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Louise Olsen is a Dinosaur Designer
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Louise Olsen is a Dinosaur Designer
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Louise Olsen is a Dinosaur Designer
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Conversations
1 July 2005

Louise Olsen is a Dinosaur Designer

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Stephen Ward

Kate Bezar on Louise Olsen...

Louise Olsen is one member of the trio that is Dinosaur Designs. A remarkable company whose spirit still remains the same as it was when they were just three final year art students getting together on Friday nights to make Fimo jewellery to sell at the markets the following morning. Now, 20 years on, their immediately recognisable pieces are works of art in their own right, and for Louise, straddling the worlds of fashion, design and art is a very comfortable place to be.

This story originally ran in issue #05 of Dumbo Feather

DUMBO FEATHER: So I know it’s your 20th anniversary this year.

LOUISE OLSEN: It is our 20th year. It is unbelievably amazing how quickly it’s flown for us because all three of us have enjoyed the journey of Dinosaur Designs. When we first started we were three young art students in our postgraduate year and all three of us were majoring in painting and drawing. We immediately became friends within the first year of art school and had been admiring each other’s work and talking and we really got along very quickly and very well together, and we used to go out together and party… And then eventually, when you get to postgraduate level at art school, there’re really not many job opportunities and we thought let’s create our own job opportunity. So we decided first of all to start printing fabric and making clothes and this was, like, say, late ’87 and if you remember that time in fashion, it was kind of very flamboyant, very Jenny Kee. It was a great time, a very creative time, a good time to start because it was a time where people were much more expressive with clothing, and fabric, and printing, and pattern and mixing patterns. So we started printing fabric and then heading to the markets on Saturday mornings, Paddington Markets. Markets are such a great place to start a business. We sold hardly anything, like $20 for the whole day, but I think it was more about the experience than anything… and meeting people. That was the most valuable. We were there for about two years.

Wow. So your whole last year of art school and the following year?

Yeah. Then we found, with this fabric, because we all had visual painting and drawing experience, the print aspect of it was great, but the clothes-making aspect of it was really, really tricky. So we decided it really wasn’t our medium and we started making jewellery. The moment we started making jewellery, that’s when everyone was really paying attention and really looking. I think that making jewellery for us became much easier, we felt much freer with it because you could be more sculptural, and paint and all the things that we loved doing, we could apply to our designs and jewellery.

This story originally ran in issue #05 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #05 of Dumbo Feather

You came from a very artistic background. Did you ever doubt that you would do something in the creative world?

It was something I’d never really thought about much. I was surrounded by it, and it just seemed like a very natural thing to do, and it’s something that my whole family loved doing. My mother’s an artist, my father is, and my brother’s involved in the arts as well. He also draws and paints and he has an art gallery in Paddington, and my parents’ friends… I feel very lucky to have been immersed in that world, particularly that I have a love for it as well. It would have been a strange place if I hadn’t. But something else would have come out of it in a different way, because initially I feel that everything’s creative, whether you’re doing mathematics, or engineering, or anything. It’s just all about the way you apply yourself. People say, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body, I can’t draw”, but if you can’t draw and paint, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a creative bone in your body. It’s just what interests you in the end.

Do you still draw and paint?

Yeah, I do, as much as I can. I still have all my sketchbooks and I do a lot of drawing, particularly when I’m travelling in notebooks – it’s a constant thing. I’d like if I had more time to paint, but Dinosaur has just become so all-consuming. We employ over 60 people now and we wholesale round the world. We have kids – I have a daughter, and Liane has two daughters, and Stephen and I are partners.

I didn’t realise that. It’s quite rare that partners in a romantic sense can work in a trade or business together. The three of you must have such an amazing relationship.

I think we’ve just really learned how to work with each other. Everyone has their moments, but we just somehow can always overcome anything and it remains a great friendship because that’s such an important thing, really, with anyone. Friendship is the most important thing, and I guess part of having friendship is sometimes understanding how people work with each other, particularly for us. We have our own separate creative space in our offices. We give each other lots of creative space, and we seem to have struck a really good balance.

