Talking Business: Planet

Ethical, stylish and built to last, planet furniture seamlessly interweaves the unique resources of sustainably grown solid australian hardwoods with the traditions of highly skilled timber craftsmanship. here, its founder ross longmuir reveals how developing an understanding of the advantages and limitations of materials and crafting processes was essential to establishing one of the furniture industry’s most eco-compatible aesthetics.

Words: Jemmah Kelly

For decades, sustainability within the architectural and interior design industry has been an issue of contention for consumers and commercial makers alike. In particular, beautiful, sleek and well-crafted furnishings can often appear at odds with eco-friendly materials and local manufacturing methods. Yet this is precisely what Sydney-based furniture designer and maker, planet, does. Having garnered a reputation within the industry for its streamlined yet functional furnishings made from sustainably grown Australian hardwoods, planet’s remarkable rise can be attributed to the stellar work ethic and ingenuity of its founder, Ross Longmuir.

Like many designers and makers of note, the origins of Longmuir’s story are humble, tracing back to his childhood where he spent much of his time surrounded by talented craftsmen.

“My family has a background in furniture. My grandfather was a traditional upholsterer and I watched him plot deep buttoning and hand weave cane seats as a kid,” Longmuir explains.

“My father taught woodwork (at a high school) and made furniture in the garage at home on weekends, so I was always surrounded by things being built … Through my family experience, I had learned to see quality and to become excited by beautiful craftsmanship.”

Yet despite his inherent fascination, Longmuir began his professional life as a waiter, unable to undertake any furniture design courses in Australia that incorporated his passion for the production of solid timber.

“I struggled to independently finance myself through university and ended up a waiter, surrounded by contemporary designed spaces. So I took a step forward and decided that I really loved furniture design,” he recalls.

During this period, Longmuir developed a rapport and association with others who shared his passion for furniture design through undertaking various workshops and training; among them were craft practitioners, designers and makers. Many of these exchanges of unique ideas and creative perspectives are evident in many of Longmuir’s designs and product developments today, as well as his affinity for working collaboratively with other industry players.

“I took short courses and went to exhibitions and talks. With no assets behind me, I had to be very thoughtful where I put my energies. So the business was very hand to mouth at first and I continued to work as a waiter but gradually I moved on from restoration and making components in order to develop technical skills, and then onto only making my own original designs. I think that it was a solid training and the simplicity of my goal is still the same today, although the form of my business has evolved many times,” Longmuir explains.

In 1991, Longmuir founded planet, a designer/maker business based in Melbourne. While he professes he was rather naïve starting a business with the intent to essentially learn by doing – in other words, making things with the intent of learning design skills, this decision proved to be a crucial stepping-stone for both Longmuir professionally and the wider Australian furnishing design industry.

“When I began (planet) in 1991, there was a huge need for well thought out design. Local companies had been manufacturing their own versions of foreign design for generations, and then suddenly with the rise of Asian markets, our government removed artificial tariff protections for the local industry … At the time there weren’t any furniture design courses available that were appropriate for what I wanted to do, so I learnt about materials, tools and processes,” he says.

And as Longmuir continued to hone his craft, he looked to his natural surrounds for inspiration.

“In a landscape full of trees it made sense to me to use what was local, and I wanted to build quality that would last, so that meant (prioritising) style over fashion, ” Longmuir says. “I wanted to build production design that was original and beautiful in detail, proportion, finish, longevity as well as featuring the beauty of the timbers. I also wasn’t interested in exotic timbers. Woodworkers at the time got excited by cutting up ancient or rainforest trees, but sustainability was a top priority because I wanted to be proud of what my company was responsible for in the future. I also love the textural beauty of the young spotted gums that we mostly use,” he adds.

While the majority of us today are well versed with the notion of ‘going green’, the idea had yet to gain mainstream appeal in the furniture design industry at the time as Longmuir recalls.

“Green design was a bit of a token catch cry of that era, but I wanted my production and supply to be a totally authentic contribution. So I educated myself by studying what was relevant to my goals. I learnt about traditional techniques, as well as sustainability issues and also about the cutting edge of international design.”

“At planet originality, sustainability and quality is central. We always try to do things differently and we always try to make sense. To be original, we don’t pay much attention to what other companies are doing, but instead try to build in features and benefits for clients. Quality crafting is essential to making pieces last. It made sense to try to use local sustainably grown hardwoods. It (also) made sense to show clients what their homes could feel like, by setting up rooms within our showrooms,” he says.

