Dean Norton on designing functional art objects for personal expression

Dean Norton.

Can you share some insights into your design journey over the past few years, and how you have reached this point in your career?

 I started designing furniture about five years ago, but before that my background was graphic and interior design. Figuring out exactly what I am trying to do has been quite a process, but I feel like I’m getting to a point where I have a clear idea of what I want to say in my design work. My work is an expression of my emotions and reflects what I’m experiencing at a certain moment in time. Every piece I create is very personal to me, and it always has a story relating to a specific experience or time in my life.


How did the opportunity arise for you to exhibit at Milan Design Week 2023?

 I showed two of my Containa encased furniture pieces last year here at Rossana Orlandi’s gallery following an email from her team out of the blue, which was a big surprise. I sent her another edition of Containa for this year, and I was thrilled to hear that she would be showing it again. My relationship with Rossana started last year, when her team contacted me asking if I’d be interested in working with them after seeing some images of my work online. At the time I was investing my focus and energy in creating pieces for Melbourne Design Fair, but felt absolutely compelled to take the opportunity to work with Rossana, and I’m so glad I did.


What are some of the main conceptual ideas behind the Containa design?

Containa was created during the last and longest Melbourne lockdown. As the name suggests, it really captures my experience of feeling physically and emotionally contained during this very difficult period. I think it explores these feelings in quite a universal way and people gravitate towards it because we all experienced similar emotions. It’s quite a powerful thing for me as a designer when such a deeply personal work also resonates with viewers all over the world.

Technically speaking, Containa is an encased furniture series that explores the narrative of the vessel and its contents. Each edition comprises a sculptural wood-turned form, housed within mitre-bonded frosted glass. Some people say it looks like a table floating inside the glass, some say it looks like a table suspended in fog or smoke. The frosted glass gives the sculpture a sense of enigma, which is symbolic of the unknown nature of that period during the pandemic, They also look very different in different shades of light. I like to think of them as functional art pieces that are intriguing and embody narrative.

All the elements are made locally in Melbourne, which is very important to me. The timber in the table is made and sprayed locally, and the glass is manufactured by a company in Melbourne too, which I bond together in my studio. I always try to ensure my work is crafted locally and I enjoy having creative control over my own projects as this means I can oversee things like quality of materials and processes that affect the final outcome.

I obviously like to design and make the physical pieces, but given my background in interior and graphic design, the way the object is photographed, filmed and presented in visual material is just as important to me. This applies to all my work, not just to the Containa series. I always try to extend the story or the design narrative behind the piece with how it’s presented post-production.


How do you compare the difference in designing for interior projects compared to the personal functional art pieces you’re exploring now?

In interior design, I would often start with a big idea or concept, but the final outcome was never quite what I imagined due to factors like budget, stakeholder input or clients changing their mind on major design elements. It’s just the nature of the business, but I often found myself disappointed.

In the early stages of my personal design journey I made a few things for a design platform called Alt Material, which provided some great creative briefs and exposure opportunities for my work. The briefs they gave me really pushed me to create furniture that had a deeper meaning to it. This led me to begin designing in a way that expressed my own feelings and emotional experiences. This approach feels like a really cathartic process and a therapy for me, whether people like the work or not is beyond my control.

Now I feel I have achieved a certain kind of creative freedom because my design work is an honest expression of self. I don’t have the compulsion to always design for clients, commercial trends and rigid briefs. I feel like I’m working in a space now where people appreciate my work through both a design and an artistic lens. I don’t feel the pressure to design collections that will ‘sell’ purely based on the fact that they are aesthetically appealing. What’s really important to me now is designing in a way that expresses my personal journey, my designs are like journals or records of who I am and what I have experienced as both a designer and a human.


What has been your experience of Milan Design Week this year?

Honestly, it has been incredible (…and maybe a bit overwhelming!). It’s like an attack on the senses; there’s so much to observe and absorb, it’s been great fun. One thing I’ve particularly enjoyed this year is being able to meet other Australian designers who are here exhibiting. There’s a really strong community feel, and we all want to support each other. I’ve been able to connect with a number of designers who I knew about back home but hadn’t had the opportunity to meet.

Showing your work over here is a big achievement, probably bigger than I realised at first. It’s definitely something to celebrate, and it’s great to be able to share these celebrations with other designers who understand the process and journey involved in reaching this point in your career where your work is recognised on the world stage in this way.

Dean Norton, Containa. Image by Elise Scott.