Matt Lorrain, co-founder of furniture line SP01, talks about the young brand’s mission to offer a contemporary, international aesthetic using natural materials that hold up across environments and over time

SINGAPORE (Sept 30): Matt Lorrain knows how difficult it is trying to grab attention in a world driven by social media. “People swipe by so quickly,” says the co-founder and creative director of SP01, a furniture brand established five years ago. No doubt, at a time when attention spans are shrinking by the day and photos of your friend’s travels on Instagram can rival professional shots, marketing campaigns on the web need to pack a punch. “Imagery is everything these days,” he notes.

For Lorrain, that means shots of SP01’s chairs and tables have to create an impression almost instantly. “They need to speak to people,” he says. While his job scope now includes ensuring the brand’s online visuals stand out, he believes SP01 can also draw consumer interest with its design language and its honest use of natural materials. “What’s unique to the brand is that we have an originating design that extrapolates across different typologies. A mirror becomes a chair. An armchair becomes a dining chair,” he says.

Take, for example, SP01’s new Michelle chair. Part of the latest collection by New Zealand designer Tim Rundle, it evolved from an arched mirror series that Rundle had designed earlier. The Michelle chair features an arc backrest that is a work of architectural geometry — particularly when seen in multiples. “When you line up the chairs, the repeated geometry has a certain harmony that I find soothing,” says Lorrain. In addition, the seat and back of the chair are made from ash plywood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international non-profit organisation that ensures that timber products are sustainably sourced and made. “There’s a lot of messaging in the details and materials,” Lorrain says.

The Michelle chair was inspired by Rundle’s arched mirror series

Making furniture that is design-driven and being conscious of its environmental impact is part of the DNA at SP01. The company — the brainchild of a group of former employees of Space, Australia’s leading retailer of designer furniture, lighting and home accessories — also wants to craft furniture that appeals across borders. Space, which began with a showroom in Sydney in 1993, has expanded to Singapore and Malaysia and is currently Southeast Asia’s largest retailer of contemporary design, carrying nearly 30 luxury brands such as B&B Italia, Poliform and Arflex.

“All of us had over a decade at Space and a great amount of experience between us,” says Lorrain. Building on that, the idea was to offer high-quality furniture that was simple, contemporary, conceived in Australia and manufactured by skilled craftsmen in Italy. “SP” stands for Space and “01” represents a new beginning. The team is lean, with just three full-timers, including Lorrain, at the studio in Sydney. They are backed by a “sounding board” of Space veterans that include Singapore-born Christina Caredes, who is Space and Poliform Group CEO for Asia-Pacific, and Michelle McEwen, group marketing manager for Space.

For its inaugural collection in early 2016, SP01 teamed up with Milan-based Metrica, an award-winning design studio that had worked with companies such as Armani Casa. Lorrain had learnt of Metrica through Dutch designer Casper Vissers of Moooi, one of the brands under the Space umbrella. Metrica not only helped SP01 craft the sofas, chairs, dining tables and coffee tables that would set the tone for the fledgling furniture brand, but it also helped the company establish its supply chain in Italy, which is renowned for its long-standing expertise in quality furniture and home accessories.

Hand-finished in Italy

The result was a collection with an almost Scandinavian and Japanese feel, as it uses a generous amount of natural wood. Its clean lines and quality upholstery give it a forward-looking appearance. All of it was hand-finished in Italy. SP01 has engaged four workshops mostly in northern Italy, which in turn collaborate with a network of specialised ateliers and artisans.

Aside from Metrica, SP01 has collaborated with Australian designer Tom Fereday, who conceptualised an outdoor collection for SP01. Fereday, who has also produced bespoke furniture for Louis Vuitton’s store in Bondi, chose to employ bent metal wire as the main material for SP01’s outdoor range. Wood and marble were added to the mix, lending the chairs, tables and stools a stylish industrial vibe.

The outdoor range was subsequently tested to withstand the harshest of Australian outdoor conditions. As a result, the furniture is both durable and elegant, making it functional for the indoors as well. The blurring of the line between indoor and outdoor home décor works to the brand’s advantage. The outdoor furniture is also selling well with restaurants and bars, as it is “not super expensive”, Lorrain notes.

Meanwhile, SP01’s recent partnership with Rundle was sparked by Lorrain’s relationship with the Kiwi designer, whom he had met at a Milan Furniture Fair. Rundle was then working in London for the British furniture design company Tom Dixon as head designer of its furniture and lighting design team. He went on to set up his own studio in 2015 in London and has won fans for his arresting lighting designs.

