Inside the Collection

Robert Foster in conversation: F!NK and Co and teapot design for Alessi

Robert Foster with his prototype teapot design for Alessi
Robert Foster with his prototype teapot design for Alessi. Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

In this very special post, I am joined in conversation with silversmith and designer, Robert Foster of F!NK and Co. On 16th July, I invited Robert to the Museum to talk in more detail about our recent acquisition of the aluminium and stainless steel teapot he designed as a prototype for Alessi in 1995 (which you can see in the photograph above). I also took the opportunity to find out more about Robert’s latest work – which spans big commissions and collaborations to one-off works, the nature of design work and the future of F!NK.

The Museum has profiled much of Robert and his work before and you can read about this on D*Hub and our online collections’ database. The Museum also has a few other F!NK objects in its collection, including: a coffee pot and cover, teapot and Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic torch prototypes. F!NK and Co was also featured in the exhibition Smart works: design and the handmade which was displayed at the Museum in 2007.

MP: This teapot was designed as a prototype for Alessi in 1995. How did you become involved with Alessi?

RF: My first involvement was with a show in Europe – in Germany, with two other silversmiths – Werner Bunck and Michael Rowe, who were both senior peers and quite well-known silversmiths in their own right. That was quite a large exhibition that travelled museums in Germany. A woman from the British Craft magazine wrote an article at the time saying that my works would be perfect for Alessi and Alberto Alessi, I think, had gone to see them. While the show was on (in 1992), I was living in Italy, so I decided to phone Alberto and he said “come and visit” – so I went up there and I spent the day with him.

MP: So you made the first move and contacted Alberto…

RF: Yes, but he said that he wanted to contact me, but didn’t know how because I was travelling around Europe (before mobile phones were around!). So, he asked me to design a fondue set in 1992 and I sent him some drawings (all correspondence in those days was through letters). I didn’t hear anything. I sent him another letter. I tried to contact him on the phone – but still, I didn’t hear. Several months went past…

MP: Were you back in Australia then?

RF: Yes, I was back in Australia by that stage. That would have been in 1993 and that’s when I started to think…I wasn’t really interested in being a designer in the true sense of the word, where you go and try and sell your designs to a company that would manufacture it. So, I decided to start F!NK, mainly due to the jug [the water jug was the first product for F!NK, initially commissioned as a limited release vessel for a restaurant in Canberra, which is now the mainstay product for their company] and a whole lot of different ideas I acquired from my time in Europe. I decided to start F!NK, rather than go overseas like Marc Newson and so forth had done, because I wanted to try and start something in Australia. In 1995, I went back to Italy to visit the Milan Furniture and Lighting Fair, and as the fondue set didn’t happen, I went to visit Alberto Alessi again and we had a conversation. He said they didn’t really have any recently designed teapots in the collection, so Alberto thought it was appropriate that I designed one for them. When I got back to Australia I did a design for them – a couple of designs – and the one that you’ve got, they liked. The system they operate on is that they have a board of people who vote on things and it’s proceeded on that basis. Apparently, 50% of the people on the board really liked it and 50% thought it was “too organic”. I could have changed the design and I could have pursued it further, but I eventually decided that I wasn’t interested anyway.

MP: What was your inspiration for the teapot? What brief did you set yourself?

RF: I don’t think there was any particular inspiration, but it’s like a lot of the pieces that I have made, particularly in those earlier days where I liked to create a juxtaposition between an organic, zoomorphic form (which was the vessel)…and something geometric. I like to create a language and interaction between the two of them. In the case of this teapot…it’s actually quite a macabre looking object because it looks like it has been pierced. It’s a utilitarian object, but in essence, I’m really working with sculptural aspects. I didn’t want the spout, the handle or lid to be thought of as independent or separate appendages. I wanted to try and make them as one, so there is a visual line which makes your eye assume the two pieces are connected. They are not, obviously. The spout is not connected to the handle, but it looks like that. I also wanted to draw a connection between how the handle determines the direction of the pouring action and the actual animated movement of pouring and how that connects to the direction of the liquid coming out.