Was there ever a point where you thought, this isn’t worth it, we’re risking our friendship trying to do this together?

Sometimes, definitely. We’ve hit some stages where you just think, “Oh God, how are we ever going to get through it?” But the best thing about it is that we have got through it, and we’re still here 20 years later. The fact that we did get through it has been the most rewarding thing in a way because we’ve been able to really nut things out, and we haven’t just thrown our hands in the air and walked away – that’s just too easy.

Are there any tough times that you often refer back to – “Oh, remember that time when…”?

Because we were at art school all day, we’d start designing jewellery in the afternoon after art school and be up all night, and then often we’d arrive at the market stall with, like, wet earrings and things that hadn’t been quite been finished off, things like that. Sometimes when we’re travelling it can be very intense. You just have to know how to give each other lots of space. I could tell you some funny – there’ve been some really funny stories. Just so much has happened in that time between now and when we had our first head office in Kings Cross – where I think Tropfest is now, on the corner of Bayswater Road. That was a great starting point. We actually had a studio with John Coburn, the artist. His wife had cancer and she died, and he felt that he needed someone else in the space seeing as there were separate rooms. So we started from this little tiny room in Kings Cross. And then John felt that he needed even more space, so he ended up saying, “Look, why don’t you guys have this space, and I’ll go find an even bigger studio.”

Was he a friend of your father’s?

He was. There used to be a little chocolate factory there. It was funny, you’d be working late and you’d hear all these striptease sounds through the wall, and just to get through to the front door sometimes you’d have to pick your way through all the prostitutes and the needles and the whole thing. From there we moved into Surry Hills and this area [Strawberry Hills], but you can’t believe that 20 years has flown. It has given us incredible opportunities to travel and do the things that we love doing, so it’s very rewarding.

So there’s no regret that you didn’t follow a more traditional artistic career like painting?

I think in the end for us – a lesson from my father [John Olsen], being an artist, it’s a very lonely existence. You have to really be just in the studio and there’s not much communication with the outside world for months and months at a time. He often says to me, “I think one of the hardest things is that isolation”. And just, you’re spending it on your own, all day, and the canvas is in front of you. He said that’s been the toughest thing of his career. When we started Dinosaur we were, like, 19, 20 and you just didn’t feel like that. We wanted to do something together, and we wanted to do something revolving around community. And we also loved fashion, but we didn’t want to actually feel we had that isolation. We wanted somehow to have that balance between being isolated, and creating something that you can do with more people around you. Originally, when we first started Dinosaur we had this dream of being just students who had this little company and we’d spend most of our time painting, but it ended up being the other way around completely. It completely overtook us and now we hardly have any time to do any painting.

So when you do draw, it’s generally ideas for designs as opposed to, like, the church roof next door?

Yeah, it is. For me personally, because I come from such an artistic family, I also have that slight pressure that I feel like anything I create in a way gets kind looked at because of my… I feel in a way quite creatively free doing what I’m doing with Dinosaur because

it's on the periphery of fashion, it's on the periphery of design and art. I feel like it's a very comfortable place to be.

Rather than producing artworks which would be critiqued to death.

Yeah. And exhibiting. My brother feels the same way, that pressure. Maybe later on perhaps it’s something we may do more of, but at this stage… But looking at my father, being an artist, it’s an incredible lot of study all the time. He gets up at five in the morning and has books out and he’s already starting to draw, he’s drawing the coffee. He’s incredibly disciplined. And that’s another thing about Dinosaur, we’ve been incredibly disciplined between the three of us – in terms of our work ethic, and being there 100 percent, and exploring every avenue of what we’re doing.

Do you travel a lot with work?

