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F!NK design - an Australia design success story

F!NK + Co. is a small Australian manufacturing company with a big reputation. Its first product, the F!NK + Co. jug, designed by Robert Foster, has taken on an iconic status and is still the signature piece of the company. It is one of the most successful Australian design items, sold around the world.

Robert Foster with F!NK and Co. jug

Damian McDonald, Robert Foster with F!NK + Co. jug. Image courtesy of F!NK + Co.

Since 1994 eight Australian designers have been brought in to the F!NK family and their products are distributed widely throughout Australia and at key outlets internationally, with a sales focus on London and New York.

Robert Foster and F!NK

F!NK and Company was established in 1994 by designer Robert Foster after he had spent 10 years working as a studio-based designer-maker. Foster trained in traditional silversmithing techniques and excelled in the exacting and time-consuming process of hollow ware (objects that are shaped into rounded forms, as opposed to flatware, usually cutlery and flat utensils). His works were soon sought-after and collected by major public institutions.

F!NK was a way of supporting Foster's individual practice with the aim of bringing one-off works to the general public and making them accessible. The company was also intended to foster a community of designers, in the spirit of the arts and craft movement in Australia.

The name F!NK, drawn from the work fink—meaning underhand, against the grain, a scoundrel—was suggested by a colleague Glenn Drury. The name is based on the original partnership names of Foster Inc and Anthony King, or fink.

Discovering aluminium tubing

F!NK Jugs

F!NK + Co. design by Robert Foster, The F!NK Jug, since 1993, Pressed anodised aluminium, powder-coated cast aluminium handle. Photo: Damian McDonald. Image courtesy of F!NK + Co.

The story of F!NK is a story made in aluminium; the origins of the jug design will serve to explain why. In 1993 Robert Foster was commissioned by a Canberra restaurant. Foster had to create a jug that could be manufactured cheaply and yet look elegant.

Foster looked to aluminium tubing, a material attractive as a cheaper option than most precious metals. Most importantly, tubing already contained volume and so minimised the work traditionally needed to produce any type of vessel.

Aluminium is soft and it extrudes easily; the tube gives you a vessel to which you can attach a bottom, although the process for this still has to be resolved, as does the pouring and the spout.

The design of the jug, however, did not compromise Foster's distinctive, curvaceous approach. The integrity of the design, the designer's lateral thinking and technical innovation have remained hallmarks of all F!NK products.

Manufacture versus the hand made

The F!NK Coolamons

F!NK + Co. design by Robert Foster, The F!NK Coolamons [Edge, Track and Spine],2008, pressed anodised aluminium. Photo: Damian McDonald. Image courtesy of Robert Foster.

Industry is usually seen as different from craft. Manufacturing is often seen as the opposite of the handmade craft process. It is sometimes seen in the context of old versus new. Yet F!NK represents both the predominant world of mass production and also the world of one-off design and crafts manufacture.

In fact, the 'hand' is never completely absent from any F!NK product. The making of tooling (the moulds, casts and presses from which multiple objects are made) takes up a large percentage of Foster's time. The eye, he believes, is more sophisticated than machines. By keeping his hand in the making of the tools, more personality is retained in the multiple. All pieces are hand-finished.

Aluminium can also be anodised into a multitude of colours and manipulated into a variety of shapes using innovative technical processes, including explosive and heat fusion processes. The knowledge of manufacturing tools and having direct access to the equipment has also fed one-off designs.

Design aesthetic

Foster's design process was not just about building the designs, but learning how to use equipment and machines to manipulate materials that created an interplay that was entertaining.

Foster's design aesthetic is evident through the F!NK range. Utilitarian household objects are animated, most often by a playful reference to the purpose of the object and how it is to be used—such as pouring, lifting, pushing a lid on, and so on. The human interaction with the object, which in turn gives each its 'personality', helps determine the shape.

Collaborations

The F!NK Citrus Squeezer

F!NK + Co. design by Robert Foster and Elizabeth Kelly, The F!NK Citrus Squeezer, 1994, pressed powder-coated anodised aluminium; pressed glass. Photo: Damian McDonald. Image courtesy of F!NK + Co.

It was always the intention that F!NK + Co. be just that: a company. While Foster has forged a strong identity for F!NK over the years, he has also brought many other craftspeople into the mix. He believes in the importance of sharing his experiences and the benefits of cross-fertilisation.

Foster wanted to offer designers the opportunity to learn how things can be manufactured in a way which involved them in the whole process from prototype through tooling to packaging.

While the collaborations work on a business level, they also boost the status of designers and provide a dynamic image for F!NK.

Elizabeth Kelly

One of the earliest collaborations was with Elizabeth Kelly. Kelly brought with her an expertise in pressed glass, and together they designed the now discontinued F!NK Citrus Squeezer (1994). In 2003 Kelly initiated Studio Tangerine in Canberra, a purpose-built self-funded glass design and sculpture studio where she continues to work. In 2008 Kelly was the artist in residence at the Seto City International Ceramic and Glass Centre in Japan.

