shop signs – one is a mounted flag, the other, a small wooden sign. “It’s really simple stuff,” McCallum says.

“Your shop sign's really important. It’s kind of the first thing that people see when they’re on the road. It’s quite a fun thing to make because you can just make blank ones and then people can just get their logo put on it.”

The company’s biggest sellers (besides its paper rollers) are shop signs and fire starters.

McCallum says he got the idea for the fire starter concept from the Amish in America, who soak a porous stone in lamp oil, and then set it onto a fire before piling it with logs. No kindling is required.

While George & Willy’s products are not overtly Kiwi – no silver ferns, tiki or sheep motifs – they are designed with a back-to-basics, simplistic ethos.

But while their designs are not overly complicated, the structures are detailed in their engineering. Products include peg board shelves, clothing racks made of galvanized steel pipe and industrial socket clamps, as well as trestle desks engineered for extra strength.

The desk has a matte polyurethane coating to protect its surface and locking slots to keep the top stable. It’s crafted from architectural grade plywood and 8mm black yachting braid. Proof of the object’s strength is displayed on the website via a photo of the desk supporting a ride-on mower.

In the workshop, McCallum points out another new George & Willy project – a wooden cafe letter board with the menu already in place. Smashed avocado, chilli bacon butty and turkish eggs are among dishes on offer at this imaginary cafe.

Some of the items George & Willy produce are made in New Zealand, others are engineered overseas. The company sources materials that are hard-wearing and look nice, too – like birch plywood (for the peg boards), steel (for their draughtsman table – currently sold out) and powder-coated aluminium (for the paper rollers).

McCallum says he likes doing his own thing, but he’s learned to ask for what he needs and rely on employees to get the job done.

“I love having a team with us. It makes it fun coming to work every day. Staff offer different opinions on plans and models.”

A global following

George & Willy’s store exists only online, not in bricks-and-mortar.

The emphasis on online shopping and virtual communication with their customers is why the team have laid out their website and social media sites with as much care as possible.

“We say since we don’t have a store that our products are only as good as the photos, so we put quite a lot of effort into photos,” McCallum says. One item on the site – the daily roller – includes 17 photos and a video for a single product. Instagram is the company’s dominant online channel, with 29,000 followers and counting.

Staff member Phoebe handles the online operations and showcases not just the goods for sale, but what Wilkins, McCallum and their team get up to. Their blog features them road tripping around New Zealand, testing the George & Willy motorcycle and building a one-of-a-kind basketball net made of leather and a charred wood backboard for Nike’s 30th anniversary of its Air Max shoes.

For all the thrills of the ecommerce game, the guys like seeing where their products will land in the world.

“Twenty years ago, you’d export something over to Belgium and you’d never see it again, but three weeks later we get tagged in a post,” McCallum says.

Wilkins says it’s also easy to pose questions to customers via social media. “It gets you heaps of feedback on a product.”

A photo and question, “What do you think of our new flag sign?” has earned hundreds of likes and a couple dozen comments on Instagram, including requests for orders. “Let us know when they are ready for action,” said one follower.

World domination

Wilkins and McCallum have already started supplying retail outlets and cafes with items they craved for their own shop, like paper rollers and signs.

Now, they’re working to build their brand worldwide, while perfecting new designs.

They know what won’t feature in their line-up. “I don’t think we’d be very good at making an app,” McCallum says.

“We’re not passionate about it,” Wilkins says, referring to the hypothetical app. He says the notion businesses must have the latest tech idea to be successful is not true. “We just do something really simple really well, then it’s all good.”

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