I do. We now have a store in New York as well. This is our third year now in New York. So we go over once or twice a year. Steve and I go and then Liane goes later on in the year, so we break it up between us. We now have a head office there as well, and a little apartment in the building. In Mott Street. Have you been to New York, do you know Mott Street? Next time you go, you have to go. It’s a really great area. It’s in Nolita and there’s lots of great cafés, and galleries, and restaurants. It’s a really buzzy area, full of young designers. A bit like Paddington in a way, because the rents are more affordable, which is the way Paddington started off, a lot of young designers have had the opportunity to start businesses there. It’s also wonderful because amongst that there’s like Sigerson Morrison shoes and handbags. It’s a great mixture of lots of things. It’s been great for us, it’s just opened the doors. There’s an incredible cross-section of press that goes through New York. You’ll get Russian Vogue to Italian and Singaporean. Every company seems to have a head office in New York.

So it’s increased your global exposure by being there?

It has. It’s increased people’s awareness of Dinosaur to a great extent.

Are they aware that it’s an Australian company?

Sometimes we get the funniest comments. We had this couple come in a few months ago and they said, “So this is from Australia. Is this like some kind of indigenous kind of handicraft work from the desert?” And when we opened a bank account there. They were like, “Okay, now, we’ve got this company here and they’re from Austria, and they’ve got a website and it’s in English…”. It was so funny. I think Americans are still really discovering Australia. It really is, like, down under for a lot of Americans. It’s just the other end of the world to them. It’s been interesting in the last year, because the awareness of Australia, with the movie industry and stores that are opening in America – there’s an Australian bar in Nolita and there’s this little café – it’s like more and more Australians are starting to pop up. I think also with this sort of alliance with Iraq, and that whole yucky thing, that there seems to be more and more awareness.

Do you wholesale in America as well?

We do a little bit. It’s tricky for us because everything that we design is made in Australia, and everything’s made by hand so we can only really produce so much. We’ve really reached the point now where we can’t supply everyone that would like us to supply them because we just can’t, we can’t produce it. It would be easy for us to go over to China and get a whole lot of things made but for us, it would lose so much by doing that. We really want to maintain that we’re very involved in the whole creative, and the whole making, process of what we do – we don’t want to lose touch with that.

Do you think that a lot of the products’ appeal is their individual, handcrafted feel?

I think it is, definitely. I think that’s one of the most important ingredients. When you touch one of our designs you can feel that it’s been touched. Often when people first come into the store they want to touch it, and it’s very important to touch stuff. When we first started designing, we were already making jewellery and so we wanted the homewares to be bigger versions of the jewellery in a way. With jewellery it’s so important that you can touch and feel pieces, and it’s the same with homewares, that it’s got that hand-felt quality. And we also love that aspect of resin being a relatively modern, hi-tech material as it’s a plastic, yet we’re using it in a very kind of hand-felt way.

It’s pretty toxic, isn’t it?

It is when it’s being made, yeah. We have a room downstairs which is completely ventilated because when it’s setting, and when it’s in liquid form it’s quite smelly. When we first started making it, it was really tricky because no one else was using resin so it wasn’t like we could call anybody and say, “How do you use this stuff?” It was real trial and error.

Whose idea was it to get into resin?

We were at the markets, and a guy called Geoffrey Rose – he designs harps made of laser strings and when you touch one, it makes these beautiful sounds – was doing these things he called “frozen moments”. He did a beer can, like it had prised up and had been opened but it was a frozen moment. He did this thing where a toothbrush with toothpaste comes out – it’s very pop art in a way. He made them all out of resin. At this stage we were making everything out of Fimo and we used to get really sore hands from pounding the Fimo, and rolling it, and making shapes. And he said, “Look guys,

you should use this stuff called resin. I use it on my frozen moments.

You should give it a whirl.” He said, “You can make a mould and make multiples”, because we were doing everything one by one at this stage. From that point onwards, it was like, “Wow. This thing resin can do an endless amount of things.” The possibilities of what you can create and design is just endless and we still, 20 years later, discover even more things about it. It’s like a paint, and I think that’s another aspect that really appealed to us because it was like working with paint and it was quite sculptural and all its colours. When you first have resin it’s like this clear liquid and you add the colour in, so it’s like mixing your own colours on a palette. It’s just incredible, there’s never-ending aspects to resin, as a material.