Mentorships—Sean Booth

Sean Booth is one of several silversmithing graduates who have been employed at F!NK over the years. Booth broadened his collaboration with F!NK through an Australia Council Mentorship in 2003, and in 2005 designed the F!NK Candelabra.

The idea for a candelabra came from a business perspective: the candelabra was a table top item identified by F!NK as having viability in the market.

Having come from a background of hand making, Booth especially appreciated Foster's mentoring with design for production ware and the demands of developing tooling. The way in which these different aspects of a designer's thinking feed into one another was the subject of a Craft ACT travelling exhibition, F!NK: fostering design in 2008–09.

Oliver Smith

The F!NK Fatware +Tray

F!NK + Co. design by Oliver Smith, The F!NK Fatware +Tray, 2005, Drop-forged, hard-anodised aluminium, food-grade polyethylene. Photo: Damian McDonald. Image courtesy of F!NK + Co.

Designer-maker Oliver Smith had been making his elegant cutlery in silver when he was invited to design a product for F!NK. He describes the lessons he gained from the experience:

the discipline of making multiples means that you have to design a consistent production system—a system that is built on solid research into functional and aesthetic questions, combined with an understanding of the commercial market.

Smith has taken Foster's lead in basing his production designs very firmly on his handmade objects. He creates unique hand crafted objects, commissions, exhibition work, collaborative projects and designs for production.

Bronwen Riddiford

Bronwen Riddiford, a jewellery designer based in Adelaide, uses paper cut-outs to model her jewellery. Riddiford's design interests involve folding materials.

The F!NK Wine Chiller

F!NK + Co. Design by Bronwen Riddiford and Robert Foster, The F!NK Wine Chiller, 2003, laser-cut pressed anodised aluminium, rotation-moulded plastic. Photo: Damian McDonald. Image courtesy of F!NK + Co.

In 2003 Riddiford arrived to work at F!NK for a month. Foster describes how within ten minutes of arriving, Riddiford was cutting up toilet rolls and then swiftly adapting the tube by cutting it to form a handle—an innovation of startling simplicity. This was the beginning of the Ned Kelly ice-bucket. Riddiford spent the rest of her time at F!NK making the tooling and the bucket, which is one of F!NK's most popular products ever.

In 2007, Riddiford designed The F!NK Neckpieces with Foster, again featuring a folded technique. They joined Rohan Nicol's 1998 F!NK Bracelet in a growing range of F!NK jewellery. Foster's heart-shaped F!NK Brooch, with messages of love, honour and bravery, went into production in 2006.

Product development

Business partner Gretel Harrison joined F!NK + Co. in 1997 when she bought out Anthony King. This had a huge effect on the F!NK design program. Being at the 'front line' of marketing the business, Harrison is also instrumental in the development of products. She is aware of what F!NK's clients are looking for, and what is currently on the market.

Most of the F!NK products are for table use. Harrison suggests objects with a view to completing table settings in a consistent style, and where she sees a gap in the market. Once identified, Foster or an invited designer will start the process of developing a prototype for the new product, a process that can take from one to four years.

The F!NK Cream and Sugar Set

F!NK + Co. design by Robert Foster, The F!NK Cream and Sugar Set, 2000, Pressed powder-coated anodised aluminium, food grade plastic, stainless steel. Photo: Damian McDonald. Image courtesy of F!NK + Co.

This impetus drove the designing of The F!NK Cream and Sugar Set. This product added a special technical challenge as well: how to weld the plastic base to the body of the vessels. Once again the successful solution was a combination of innovation and design integrity.

Branding and marketing

Gretel Harrison also manages the branding of F!NK + Co. Her role includes promoting the company at trade fairs around the world. She has maintained a consistent presence in America, a strategy which has seen that market grow for F!NK.

Harrison's background in marketing has built a strong visual identity for the company, which projects the right messages about F!NK: quality, Australian-made and designed, innovative, about people and with a sense of quirkiness. The F!NK website and distinctive packaging is designed by graphic designer Louise Ragless, featuring photography by Damian McDonald.

screenshot of Fink and Co website

F!NK + Co. website screenshot, 2009.

Local company with an international reputation—F!NK Clients

The success of this modest Australia company is measured in part by its loyal clients, as most people cannot stop with only one F!NK object. F!NK products are distributed through such prestigious international outlets as the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Victoria and Albert Museum (London) shops.

Foster's innovative use of aluminium was highlighted in the FORM exhibition Vast terrain (2005).

The F!NK + Co. catalogue has had over 30 items in production. The generosity of Foster's vision of a company of designers was celebrated in Craft ACT's travelling exhibition F!NK: fostering design (200809). These designers are all highly respected in the field and many of them were selected for the Powerhouse Museum's Smart works (2007) exhibition, a survey of the best of Australian contemporary design.

The company has also received official recognition: in 2005, F!NK + Co. won the Small to Medium Manufacturer Award in the ACT Chief Minister's Export Awards, and was a finalist in the 2005 Austrade Australian Export Awards.

Useful links

Artists

Last updated: 28th January 2010
Creators: Merryn Gates Services for Arts, et al.

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