1998 was a pivotal year for planet, with the company uprooting from Melbourne and relocating to Sydney. Now in a new city, Longmuir seized this opportunity to display planet’s timber furniture alongside the works of other Australian designer-makers in room settings. It didn’t take long for this unique display to gain industry traction, and quickly planet began to emerge as one of the leading sites for presentation of Australian crafted home interiors.

“Our furniture is crafted in Sydney and we make an ever expanding range that includes items for every room in a home in many materials, as well as solid local hardwoods. We represent many studio ceramic makers that are located throughout Australia. We (also) have hand loomed carpets and textiles made in India and I go there regularly to work with our suppliers. I import vintage textiles and ceramics from Japan because it is instant recycling and objects in Japan are so well looked after. We make soft furnishings in Sydney. We have many other products that we purchase from importers or import directly. Ideally we reduce carbon miles but many items simply aren’t made locally anymore. I see all of this as a joint venture.”

While over the years, planet has diversified and expanded its product range to include ceramics and textiles, as always, sustainability remains at the core of planet’s ethos. “Real sustainability is just about making sense: using less, designing more intelligently with less waste and pollution. At planet we add enormously to the timber resource that we use and really this is the goal for sustainability. The trees are felled, milled, kiln dried and the timber retailed, and then of course we have it built into furniture. The timber is regrowth, not old growth and much of it is grown on land less suitable for other types of farming. Timber is a valuable carbon sink, trapping carbon dioxide. Because the timber is grown locally, there are fewer carbon miles used in transportation,” he says.

All products are manufactured locally, which not only reduces the company’s environmental impact by lowering its carbon footprint, but Longmuir also reveals it ensures a closer oversight and more active involvement during each phase of the production process.

“Local manufacture is beneficial to everyone due to reduced environmental impact of lower carbon miles. It enables us to maintain quality and it’s easier to communicate with craftspeople. I think that products are more interesting to clients if there is a direct connection to the production and it means that we don’t just look like ‘all the other stuff’,” Longmuir explains.

“Design is part science, part magic. Sometimes the unique characteristics of Australian hardwoods lead to forms. Our hardwoods are two to three times denser than many hardwoods from other places, so a thin section can achieve the structural load required, but tension in the timber means that it interacts with atmospheric moisture changes. So these aspects inform designs.”

“The recent twisted range is my attempt to simplify structure by eliminating the need for a sub frame by the legs becoming the support structure to each other. The tapering legs are of a flat section and battens under the top keep it flat. Other times shapes has been inspired by music, or an artwork or other objects. The tank lamp was inspired by water tanks beside country railway stations on the way to Kyneton in Victoria. The dalsace desk was inspired by a visit to a house in Paris called Maison de Verre by architect Pierre Chareau. Sometimes I just imagine what would be my ideal piece for myself, such as the frame bed. It has an angled head that is comfortable to sit against; it is light on the ground with thin sections and features the timber beautifully. …A client once suggested that good design is inevitable but I feel that more than that, it should contain an element of surprise or some slight exaggeration to bring some personality.”

In addition to sustainable practice and design-driven innovation being at the forefront of planet’s business philosophy, from a business perspective, Longmuir and his team implement seemingly simple yet highly effective practices to ensure a supportive, cohesive and productive workplace.

“We have daily meetings to discuss where ‘we are at’. This helps us all keep communicating. We all have specialised tasks, but we can all do other jobs within the company too. It helps us all to have empathy and co-operation. The buck stops with me, but otherwise we don’t have a hierarchy. We have an in-house graphic designer who is also a fantastic photographer. His abilities help us represent our products more successfully online and also enable us to assist the media more easily,” he says.

Moving forward, planet will continue to embrace change and client feedback as it continues to design, craft and collaborate with clients, suppliers and other makers. Indeed, sharing in this creative output has been a cornerstone of planet’s more successful items, both for production and bespoke services. Some examples include ceramic tableware for restaurants, textiles for hotels or custom client enquiries. The company is also involved with commissioning production of its own carpet designs, soft furnishings, curtains, screen-printing, hand woven fabrics and lighting.

“We have seen enormous diversity (among the trends within the furnishing industry) recently; perhaps (that is) due to the Internet educating us all about different ways to live, and that should be encouraged,” Longmuir says.

Longmuir continues to relish the diverse workings of the industry and welcomes the opportunity to work collaboratively and creatively. Above all, however, he still relishes clever, conscientious, and of course, beautiful design.

“Good design is about thinking about an environment, a climate, a lifestyle, and a space, not just unthinkingly applying a trend that looked good somewhere else. I’m all for individuality, so at planet we try to offer an alternative to the mainstream and it seems to me that contrast makes things interesting.”