MP: Have you been in contact with Alessi since this teapot?

RF: No. Not really. I did visit Alberto once more I think, and he was interested in taking on a few of the F!NK products as Alessi products. They’ve got quite a few things from F!NK in their Museum…

MP: What have they got?

RF: They’ve got the orange juicer, the tray, the jug obviously; maybe they have the tea strainer…mainly the early products. I’m not sure what contemporary products they have. I should really stay in contact with them.

MP: You described the teapot before as something which can look quite macabre because of the way it’s pierced, but when I first saw it, I thought of it as a pet – something small and cute that needed a nice home…

RF: Well, it’s like a lot of my work, there’s a whole lot of embellished language that appeals to people in different ways. There’s always a context there that people relate to…and I like to create a dialogue. The fact it’s been pierced creates a sense of undulating movement. The image that I had, I suppose, was that it was initially a hemispherical blob of mercury – like a blob of mercury sitting on a table – and the sickle shape has pierced into it and it’s perhaps the movement of the fluid or liquid caught in time. So, there’s that sort of action there. The back of it is narrower and the front of it is sort of pushed forward.

MP: From your experience, to what extent do prototypes usually differ from their final forms for production?

RF: It varies and I think for us and our approach with Fink, it’s probably quite different to a lot of other companies. It’s quite multi-directional and I see two extremes with the processes of making. On the one hand, there’s the concept, the feeling, the emotion and the aesthetics of it and on the other hand, there’s the way that mechanical and hand-forming processes can create an object…and how these both can combine. I guess the thing with F!NK is that it has allowed a whole new cache of knowledge and understanding of potential forms, processes and surfaces…that I wouldn’t have had, if I had just maintained a hand-making or craft-based process. But, it varies from prototype to prototype. The variation and the change will usually happen during the prototyping process and then it will be taken to manufacture, but in some cases, we take the design a certain distance and then we experiment with the tooling and process to determine the final shape…but it really depends on what you’re doing.

MP: How would you compare F!NK’s approach to design with Alessi’s approach today?

RF: F!NK was, in a lot of ways, a reaction to Alessi. I mean, they were an inspiring company…because they were contemporary and they were putting contemporary silversmithing on the international stage. The similarities with F!NK would be that Alessi are still quite interested in the craftsmanship of things and they still try to help and support small craft industries in their region. A lot of the pieces have a similar quirkiness to what we do and there’s quite a bit of innovation in terms of the objects. Alessi is always looking at new ways of doing things, which is similar to us – new surfaces and to some degree, new processes. They also collaborate with artists. Well, Alessi probably collaborates more with designers and architects, whereas we collaborate with craftsmen and artists. I think the difference, perhaps, is that we were always exclusively interested in the handmade nature of it and that each object is a little bit different. The popular word now is ‘bespoke’ – and this is where we came from and what we are interested in.

MP: What are you working on now?

RF: There are a few different things. I can’t tell you about the big commission that I am currently working on, except to say that it’s pretty exciting and it’s absorbing huge amounts of energy and it’s going to be fantastic when it is launched in October this year! But, I guess, personally what’s been happening over the last few years is that I’ve been more involved with my one-off work, lighting and developing ways of creating objects that haven’t been seen before. This involves a lot of playing around with thermo-forming processes. I’ve been working on some interesting one-off work which utilises the 500 tonne metal press that we’ve got to basically destroy bits of metal, but in a controlled way (I call it ‘abstract expressionism’ as a metalworker!), that’s on the verge of being totally out of control – what I’m talking about is the piece in the Canberra Times [this article can be found on the official F!NK website, dated June 26, 2010]. I use the big press to stretch and forge the materials in ways that are otherwise unachievable. So, that’s been quite exciting! Then we are going to release a light – it will probably be one of a few similar shapes – it’s called ‘Swinging Moon’. That’s taking the research and development of ideas, processes and products from my one-off prototyping realm into F!NK. We’ve also done a collaboration with Australian artist, Jonathan Baskett. We didn’t have a lot of involvement with the overall design…but we’ve organised the components. They’re salt, pepper and sugar shakers made out of pyrex or bora silica glass in the shape of a maraca…with stoppers made of anodised aluminium. They’re fun and quirky objects, but it’s difficult to keep the price down.

