In just six months, Timothy Roberston has excelled from winning 'Australia's Next Top Designer' at Design Show in October 2022 to launching his own capsule collection with leading Australian design brand, nau, at the 2023 edition of this event. We sat down with Timothy to discuss his career in design, the process behind designing the Pa range and more. Pa launches at Design Show from 15-17 June in Melbourne, and is available exclusively in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore at Cult.

Meet Timothy Robertson. 

Born and raised in Western Australia, Timothy's passion for design was sparked at a young age when he frequently found himself in his father's furniture workshop, observing and being inspired by his work.

Timothy's design ethos draws inspiration from Australia's natural environment and flora, a distinctive vernacular passed down from his father’s practice.

Timothy is now based in Sydney and works from a beachside studio, providing an ideal environment for his creative process. His most essential tools include a sketchbook and a model making kit. His philosophy and process emphasise storytelling, nostalgia, and purpose, ensuring that each creation possesses a meaningful narrative. 

Pa is the first collection designed by Timothy for Cult's in-house Australian design brand, nau. 

On Timothy and his design process. 

Let’s start by talking about how you ended up doing what you’re doing! When did you first decide that you wanted to become a designer and what path led you to where you are today?

My father is a furniture designer and when I was growing up in Fremantle, I was always hanging around his workshop with my brothers and was constantly inspired by his work and machinery. I still remember the little tool kit he got me for my 7th birthday, every week he would take my hand saw into his workshop and sharpen the saw blade, and refill my nail jar.

Later in life I completed my motorcycle apprenticeship and spent many years as a mechanic diagnosing, repairing bikes and rebuilding engines. This is where I learned to problem solve, I really enjoyed the challenge.

I enrolled at UNSW in their industrial design programme, It wasn’t apparent that I wanted to design furniture until later in my first year, I was always in the university’s workshop designing and making objects and furniture even when I probably should have been in class.

In 2018 I was really honoured to have Tom Skeehan invite me to be part of an exhibition he was organising in Melbourne supporting emerging designers, this was a shifting point in my career that snowballed into an internship at Cult that flourished into where I am today.

Timothy completed a motorcycle apprenticeship and spent many years as a mechanic before moving into furniture design. In diagnosing, repairing bikes and rebuilding engines, he learned strong problem solving skills.

Where does your inspiration come from?

My design ethos stems from Australian flora, something I learned and carried on from my parents’ practice. It's a distinct vernacular that separates my work from others. I recently walked the solitary track in the Blue Mountains and found some of the most incredible patterns and textures on the Sydney Red Gum, there’s a lot to study and learn from our natural environment and Australian flora. Our natural landscape has so many beautiful features to be explored through design.

Timothy believes there’s a lot to study and learn from our natural environment and Australian flora. Pictured is the Sydney Red Gum which he took inspiration from on a recent walk in the Blue Mountains. 

How would you describe your design approach and your aesthetic? What is fundamental to your design practice, philosophy and process?

I would say my design aesthetic is quite authentic, it's a product of the teachings and upbringings by my parents, which have been instilled in me from a young age. This aesthetic has matured and evolved further with experience. My process and philosophy are unique, nothing is created without a story, nostalgia, or purpose. My design process is based on how I perceive the natural and built world around me both through form and colour.

What is your studio space like? What are the most used items in your studio?

My studio gets a lot of natural light and a sea breeze. The sketch book gets used every day, verniers and my model making kit a tough second, computer third. 

What are your favourite materials and colours to work with?

I love working with stainless steel, leather, wool and timbers, anything in its natural state where you can see its perfections and imperfections; it adds some of the most beautiful features to the final product. For me, the best colours are found outside, just take a walk through the bush and nature will always give you the most beautiful colour palettes to work with.

Describe a typical work day - do you have any daily work rituals?

