Unlike many artists, Kate Stokes doesn’t rely on elaborate features to make her work shine.
Instead, she lets the materials she uses speak for themselves by accentuating their form, shape and texture.
“My design philosophy is to have as simple a product as possible, with a small amount of embellishment to make something unique,” Stokes says.
“If they’re going to last a long time, I think they have to fit into an environment and not demand too much attention.”
The ease, longevity and signature style of her pieces – that can take a designer years to uncover – is precisely what has caught the attention of international design aficionados and has the industry talking.
Stokes’ creations are now on display in showrooms as far-flung as New York, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Auckland.
Closer to home, Neal Harvey, creative producer of Melbourne Fringe, says Stokes’ success lies in the versatility of her work.
“It has a human and organic element to it that makes us gravitate towards it. She has a warmth for design that makes it instantly recognisable.”
Harvey says that her ability to adapt products to suit different lifestyles has created a niche following.
An example of the humble yet elegant nature of her pieces is the Coco Pendant, an ash timber and spun aluminium hanging light, that was the debut piece of her Coco Flip series launched in July 2010. It won Stokes three awards at Fringe Furniture in 2010 and the lighting category of the Home Beautiful product awards the same year.
Another showpiece light, the Mr. Cooper Pendant - this time fashioned in copper – was developed in October 2011. It was re-released in brass a year later.
Stokes’ career began in various creative development departments across the country after graduating from Perth’s Curtin University of Technology in 2006. An ArtStart Grant from the Australian Council for the Arts in 2009 gave her the confidence and financial support to open her own studio in 2010.
Coco Flip, which Kate runs from a studio at Collingwood’s creative hub The Compound Interest, is still in its infancy – which means lots of hands-on work. “I’m essentially the designer, manufacturer and wholesaler,” she laughs. “It’s a really good lesson in learning what it takes to produce a product.”
These ventures taught her not only the production process, but enabled her to develop her own distinctive design process. It begins with the selection of materials, respecting the individual abilities of each one.
“There’s more to it than just drawing a picture and taking it to someone and saying, ‘Make this for me’. It’s about understanding processes and materials, and what they can and can’t do, and how far you can push them.
“The smart way to design is to understand the limitations quite early on and make them work for you, rather than designing completely out of your head and realising that’s not possible.”
In designing the Coco Pendant, Kate’s main challenges were finding a suspension system to support the weight of the aluminium, and preparing the timber to deal with the heat of the light globe. She experienced similar trial and error processes with the Mr. Cooper Pendant.
“At the time I was interested in the way products speak to each other. I was just sketching a cluster of lights hanging together. That’s where the form came from.”
The Mr. Cooper is influenced by technological nostalgia – the tin can ‘telephones’ she made growing up. The wire that suspends the light is a salute to the technology and inventions of times gone by.
But, while she acknowledges the past on an artistic level, Stokes looks only to the future on a professional level. She hopes to one day collaborate with those she looks up to within the industry.
“It’d be amazing to work for a company like Hay, for example, which is a Danish furniture company. To design for them would be the ultimate (dream)”.
In the short-term, Stokes aims to expand her international distribution through the London Design Festival in September. She also has plans to move into furniture production by year’s end.
Although she won’t disclose the specifics, it is evident that she will continue to experiment with materials.
“It’s all new. I won’t say what I’m going to use, but it’s different, completely. I’m learning a lot, and there’s a lot of challenges.”
She does hint, however, of artistically challenging herself as a designer, rather than appealing to the demands of the market.
“I’m more interested in exploring my ideas and producing something that’s interesting and that means something to me. And if that sells, that’s just a bonus.”
Harvey seems confident that Stokes’ audience will continue to support her. In fact, he predicts that her “unique aesthetic” will set a standard for the industry over the next decade.
“I think she will continue to lead the way,” he says, expecting she will gather “a range of followers and disciples who imitate her style.”
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