“We started Dinosaur Designs in our final year of art school,” says Louise Olsen, one half of the duo behind the Australian design mainstay. “Career-wise we wanted to be artists in our own studios, so established Dinosaur Designs to create designs that would support our painting careers.”
What started off as a stall at Sydney’s Paddington Markets in 1985 has since blossomed into an icon of Australian design on both a local and international stage. Early on in the Dinosaur Designs journey, Louise and her partner Stephen Ormandy were featured in Vogue Australia, asked to supply wholesalers, asked to form part of an exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and had their designs worn by celebrities such as Kylie Minogue and Michael Hutchence. “We were really in the right place at the right time with the right product.”
Now, more than 30 years later, Dinosaur Designs shows no sign of waning. With over 100 employees and eight dedicated bricks-and-mortar stores in locations in Australia, England and the US and a very signature style to boot, it’s clear that Louise and Stephen have learned the importance of focus.
“At its heart, Dinosaur is an art-based company. Everything we do is informed by our arts training. When we make a new piece, whether it’s a bowl or an earring, we still conceive it as a sculpture,” Louise tells Collective Hub. “To us, it’s never about just another product. Keeping that essence at the heart of everything and still being able to grow is a challenge, particularly as more premises and more staff means more financial risk and responsibility.”
And growth has never seen that fundamental concept alter.
“It also effects our manufacturing process. When we grew, we had to find a balance between efficiency and maintaining the handmade nature of what we do. There are always new challenges but with practice you do learn how to navigate them.”
The company became carbon neutral a decade ago – a development that made perfect sense to a team inspired by the beauty of nature.
“The environment plays a large role in the design choices we make, influencing not only the collections we create but also the way we run our company. It’s so important as a company to adapt and change and be responsive to the environment and to continually look for new ways to minimise waste. As well as being good for the environment, it’s good business practice. You have to design every part of your business, not just the end product.”
Although the company has stayed strong throughout this thirty year period, it’s certainly weathered a few storms.
“There was no canary in the coalmine, no warning at all. One minute we were growing and doing well, the next people stopped spending, the dollar rose to some of its highest levels and our wholesale orders dropped,” Louise explains.
“We had over 70 staff at the time and wages to pay while sales were decreasing. The most sensible course of action financially would have been to cut staff levels fairly quickly and keep us on an even keel, but when you’re talking about the livelihoods of people you work closely with every day, it’s not so easy. They’re not expendable. Instead, we waited for natural attrition and focused on making everything we do more efficient and more innovative by looking at every single process and single item we bought. Long term, it’s made us a better, leaner company, but there were many sleepless nights along the way.”
Many in the Australian design industry ask how a brand can remain relevant for so long, especially with such a unique product. Stephen says it’s all about the brand.
“It is important for a brand to stay true to itself and its core values and not get swept away by all the noise that occurs outside of it. You always have to be aware of changes in the market but the skill is not to be dictated by it. If you’re true to your brand and you keep experimenting and pushing the boundaries, you can carry your audience with you.”
“Design is a way of life for us; we don’t envisage retiring. We want to continue to keep challenging ourselves, to keep being open to the possibilities and opportunities that arise. We love the energy of what we do and being able to turn that into a business is a real privilege.”
The Art of Dinosaur Designs is now available through Penguin Books.