MP: How much of your time is spent doing commission work?

RF: At the moment, probably about 50%. The good thing about commission work is that you can always say “no” to it. In some cases, it means that it’s a bulk sum of money which allows you to explore something that is beyond the realms of your general capacity and you can manifest ideas that you’ve had. When somebody asks for a design, or asks you to design something, there’s always a cache of ideas that you’ve had sitting there that you can utilise or draw on. One of the reasons that I started F!NK was because I was doing a lot of commission work. I suppose at that point in my career, everyone wanted something for nothing and they tended to look in magazines and say “Can you make me this? But I want it half the price for what it sells for in the shop!”. I didn’t really like the situation then, but now we’ve had the opportunity to determine what we want to take (and what we don’t) and I suppose people are coming to ask for something that is unique to them. It’s like one-off work in a different realm.

MP: Do you have your workshop on site where you live?

RF: No.

MP: Would you like to?

RF: In some ways I would, but I don’t know if Gretel would like that! I would be working all the time! I get so caught up doing with what I am doing that I lose track of time and just can’t stop! It is actually good to have them separated and have time away from working where I just spend time in the garden and do experiments at home with the kids! Having the brain space is sort of necessary. But we do have an office at home and sometimes that means you can get caught up doing things on the computer and not taking time out.

MP: What do you see as your greatest achievement in your design career?

RF: I think some of the processes I’ve developed, if anything. New processes and new ways of doing things open up an entire new visual language. I think they’re probably what I think of as a greatest achievement – it’s not necessarily a piece or a design, it’s got more to do with seeing things differently and trying to create new objects and visual languages to challenge people. I spent a couple of years in Europe on different occasions and living in Italy and Germany and England…and I just thought “NO!” – being in Australia is actually an opportunity to do something radically different and have a different response rather than following the traditional metaphors. I was more interested in being ‘counter-developmental’ and hence not wanting to do things that had a symmetrical nature and using processes that allowed products to be made which people hadn’t seen before – different surfaces and materials, and that’s still what interests me.

MP: I was reading in the interview you gave for the Canberra Times recently that the “bush-in-the-city” aesthetic has always had a strong influence on your work.

RF: Australia and the spirit of the land and the nature of the landscape play a huge influence in my work. It informs my visual language and my experiences growing up in the country has meant I’ve felt responsible to put those things out there which are tied to the landscape and Aboriginal culture, that type of thing. I spent a lot of time as a teenager and as a kid travelling around Australia as well, and I had a lot of experiences that not many people would have had.

MP: Where do you think F!NK will be in 10 years time?

RF: Crikey! We don’t do business plans! We’d like to keep it in the upper ends of the design industry, innovating and offerings things that aren’t seen in other businesses – something that is recognised as Australian. My dream, I suppose in a way, is to do what happened with the Scandinavian design industry where it was based on the crafts and hand-making knowledge and process and having certain elements about it that are identifiable. There are lots of dreams I have for F!NK – doing things beyond object production like big commissions. The notion of Fink is something that goes against the grain and offers a different perspective, that’s always been the idea behind it. Something that is not mainstream. This makes it difficult as most big and successful companies take the bread and butter line…and that’s what makes the money. For us, that’s the jug. The jug allowed so much of this to happen really because of its success. In 10 years, we want to still be surviving and to be relevant.

MP: And still in Canberra?

RF: I guess so. We do projects and design products for places all over the world and all over the country, so I don’t mind. I like the void, I’ve always like the desert and space and Canberra is kind of good like that. It’s a modern city that is interspersed with bits of nature and clean blue skies. It’s also not too far from the coast and from Sydney which means you can easily do day trips! Maybe we will still in be in Canberra…

I would like to thank Robert for enabling this interview and for sharing his wonderful insights into his design work, and also fellow curator, Eva Czernis-Ryl.

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