To hear them tell it, Louise Olsen and Stephen Ormandy started Dinosaur Designs when they were five-years-old.
“We started in 1985,” says Ormandy.
“We certainly were very young,” Olsen chimes.
“We were five.”
“Yes, we were five”.
It’s an exchange that typifies the evident simpatico in the way that the couple, who met on the first day of art school thanks to a serendipitous case of alphabetical class assignment, talk for the remainder of our near hour-long conversation. It’s proof of a connection they say they’ve shared since day one, and it informs everything they do as partners in art, business and life.
“You know sometimes when you meet someone you just feel this sense of – I don’t know whether you could say you’ve met them before, but there’s a sense of destiny about someone. We just immediately –
“We were just friends immediately, straight away. We had partners at the time, different partners, so we just became friends.”
Credit: Rachel Kara/Dinosaur Designs
Over two years, the extremely affable duo entered into what they call a creative conversation – first as friends, then eventually as partners – that continues to this day, one that forces the other to step outside, push the boundaries, question and better their work. As many of those conversations that start as students do when the prospect of post-graduate reality begins to take shape, talk soon turned to how they might go about making a living out of their respective passions. It was Olsen, daughter of Australia’s eminent landscape painter John Olsen, who instilled in Ormandy the stark reality of life as a working artist in Australia.
“She said coming out of art school we need to do something that’s more immediate. You know, I’ve got no idea, and I’ve got stars in my eyes thinking I’ll leave art school and start showing and get a studio and it’s all going to happen, and that’s very difficult, even if you are successful straight out of art school to make a living. Very, very hard work,” says Ormandy, whose own mother was a ceramicist who encouraged creativity from a young age (“I’ve wanted to be an artist since kindergarten”, he later reflects).
“I felt that I wanted to create something from all the knowledge I’ve developed,” Olsen reflects. “Something that’s tangible, that’s a small business, to support our painting, and that’s what the idea of Dinosaur started as, really as a means to an end, but it ended up being the means – you know, it really kind of swept us up.”
Today, Dinosaur Designs is a homegrown creative hero turned global brand that’s home to 80 employees across stores in Sydney, Melbourne, New York and London. They’ve been in their Surry Hills studio, from where they run all operations and manufacturing, since the turn of the century. “It sounds so old school, doesn’t it?” says Ormandy. And in many ways, it is. There are no gimmicks and there’s certainly no pandering to trends in their collections, which they work on separately, collaborating only on complimentary elements after the bulk of the work is done in an open door style studio. “We work very harmoniously together,” says Olsen. “Don’t we, really? And I think because we started when we were so young we were sort of growing together as well. We were kids when we started.”
Both still practice separately of the business – Ormandy a “bit more aggressively with it” – but find that there’s an inevitable cross-pollination of ideas in both directions. Together, they invoke a long history of artists like Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso (and even Olsen’s own father, who opened an art school called The Bakery to support himself) who resist easy categorisation and supplemented their fine art practice with creating jewellery, sculptures, homewares and tables of the kind their company cast from technicolour resin in their sprawling, light filled warehouse.
“People like to pigeonhole you, you know, they say, ‘Oh, you’re a designer’, you say, ‘Well, no’. Ultimately, we’re artists, fundamentally. We just sculpt little things that hang from the ear. Okay, if that makes me a jeweller, I guess I’m a jeweller, but ultimately, they’re little sculptures the way we see it – ”
“It’s always the same kind of rigour with all our different practices, like when we’re painting or drawing or creating sculptures it’s the same kind of creative rigour.”
Whatever they’re making, it’s clearly resonating with their audience both at home and abroad. To hear them tell it, navigating the pitfalls of building a business has involved a fair amount of trial and error (and a little coaching from friends, family and contemporaries). The only constant has been that the couple follow their own creative rhythms; the only criteria for success that they love every single thing that they put out over the last thirty years.
Credit: Courtesy of Dinosaur Designs
“We don’t design with a market in mind,” Ormandy insists, though exposure to new markets in London and New York has certainly helped refine and maintain the inquiring minds they developed as students when it comes to addressing issues on both sides of the company. Both agree international expansion in a bricks-and-mortar sense was the biggest risk they’ve undertaken – they opened in New York during the aftermath of 9/11 – but, in much the same way their first store in the Strand Arcade at first seemed daunting, the task itself is a matter of process and pragmatism like any other, provided you remain in control.
And while they have a significant retail presence on the ground – wholesale included – it’s little surprise to hear that their message is one resonating with a great deal many more on places like Instagram.
“I think, God, that would’ve been wonderful when we first started, because it was quite limited in a way, and I think there’s so much more scope now. It’s a really exciting time. I think it’s so great that a designer can start up and they can have a wonderful voice of their own. Their own visual voice.”
“They can have a direct conversation,” Ormandy adds.
But before followers became ‘followers’ as we know them today, the couple say they were lucky to have caught the eye of some early-era influencers. “We were known as Kylie’s jewellers in London,” says Ormandy. “They were so crazy for anything Kylie so we just rode on her coattails for a little bit, it was amazing. Elle [Macpherson] was a great support too, we were in one of her calendars.”
Credit: Courtesy of Dinosaur Designs
Those images in particular are at the forefront of their minds having compiled them for the recent release of their first book, The Art of Dinosaur Designs, in occasion of their first thirty years. They concur that creating the book has been their most considerable challenge to date – a task comparable to scale Everest, the prospect of which only made the finished product all the more satisfactory. Despite all they’ve accomplished over three decades, the book doesn’t linger on the past. There are highlights, naturally, “but we really wanted this to be about the work and the work especially that we love.” Instead The Art of Dinosaur Designs is a celebration of the now, a reflection on their inspirations, their designs, their art and their lives both within and outside of the studio.
“I’m just more excited about what’s going on in the future than looking back,” adds Olsen. “I feel like there’s so much learning, that it’s all really wonderful now, going into the future, and feeling that all the knowledge behind us now just gives you more wings in a way, it’s very liberating because you can express your ideas much more freely because you’ve got all that facility behind you, and that’s exciting.”
It’s also incredibly palpable. Talking with the couple, you can’t help but share in their enthusiasm not only for the craft that they’ve translated into a career but a life in and of itself. In many ways, they’re still classmates continuing a conversation that is as vital and satisfying to them as food. For Ormandy, success is “just sitting there and being really, really happy with what you’ve just produced. Because success is all about how you feel about your work.”
For Olsen, it’s the life their work in the studio has enabled them to lead.
“There’s a certain sense of success in the fact that we’re happy, and I love the fact that we can travel and explore and see so much of the world, and to see all the wonderful exhibitions that we were able to see [and] to be able to interact and meet the people that we meet.”
Credit: Bec Parsons/Dinosaur Designs
Both acknowledge that while definitions of success are manifold and mutable, the connecting thread has been hard work, without which they wouldn’t have been able to maintain the “fierce independence” and self-sufficiency that facilitates so much of what they’ve dreamed of achieving and still aspire to achieve in the next thirty years. For now, there are no plans to stop – for the foreseeable future, the vagaries of life notwithstanding – and Ormandy says they’re happy to continue on the same course.
“It’s also about what we create,” adds Olsen. “I mean ultimately it’s what you create that makes it happen, takes on the next chapter in a way.”
“And we love coming to work, love this building.”
“It’s a really happy building.”
Tile and cover image: Supplied