Local Manufacturing: Satelight

Satelight’s extensive portfolio of design focused luminaire represents the unique vision of a collective of artists, craftspeople and creatives. Founder and Director, Duncan Ward, explains how light can act as a muse for artistic expression.

Words: Emily Sparshott

Light as a concept goes further than pure sight; it encourages imagination and artistic vision. It is through this notion that Satelight’s Founder and Director, Duncan Ward, describes light as “such a powerful communicator. It has the ability to radically change a space in the blink of an eye; it elicits emotions and gives us the ability to see in so many ways.” Satelight’s work goes beyond functionality – each piece is representative of the company’s artistry and what it can inspire in the viewer.

Based in Melbourne’s Spotswood, Satelight is home to a team of thirteen creatives, including artists, craftspeople, manufacturers and designers, as well as the company’s CNC machine, Jeeves. The team works collaboratively in an open design studio, which encourages input from the entire business, including insights from marketing, production and even dispatch. This kind of open format allows for ingenuity and complexities in design, while also alleviating Satelight’s designers from working in complete isolation.

The company boasts an extensive portfolio of fittings for commercial and residential markets, which go beyond simple cookie cutter commercial fit outs. Satelight aims to represent the language of light and space through clever design, an ambition that has been upheld by Ward for almost two decades.

Training as a visual artist at Brighton Bay Art, Design and Photography, and then at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Ward established his foundations in art history, theory and practice. In the very beginning of his creative pursuits, Ward experimented with materials, fusing photography with sculptural elements, all the while maintaining his fascination for lighting.

Ward immersed himself in the industry, working for Ian de Gruchy on lighting iconic Melbourne exhibition buildings, and on Barbara Kruger’s installation at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Ward subsequently spent many years lecturing at Monash University and RMIT, sharing his professional knowledge with fledgling art and design students.

In 2009, Ward bought out Satelight from his former partner, just before the global financial crisis. What followed were some turbulent years where he says he “came close to pulling the pin about 1000 times.” However, Ward was determined not to let the business fail, and implemented changes – such as switching his print catalogue to an online format – which proved to be the impetus for the growth of the business.

Today, Satelight has the ability to design and manufacture its projects under one roof. Based in Victoria, the company’s location provides great access to the East coast of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, as well as across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth. While demand grows across Australia and overseas, the site has afforded the company the ability to oversee and adapt its entire production process.

Satelight for 11 Inch Pizzeria - Nord & Nord Pendant XL Lights
Satelight for 11 Inch Pizzeria – Nord & Nord Pendant XL Lights

“We work on many different projects each year and we have noticed that timelines are getting shorter and shorter. This means that our production methods have had to change so as to not lose quality … As Satelight is a designer and maker studio, there is a lot of knowledge about the products we make and how they function, which allows us to achieve the results the client is looking for,” Ward explains.

Crucially, the adaptation of Satelight’s manufacturing and production process has been accompanied by efforts to reduce its environmental impact. “We don’t go for the greenwash approach, ours is more pragmatic,” Ward says.

“We have taken steps to reduce the use of plastics, such as getting rid of the plastic to wrap our shades and changing this to brown paper. We have made many of our fittings flat packable or nestable to reduce shipping volume and packaging waste. We have also incorporated LED light sources or options in all of our fittings, [which] reduces energy consumption substantially, with the longer lamp life again reducing the amount of waste going to landfill over the life of the product.”

While Satelight is self sufficient, Ward also recognises the importance of creative collaboration to achieve a well-rounded finished piece. “I [consider] my company as a curator that brings different suppliers together to assist in our processes. While we do a lot in house and are always increasing our capabilities, we know how important the relationship with our collaborators is. Much of what we do is made in our Williamstown factory, but we have speciality finishers to get our products made [according to] how we want them,” he says.

To continue to build on its impressive repertoire of commissioned pieces – which includes projects for Rydges Hotel, Myer Adelaide, Prahran Hotel Pub and Bar and the Canberra Department of Employment offices – Ward acknowledges that it’s not always enough to rely on past experience to dictate future projects. Rather, innovation is inspired by experimentation and organic creativity.

“Good design requires the will and desire to experiment with materials and ideas,” Ward explains.

“My career has been all about the creative industries. It is not always easy to balance the demands of running a company with keeping the creative juices flowing, [but] I have always kept a visual diary and an eye on what is going on in the arts and design industry.”

“When it comes to inspiration, I have always had a strong bent to the sciences in my creative process. I look at elements of replication and how it is incorporated into nature … I then reinterpret it into production. As part of my art practice, I recall growing bacteria in Petri dishes into the shape of monkeys and then photographing them for an installation. The Hadron wall light takes its name from the Hadron Collider, which accelerates particles at the speed of light and then smashes them together to study the structure of the particles,” he adds.

Ward’s fascination with science can be recognised in many of Satelight’s pieces. The Sinewave and Decibel fixtures are a clear nod to science as inspiration. Ward describes these as a culmination of experimentation, consultation and development. Even Satelight’s more opulent designs, such as the Crown and Monarch collections, merge science with artistic expression.

“The [Crown and Monarch collections] come in a range of sizes and can be customised with different materials. The beauty of this design is why I love it. One of our philosophies is ‘think small to make it big.’ I take this concept to be like a neatly packaged satellite upon launch. Once it is deployed, it opens out to an amazing structure,” Ward says.

“The designs of these fittings are made up of small blades, which come together to make a big fixture. If one or two blades are damaged, they can be easily replaced. If the client wants to change the material a few years down the track, they can change the shape and material of the blade,” he adds.

One such client who has invested in the Crown luminaire is Epworth Hospital in Geelong. Satelight was commissioned to design seven large fittings, each of which required individual detailing to accommodate its unique pebble shape. Measuring up to four metres in length and 2.7 metres in width, the pieces are finished in Jarrah timber veneer, which provides natural warmth to the stark modern interior of the hospital.

While Satelight looks toward a bright future, it is undeniable that the Australian manufacturing industry is notoriously difficult, and has seen many businesses collapse under the weight of international markets. However, Satelight’s twofold approach of consolidating the design and manufacturing processes has proven to be a beacon for the company.

“There are many challenges facing the industry at the moment and I do not think it is due to a lack of quality design. Manufacturing in Australia seems to be focused mainly on selling within Australia. There are many opportunities to export more great Australian products to an international market [and] to achieve this, the integration of the designer within the manufacturing process is critical as it ensures we are producing top quality and fresh, innovative designs that are competitive at a global level,” Ward says.

“After seventeen years of practice in this industry, I have seen many changes in design and manufacturing. During my early days, I recall the reluctance of interior designers and architects to use locally made products; it was very Euro-focused. The shift has now been a preference to local design and manufacturing and [the industry has] started to really embrace the quality and flexibility of local production.

“As a designer and maker, I have always wanted to maintain skills in Australia. I see the value in having the ability as a country to be able to articulate our creativity through production. Unfortunately, the demands on local production have seen many suppliers disappear. [However] we are strong in our niche of customisation and our ability to diversify quite quickly,” he adds.

Satelight’s multi focused design and manufacturing production method has given the business freedom to experiment and embrace fresh ideas. While Melbourne’s luminaire trend is to use loose forms that incorporate brass, copper and timber, Satelight’s design concept is deliberately broader to avoid any particular niche. It seems as if the global market has noticed this too, with the company’s reach now extending to USA, UK, Canada, United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

Satelight is more than an Australian manufacturer of luminaire. Each piece designed and manufactured by Ward and his team of creatives represents light not only functionally, but also as a form of artistic vision, giving viewers the opportunity to not only see the piece, but also engage with its core meaning.