For his collaboration with SP01, which first hit showrooms in November 2017, Rundle extracted influences from various eras and traditions to create an aesthetic that was both throwback and new. Metal frames were matched with plush fabrics for a pared down industrial-meets-luxe appearance that would not look out of place in a townhouse in London, an oceanfront apartment in Australia or a high-rise in Singapore. 

The bestseller in the collection, and for SP01 as a whole, is the Caristo armchair. Modelled on the timeless wingback armchair, the Caristo departs from tradition by having an exposed timber shell at the back. Together with the sleek steel frame, it gives the armchair a stripped-back, edgy feel. Meanwhile, the upholstery has been padded and gathered, creating a soft contrast to the body. “Unexpected things happen when you mix the different design eras and when you mix materials,” Lorrain says. The Caristo chair is favoured for lobby spaces, hotels and homes. “It’s really popular at the moment.”

The Caristo armchair is the brand’s bestseller

This year, Rundle released a new Caristo chair. Distilled from the armchair, it is a more elemental piece but retains the unique features of the original, such as a paddle-shaped bracket at the back and an exterior shell suspended in a frame. Available in a range of upholstered finishes or lacquered plywood, it was designed to be stackable, which makes it useful for places such as restaurants. “We also played with the angles to ensure it was ergonomical,” says Lorrain.

Lorrain, who graduated with a diploma in furniture design from RMIT University in 2001, works very closely with the designers whom SP01 partners with. Designers are given a brief but, as the conversation progresses, each has their own creative modus operandi. For example, Fereday would go straight into renderings after drawing board discussions. Rundle was more old school and sketches would go back and forth between the team and the designer. He would then build 1:1 scale models, which not everyone does, Lorrain notes. Metrica was more European in thinking and took on a more academic approach. “So, when we got the designs back, it was more like a research book and not very visual,” he says.

Furniture that lasts

Aside from creating a look that would appeal across markets, SP01 works to build furniture that is functional and can hold up in various climates — from Australia’s arid conditions to the chilly air in Europe to steamy Singapore. Its Holland table from the Metrica collection, for instance, was originally conceived in solid ash. That material was replaced with timber particle and veneer so it would hold up better in countries with high levels of humidity. The outdoor collection also had to be designed for alpine environments, for days when the mercury would dip below zero.

The company is mindful about its sustainability footprint. Its raw materials, components and finished products are tested by Catas, the leading laboratory in Europe for certification for the wood and furniture industry. It carries out tests such as assessments of the levels of formaldehyde in wood glue. SP01’s supply chain is audited by Good Environmental Choice Australia. The independent non-profit organisation examines a company’s impact on the environment and human health as well as whether its products are ethically made and fit for purpose.

Navigating all the regulations is tricky, Lorrain admits. The UK, for example, has very strict regulations about fire retardancy, so SP01 customises foam products for that market to meet its standards. California has tough rules about chemicals, and fire-retardant material has chemical trade-offs. So, foam products for that market will need to be different.

Currently, Australia is SP01’s biggest market, but Lorrain expects that to tip over to Europe in the next 12 months. Just over half of its customers come from the trade side, such as the hospitality industry. The balance is from retail. In Singapore, a showcase for SP01’s products can be found at Jewel Changi Airport. SP01 worked with Benoy, an international firm of architects and interior designers, to fit out the Changi Lounge at Jewel. From the Tim Rundle x SP01 collection, there are Caristo lowback armchairs and Shu-Ying armchairs, the latter a more petite rendition of armchairs in the range. The lounge also features Thomas chairs and stools from the Metrica collection, which were upholstered in fabrics from Kvadrat, a high-end producer of textiles from Denmark.

SP01’s furniture can be found at Jewel Changi Airport

What advice does he have for people buying furniture? “Buy it once. It’s one of the biggest things you can do so buy something that lasts,” says Lorrain, who has a beach house in Noosa, Queensland, where he stores many of the pieces he has amassed over the years. These include contemporary pieces from B&B Italia to Chinese antiques to vintage 1970s acrylic furniture. Buying furniture that endures involves examining the quality of materials used and opting for a design that can translate across time. Most importantly, it has to speak to you. “If you love it, you’ll keep it,” he says.

Sunita Sue Leng is a former associate editor at The Edge Singapore