So where do you continue to source all your ideas from?

It’s a never-ending thing, like, you just keep drawing. Like at the moment there’s this big thing on necklaces and bangles, and then during the mid ’90s there was this incredible minimal thing where jewellery was just like swept right away. That’s when we started doing more homeware, although we still were designing jewellery. But for us, the most important thing is that we design things that we feel are beautiful and that we’re not designing to fit into any kind of trend or fashion. I think that’s why, as jewellery company, we’ve been able to survive. It’s more about a philosophy, or the way people think, rather than a business that’s overly sort of trend-based, or fashion-based.

Well, it’s worked so far.

So far it’s working really well and it’s nice now – particularly now in fashion – that it’s going back into things which are very creative, and eclectic, and more individualistic and not such a uniform and, sort of, coming full circle back to that really wild time in the ’80s. It’s gone through that minimal stage, and now it’s getting kind of wild again which is very exciting. It’s a very inspired time to be designing jewellery.

Do you set aside time to design?

A lot of the time, no, you just have to go with the wave. It’s like coming in on a wave, and then you kind of have to adjust and adapt to everything that’s going on around you to find the time to do as much designing as you can. We’ve also got a team of production people that work with us so that we three get the ideas happening, and then they can execute them for us so that’s great. You can get things up and running. Like at the moment we could be working on 20 different designs. Something in silver, and then some new bowls, and then it’s a necklace and beads. There’s all sorts of things going on at the same time which is a very exciting environment to be in. We don’t take over each other’s designs although sometimes we can influence each other. People are always trying to nail us down – it’s like, “Who designed that one and who designed that one?”, but I think one of the reasons why we’ve survived so long as a partnership is that we don’t go, “Oh, I designed that” because then

the ego enters into it, and once you start doing that, that's the destructive element

to it all. So we’ve always kept that out, we design as a team in that respect. We can design things very harmoniously along the same kind of storyline that we’ve come in at the same time with. Because we’ve kind of created a language between the three of us, everything that we design just enters into that vocabulary. We all have a deep respect for each other and really admire each other’s creative and visual sensibilities.

Do you try not to take it home?

When you leave here, you’ve really got to close the door, but it’s hard not to, particularly creatively. When you see something, or you get excited by something it’s always lovely to share it with a friend or your partner. The business aspect we really try and lock away, because that’s the most stressful part of having a business like this. Having four stores and 60 employees… We were just like three young art students. We didn’t come from a business background at all and we started the company really on $200 and it just has grown. We’ve grown as people as Dinosaur has grown. It was good that we started small because when the stakes are low, if you make mistakes it doesn’t cost you a fortune. Through our years of experience we’ve obviously got a much bigger company, but we have the understanding of 20 years of doing this business behind us, whereas 20 years ago we were just completely innocent young art students happy to have $20, and just so thrilled that someone was buying it too. We still can’t believe that you make something, and someone loves it and wants to buy it. And even today that still gives you a buzz – when you see someone walking down the street with bangles and a necklace on. You kind of go, “Oh!” It still gives you a thrill. I love it when people have bought something, and it’s become theirs and they’ve created their whole style around it. It’s great when you see someone use it in a really unexpected way, and in a way that you didn’t intend it to go that just looks incredible. That’s such a thrill.

Some of the highlights? Your retrospective exhibition at Object Galleries must have been wonderful.

Yeah. I think almost a bigger highlight was in 1989 when we were part of an exhibition of Australian fashion [“Australian Fashion: the Contemporary Art of Dress”] that went to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

So that was only three, four years in?