Morning is normally either a run or a surf, followed by coffee and emails. By 10am I’m either in CAD or prototyping designs for the rest of the day. Each day varies depending on projects and deadlines; that’s one of the best parts of the job. One day I’ll be covered in sawdust or welding up frames, the next day I’ll be outside hiking through the mountains, taking photos and gathering all kinds of inspiration for projects. At the end of the day, I like to wind down at the beach with my sketchbook taking notes and scribbling out ideas while watching the sun go down. I don’t always get to do this so I cherish the moments that I do. It's not all sunshine as a designer, you have your good days and your bad days just like everyone else, I just try to make the most of each day.

How do you define good design. Is there a simple formula?

One would argue that there is a set of guidelines that one should follow, but design values are so subjective based on cultural influences. But if you can find a harmonious balance, or if something can make you engage or give you sentimental or emotional value, then I think that’s pretty good for the consumeristic world we live in today.

Who or what are some of your influences? What other designers and creatives do you admire?

My father will always be my biggest design hero. I really appreciate what the Bouroullec brothers are doing. Hans Wegner and Poul Kjaerholm are also among my favourites. I really admire the way they both understood and mastered the materials they used.

Timothy's admires the work of Hans Wegner (left), Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec (centre) and Poul Kjaerholm (right). 

What’s the best mistake you have ever made?

Taking a year off to travel and design. I was offered a position to help grow my design career and at the last minute turned it down. I was terrified this was a mistake at the time, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without that time abroad. European design and architecture has so much to offer, I took a lot in that year and designed some amazing projects that are now all starting to come to fruition

What do you like to do in your free time? 

Living in Bondi its nice to have a cheeky surf or a quick getaway into the mountains for a hike or just refresh myself in nature. The outdoors has played a huge part in my upbringing and is my escape - it's how I best relax in my free time. I find the natural environment brings me balance, which is fundamental to who I am both as an individual and a designer. 

On designing the new Pa range for nau.

Talk us through the process of developing Pa, from concept to final design?

There was no formal design brief initially. I just had an idea based on emotions and theories, and from there, I set some parameters and followed my heart.

I really wanted to design a simple lounge chair that expressed the inherent beauty of natural timber. Something comfortable, humble, staple and modern to suit any environment. The native timber has such a lovely soft velvety feel about it; Pa is all about tactility and stimulating the senses - it feels like a warm hug. From the initial lounge chair grew the wider seating collection. 

It was paramount that the final design was honest, to both the material use, ergonomics, production and durability. For me the range was finished when they were all in balance, it's something that as a designer you could spend forever trying to refine, but I am really happy with the end result.

What is the inspiration behind Pa?

It actually started while I was in Tokyo. I would go into the Japanese gardens and felt like there was always a sense of peace and tranquility, a relief from the busy city. I started thinking about how could I turn this emotive experience into a collection of furniture. Intrigued, I started researching the three design principles of the gardens - structure, water and plants. Using these as base blocks, I interpreted these principles into wood, structure and upholstery. The design principles of the gardens is a basis to which I applied my knowledge and skills as an industrial designer, as well as my knowledge of Australian flora and materials and translated these to a chair. Pa is not just a chair, I hope that this range can connect people to the experience I felt.

Timothy took inspiration from Japanese gardens at the initial stages of designing the Pa collection.

Why is the design named Pa?

The name 'Pa' comes from my father, it's an ode to his many years of love and support. We tossed around many names but ultimately it’s not only the experience of the warm hug you feel in the chair, but the many years of wisdom, skills and techniques my father taught me, which are embodied in this range and which I use in my daily work. He doesn’t know I named it after him but I bet he has figured it out by now.

What kind of environments do you see Pa being used in?

I see the range in any social environment, with its inherent ability to fit into any space. One of its best aspects is that it's a social chair, the back is just generous enough to allow one to shift from side to side to engage in different conversations around the table without compromising comfort. I deliberately kept the footprint as small as possible to suit the more compact living and hospitality environments that we are faced with now and in the future

In your own words, what are your favourite details of the Pa range? What makes it a good choice for designers to specify over other designs?

