Metal and Lighting Specialist
Our founder Mimosa met with local maker, Nicole Lawrence. From her Preston studio, she builds and designs light fittings and industrial furniture. They chatted about all things welding, burnout and design.
Mimosa: OK Hello Nikki, is it Nikki or Nicole?
Nikki: It’s Nikki or Nicole, I don’t mind which.
M: Ok cool. Let's start with, what do you actually do?
N: I do a few different things. The easy answer is that I'm a furniture maker and designer, so I make my own pieces, I design and make my own pieces. And then separately to that, I do industrial design and consultancy work for other designers. So, I guess the reason that it's not a simple answer is because there's a little bit of both. I do get offended when people just call me “just” a designer though.
M: Yeah, I can understand that because you actually make stuff and you’ve got skills.
N: Ahh yeah, the simple answer is I predominantly, but not exclusively specialise in metal furniture and lighting.
M: Okay. Beautiful. So, you work with metals, but not exclusively. So, you do work with wood?
N: I don't specialise in it, But I’m definitely not limited to metal, I've got design experience in a lot of other different materials. But I guess in terms of my making skills I'm much more comfortable with lighting, like wiring, electrical work, and metal fabrication, but then, I can design and work with many different materials.
M: Okay. Cool. Sounds really fun. So, one of my favourite questions… how did you get those skills?
N: So, I started when I left high school, I studied gold and silver smithing. I was never a very passionate student in high school. I grew up on a farm and that there was a lot of making, building, getting dirty and lots of other delayed gratification tasks that I really enjoyed.
And so, after school I studied gold and silver smithing because it felt like the most accessible kind of making course for women of my age and where I lived. I did the 2-year trades course at NMIT, which was really sort of intensive. But I didn't really love the product I was making, being jewellery. I really liked the materials I was working in learning to work with precious metals and studying metallurgy etc. but the outcome wasn’t something I was truly passionate about. I also have a condition with my hands where they're all a bit bent so holding such small pieces of jewellery was quite painful. After a while sitting at a workbench all day holding a tiny piece of jewellery, filing away at it ended up being quite painful. So that was another reason why I stopped making jewellery.
Then I was looking around for work in a furniture or lighting studio and just sent around resumes to a few designers I liked and got an interview at Christopher Boots, which is a lighting design studio in Fitzroy. They make very bespoke high end architectural lighting, so pendants and lamps and things like that. They did a lot of work with brass, stainless steel and aluminium. I worked in that production team for about five years, and then moved into the design team for another couple of years. Alongside that I studied industrial design, which was bananas. Because I was working four days a week and studying full time as well after hours. I was sort of at this loggerhead of not wanting my career to slow down, but also wanting an education to progress my career. I wanted to study but I also didn't want to let go of any of the opportunities that were currently happening in my employment. So, I just did both ended up getting glandular fever…
M: So, the process of wiring up lights and design principals you learnt through study or on the job?
N: Most of that stuff that I learned at Christopher Boots. They have their production studios in Fitzroy, and you are taught skills on the job. When I was in the design team, and then the production team, my focus was on technical product development for the final outcomes. But also, for production techniques, repair and installation of the lights.
I had to learn a lot about how and why products are made in the way they were, all the processes we used in house, how to make them better, how to make them easier to install, how to repair them, how to consider what electricians needed to know and what clients needed to know and keep up with new technologies and developments. Alongside this I also learnt a lot through my university education such as CAD modelling and rapid prototyping skills. But I would say my education mainly came through my employment. There was a couple of people along the way who helped me by getting me started welding, teaching me theory or letting me use their studio space with whilst I was practicing and learning.
M: Okay, really interesting, so was this more practical work or creative to you?
N: Christopher Boots is a very creative thinker, and a very conceptual person, and I don't consider myself to be that way. My skill set lent itself to that environment. I wanted to focus on the technical side, and they needed designers to help develop the product and production in those ways.
M: So that's quite interesting, you don't feel like you're a creative person? – do you feel you're more practical?
N: Yeah, I mean, it's often, I still kind of shudder when people describe me as creative.
N: I mean, I definitely should, I think it's funny.
The way that I approach design is more from curiosity about a technique that I want to learn, rather than being inspired by a particular shape, or time or something. I guess I consider myself to be more of an engineering mind than a creative, which is why I enjoy doing consultancy for creatives, because they present new technical challenges. I get to be the problem solver. Someone will come with a sketch on a napkin and say, “I've got this design, and I don't know how to make it. Can you help me?” And that process of solving those problems, coming up with the componentry or the processes, feels just as satisfying as making a table of my own design.