Yeah, we had to design something about Australia. So we designed a dress made out of resin seashells, and there were seahorses as a little fringing around the neck of this little halter dress, and a crown of seashells, and we just thought that was so Australian, and they really responded to us in London. So that was an exciting time. It was around that time when Kylie Minogue was really big in London and she was wearing the jewellery too. And then the retrospective at Objects, that was wonderful and then doing Tokyo Designers’ Block. Once a year designers from all over the world meet in Tokyo in October, and they exhibit all over Tokyo their latest work and designs. There’s an area called Aoyama and there’s this fantastic museum/gallery called Spiral – we had this big show in there, which was wonderful. That’s the other thing about seeing different cultures looking and responding, and that’s when you realise how Australian it is. From New York to Japan or London, people really respond to the sense of colour and sense of light and it being resin. A lot of people in Tokyo look at Australia as being this beach culture, like a holiday place, a surfie place. I think that the more people see Australia as also having an interesting culture, which has been developed over so many years now, and art and so forth… So being part of Tokyo Designers’ Block has been very exciting, and we also designed T-shirts for that as well. We’ve been going to Tokyo for the last ten years, and there’s this fantastic guy called Kurosaki Sen and he’s like a launcher of designers. He launched [the designer] Marc Newson in Tokyo many years ago, and got him to design the Pod Bar, and helped him get his production for one of his chair designs up and running. He’s a great entrepreneur who encourages young designers that he’s wanting to establish at Tokyo Designers’ Block.

And did he come to Australia and find you?

No, we had an exhibition at a store called Seed, which is part of a department store called Seibu. He came along, saw the show and went, “Ah, very good.” He’s got a fantastic design store in Aoyama. The wonderful thing is wherever you go in the world you always take a little something with you, and it’s like you get to know a place much more when you’re actually working in it, and you get the chance to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet as a tourist.

Having courage in life is just so rewarding...

Somehow the journey becomes more important than the actual outcome. People often ask, “How do you survive in America?”, because it’s a really tough market, and there’s everything there so you’ve really got to have a point of difference. You’ve really got to make sure that you have something else to say, because they’ve heard it all before, and if you stand out and have a different point of view there they love it, and they’re really fascinated by it. Australia has known us for 20 years, and is much more familiar with us, we’ve become part of the furniture. But it’s exciting in the States to open a store, and for them to go “Wow”. You have a different vision to what everybody else – even the material that we use, they’re not familiar with. Obviously plastic jewellery’s been around for a long time, and so has resin. I think Coco Chanel was the first person to design a pair of resin earrings in the ’50s, so it’s not the first time it’s been used, but it’s the way it’s being used. I guess it’s the same with anything – clothes, fabric, or ceramic, or silver – if you can somehow put enough of yourself into it to make it different, that’s what makes it interesting in the end. You have a different way of looking at that material to interest people.

Have you had copycats?

Yeah, we have. We’ve had people come into the store and buy a bowl, and take it to China, and get it moulded up and we’ve really fought against it because to us every piece is like one of our children in a way. We really put our heart and soul into each piece, and for someone to look at it like a money object, and just take it overseas and rip it off, it’s just not our philosophy whatsoever, and it’s totally corrupt really. It’s like robbery. We’ve had a big corporation – after the court case, part of the agreement was that we didn’t mention who they were – but we were able to stop them from doing it. It’s the third case where we’ve stopped someone doing it. Also resin isn’t a material which is easy to manufacture on a mass level, so although they tried to rip it off, it doesn’t come off as well.

No. But when you say they’re handmade, you’re referring to the way they’re hand polished?

Just the whole hand-finishing in respect of each piece, you can’t do that on a mass level. You can always see that it’s just been rubbed off, or been in some kind of machine, or has a generic pumped-out look about it. So that’s our strength in a way, that it is handmade. That’s the point of difference, that hand-felt sort of thing again.

It’s the beauty in the imperfections.

It’s wabi-sabi, that’s the Japanese term, it just touches a core in you. When you see it, it immediately touches your heart and I think that’s something that handmade things do to you. The thing about being human is that one of the first things you can remember as a baby is that feeling of touching things.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Stephen Ward

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