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Boundaries were pushed and discoveries made in the collaboration between Woods Bagot and entrepreneur Jeremy Napier to produce the warmly minimalist Sculptform Design Studio, a striking timber encased brand hub for the Bendigo business in Melbourne’s CBD.
“Jeremy’s into innovation, likes collaborating with architects and understands what we are trying to do,’” says Bruno Mendes, Principal and Global Sector Leader – Civic & Events at Woods Bagot.
“It’s a two-way street. Jeremy benefits from our ideas and input and we benefit from him having such a passion to take the product and make it what it is.”
He and Jeremy, who acted as owner-builder, worked closely on the project, pushing each other – and the building materials – all the way to showcase the potential of Sculptform’s timber screening systems and bring the company closer to its clients.
“Bruno would say ‘you’re called Sculptform, you should be able to do this, you know, so we’d give it a crack,” Jeremy says.
“It’s great for our brand. It’s a coherent design that displays a lot of our product capabilities and in fact displays some capabilities that we didn’t know we had until we pushed the envelope.”
The pair have collaborated for the past 15 years, and Bruno enjoys the mutual desire to innovate.
“What I like about our relationship is that if we want to do something different, he’s always the first to jump at it,” Bruno says.
“I’ve always been quite interested in the way things are put together. It helps us understand as designers how to actually think about details from a builder’s point of view.
“It’s about this idea of architects moving away from sitting in front of a computer. It seems a common theme that young architects are spending less and less time on-site.”
For Bruno, the project was very hands on with a limited budget to make it work, and he spent a lot of time on-site working through the design, sometimes adjusting on the run.
The outcome – shortlisted for Small Workplace at the prestigious World Architecture Festival in early December – was much more than the original brief.
“It was meant to be their workplace and we turned it into a variety of things. It’s a gallery, it’s a place for presentations and conferencing – the industry comes in and uses it – it’s their workplace and finally it’s their workshop, which is the critical thing,” Bruno says.
Jeremy Napier from Sculptform (left) with Bruno Mendes, Woods Bagot.
Sculptform’s production facility is in Bendigo, about two hour’s drive from Melbourne. “So the workshop he’s got in the Melbourne CBD is really the opportunity people like ourselves to come in and collaborate,” Bruno says.
“Our thinking was ‘how do you push the boundaries; how do you begin to play with what timber can potentially do?
“We had so much collaboration with him we were working things out on-site.”
Much of the innovation involved drying out and then bending timber with a custom machine bought from Germany to achieve an enveloping curved connection between the walls and ceilings.
The sense of flow is further enhanced with the design snaking around and through the compact site.
Visitors enter through a tunnel clad in Sculptform’s signature timber battens attached with its trademark fixing system, an innovation that eliminates the need for screws or nails.
Jeremy says: “That’s what architects like. Beautiful architecture is in one sense form and function, but it’s also about the details.”
The Sculptform business, which now employs 55 people, has been built on this innovation, which came to Jeremy while doing some work on his home in the early 2000s.
“I was using a bit of Hardiplank cement sheeting at home and puttying up all the screwheads to make it look better and thought, ‘boy, there has to be a better way of doing this’.
Another time “I was doing some decking at home and had a bit of a eureka moment on how we could create a decking clip that utilized our processing equipment and then injection-moulding a specialized component.”
At that point Jeremy and his father were manufacturing timber components for the window covering industry.
“There was a market shift due to China taking that over and trend changes meant that business was no longer viable,” Jeremy says.
“We had to find another avenue for the same equipment and facilities, so we turned to machining timber for the construction industry which then quickly turned into focusing on the architectural end of it.
“The way we added value from the start was though our fixing systems with a particular focus at the start on concealed fixing. That’s morphed into the use of clip technology over time.”
They were the first to devise concealed fixing systems in the Australian market. Now others have copied it.
But Sculptform is always looking to stay one step ahead of the competition and better connect with architects, its major source of business.
“We did that to create closer ties with the architectural community in Melbourne and try to create a hub, a little bit of a Starbucks for architects in one sense,” he explained.
Unfortunately, the timing was less than ideal.
“It was competed just before COVID and then got locked up so it’s been quite tough getting people in it for events” says Jeremy.
“But what we’ve proven it’s been a really good resource for architects coming in to do project meetings and things in the co-lab, which is one of Bruno’s ideas, where we create samples and do prototyping on our products.
The biggest thing is architects get really good outcomes when they visit.”
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