Both those things feel just as satisfying to me, it doesn’t have to be my name on it or my idea to spark my passion.
M: can we change track a little – I know how hard you work, and you mentioned working and studying full time and getting really sick. Obviously, you know burnout is a thing, you’ve experienced that. Any thoughts on what to do, how to navigate times when you hit a bit of a bleak place?
N: Burnout is a real thing. And I mean, I am in no way an expert on it because I have no idea how to manage it. I thrive under pressure. The busier I am, the happier I am.
But that's so linked with all sorts of shit about work being your identity, and all of that stuff (My psychologist is working hard on that haha) I went through pretty bad burnout mid last year and that with a lot of guilt about not nurturing this business that I had created. There's this idea that if you're not working your business, 24/7, then you’re just gonna fail. And I really felt that last year because I sort of wasn't keeping up with this KPI that I had set for myself that no one was holding me too whatsoever.
But, I was still feeling guilty about the fact that I was so tired and unmotivated. And then you know, things happen in your personal life, you get COVID twice, and everything seems to happen at once. Yet you still think that you're failing because you're exhausted and you're not feeling passionate about what you're doing for your career.
M: I feel that you need to be you, you need to be just as productive at all costs?
N: At all times! When I figure out how to manage burnout, I'll send you an edit to this interview.
M: Thank you. Do you work full time or overtime – like, 5 days a week? Or do you do 7?
N: Depends what's going on. Sometimes, it also depends on my cycle. Some weeks, I'm firing with all cylinders, and I do 12-hour days, and I feel really good. I’ll wake up on a Saturday and I love what I do so keep working. I'm passionate and I feel proud of myself.
Then some days I wake up and I'm like, “Oh, maybe I'll just give up and get a full-time job and then I won’t have to make these decisions and be responsible all the time. I'm just so fucking tired.” And then, you know, my period rolls around and I'm like, oh yeah, that this is all adding up! I've found that since I've started tracking my cycle properly and planning my weeks around what brain space I am in, things feel a lot smoother throughout the month.
M: Love getting those notifications: ‘you may have some PMS symptoms today…’ and suddenly things make a little more sense. Circling back, what keeps you motivated to continue your small business?
N: I love to make. I love the processes involved in producing a light or a table, be it welding or wiring etc. I like to be dirty. I love working for myself, most of the time. I find the aspect of running a small business fascinating: knowing how things work and learning about how all the components work together.
I enjoy visiting my suppliers, some of them are artisans who have been in the industry a really long time. Its’ so special to see their workshops. how they operate and how passionate they are about what they are doing and what I am doing. I get this feeling of being so lucky in a small way, support their industry and the Australian manufacturing industry, because it is struggling so much. There’s a feeling of coming up together and surviving together that I really value.
M: One last question, for those reading who want to start working/designing/making, what would your suggestions to get started?
N: The first thing that you should do is look around for short courses. There's a great welding course at Melbourne Polytechnic, just to get some like base level knowledge. Or do the furniture course or luminaires (lighting) courses at RMIT.
If you wanted to do something more long term, find businesses that you like, and who produce in Australia, and just send them an email and explain what your interests are and whether they have any internships open or paid jobs. Often these places don't advertise for roles on the usual channels, they'll sort of put feelers out amongst their team or just through word of mouth, so don't just only apply for jobs at places that are advertising them. Do the cold call.
Internships are a great thing but just make sure that you're getting a lot out of it if they're not going to pay you. I don't entirely believe in unpaid internships, but I can understand that it takes a lot of time and energy away from a business to train someone so if you are going to do an unpaid internship, just make sure that you're learning something from it - don't just give these businesses free labour. And then the last thing is the University of YouTube there is so much good information especially on welding (the Weld.com channel)
As for welding, if you have access to a welder, you can go to metal fabricators and ask them to look through their scrap bin if money is an issue, take some scrap out of there, offer to pay them but I doubt they'll charge you for it. And that way, you can just start practising because that's the biggest part of it. I am still practicing and improving every day.
Nicole Lawrence works on the unceded land of the Wadawurrung and the Dja Dja Wurrung Peoples of the Kulin Nation.