I really like the way the open design allows ambient light to pass through the frame; it gives a sense of lightness and neutrality. It is easy to visually digest whilst also making the room lighter and visually larger, I believe this is important in environments where natural light is limited or where one wants to maximise the use of space. 

The beautiful simplicity and profile of the dual radius backrest is a key feature. It really is the highlight of the design and provides great support plus an excellent, tactile handle for moving the chair.

Pa is made from either Australian or American hardwoods and steel crafted by some of Australia’s best talents. I was really excited when Richard mentioned he wanted to start using Australian timbers - we felt like Pa was the perfect range and opportunity for nau to expand and try something different. Also growing up in Western Australia I watched my father use many different Australian timbers, its something that I myself haven’t used before but was excited for the opportunity. 

How was the design developed with best-practice sustainability principles in mind?

Because Pa’s construction is so simple, all parts of the chairs can be either repaired or replaced. The backrests can easily be replaced if they get damaged, same applies for the upholstery at end of life. Also having it locally made to reduces the carbon footprint of the product. The design uses a minimal amount of timber, making it quite efficient and easy to produce.

Were there challenges or lessons learnt while you were in the creating process?

Ergonomics were very sensitive to the design, it took a lot of research and trial and error to get the right geometry. When I was making the prototypes I would invite people of all heights and sizes to sit in and check the relations and comfort level to ensure I found a good middle ground for the user. The dining chair with arms needed to slide comfortably under most dining tables, we had a lot of challenges designing this feature whilst maintaining ergonomics but I'm really happy with the result.

On working with Cult and nau. 

What is the story behind your partnership with Cult and nau? How did you meet and end up working together to produce the Pa collection?

I caught up with Richard (Cult founder and CEO) and the Cult team in Copenhagen during 3 Days of Design last year which was really inspiring. I was questioned about what I was working on but hadn’t quite refined it at that time. Just after I returned to Australia, I received some awards for Kinoko. I later showed the Cult team the Pa lounge I had been working on and they shared with me their ideas and vision for the range. The design naturally flourished between Cult and I, we had a mutual understanding of what we were after. It was a beautiful process watching the range be realised in a remarkably a short amount of time.

What does the future of furniture design/craft/manufacturing look like in Australia?

I am proud to be supporting Australian manufacturing, it is paramount for growth in the industry. Australia has a rich heritage of craftsmanship, and with the resurgence of interest in handmade furniture, it's an honour to be a part of this movement. Also, this gives us the ability to use some of our ethically sourced, natural timbers. It’s always a pleasure working with the fine craftsmen and women of the industry. 

What do you think defines Australian design?

This is a very good question. It’s difficult to define Australian design by one specific detail. as a multicultural nation we have so many different cultural values that are not only applied to the way we live but also to design. I guess in whole, Australian design embodies all these cultural values which show up in the ways we live as well as our design culture. 

Quick Six. 

Music – what’s on rotation at office and home? 

Depends on vibe but currently 2000’s RNB or Spanish techno.

Best downtime activity? 

Sauna at least once a week

Preferred tipple?  

I won’t say no to a cheeky nip of any good - Japanese single malt is my favourite. 

Films that have inspired you? 

Burnt. Bradley Cooper's pursuit of creative perfection in the kitchen, one can easily relate to in the design realm, the perseverance to innovate and create something fresh and new, to think so far out of the norm.

Travel – favourite regular haunt? 

Madrid or Malcesine for the win every time.

Your most treasured belonging? 

Two limited signed drawings of the HAY Copenhague Chair by Ronan Bouroullec, I’ll be holding onto both of them for a very long time.

Some of Timothy's favourite activites and belonings include visiting the sauna (favourite downtime), a signed poster of the HAY Copenhague Chair by Ronan Bouroullec (treasured beloning) and Malcesine in Italy (travel destination). 
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