Species: American white oak
Designer:Fleur Bouw and Wilhelmina McCarroll
Photography: Tony Neilson
In brand as in life, they are ‘zusters’ – the Dutch word for sisters. And the quartet of Australian women is swimming strongly against the tide in the dangerous waters of the furniture designer-maker.
Like so many other countries with once-proud domestic furniture manufacturing industries, Australia’s hangs on by its fingertips against lower-cost international producers and its bloated currency value. But from a surprisingly modest Richmond (Melbourne) factory, the Zuster brand of clean-lined, modern wooden furniture is achieving impressive and sustained sales growth at the upper-middle end of the market.
And the sisters – Fleur Bouw (managing director), Wilhelmina McCarroll (designer), Katrina Myers and Meika Behrendorff – credit much of their success to the timber heritage and standards learned from their Dutch-born builder father, and their experience with American white oak.
Demand for high quality, locally produced furniture is running hot, and Zuster’s sales jumped 16% in 2011 with another 22% rise expected in 2012. “We are performing against the grain because in hard economic times, we are seeing customers place greater value on quality and craftsmanship,” says Bouw.
“There is a [return] to the quality and workmanship of yesteryear in each handmade Zuster piece. That gives us a huge competitive advantage in an age of mass production and flat packs.
“We use the same ‘built to last’ philosophies our father Meyer Sibbel used in the homes he designed and built from the 1960s to the 90s.”
But there is nothing accidental or fortuitous about this success story. “We have been in business for 15 years and decided quite early on that we didn’t want to be cabinetmakers, or just manufacture furniture,” says Bouw. “Unlike most producers here, we wanted to do the whole thing – from design through to marketing and distribution.”
American white oak has been central to Zuster’s success. “We are proudly Australian and would like to source a suitable local species, but nothing we have tried comes close to American white oak. We think it is the premier timber choice for furniture and interior design – the combination of its attractive and superior grain quality, strength and consistency is not easily found in other timbers.
“The open grain of the timber is enhanced when you rub white in, and it doesn’t come up pink! Also, with the solid American oak it doesn’t warp and we can do up to 3.6 m lengths for our big dining tables.”
Head designer Wilhelmina McCarroll is credited with the company’s ‘light-bulb moment’ when she took design skills learned at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) into her father’s cabinetmaking factory and produced a range of bedroom furniture in a contemporary Australian style.
“I was sure there was a niche for freestanding modern furniture in Australia and my first pieces sold quite well. Then some designers saw and liked the modern and clean lines, which were so different to the colonial-style furniture of the time. Now we have Zuster!” she says with a proud giggle.
Her signature 2005 Stella curved base table has been relaunched with two other styles, signalling a move into solid American oak and less veneer – limewashed and with unique, handcrafted and turned features.
“Everything has been rather ‘square’ but we have now added a lot of circles and softer edges – plus a kind of old-meets-new with the European woodturning details,” says McCarroll. “Interiors are more eclectic now – people don’t want everything square. We needed to take the ‘structured’ look of the earlier designs and soften them.”
Zuster furniture is sometimes described as “antiques of the future” and McCarroll believes that reflects the timelessness of the designs and the quality of manufacture.
“Our style is definitely not minimalist, and retains warmth because we feature so much timber. But it is timeless, and in the factory we put a lot of effort into making extras – like solid timber inside the drawers, mitred joints and 19 mm backboards so the look is the same from front and back.”
Selling mainly to architects and interior designers, but with a strong high-end retail presence, Zuster has indeed carved a niche across most Australian states with its semi-bespoke production model: a standard range with an infinite number of options and adaptations.
A recent and very successful addition to the range is a series of five handturned solid white oak wall ‘hooks’ that double as three-dimensional art. “When designing, I think about how people live,” says McCarroll, “amd what we enjoy in our own homes – rather than following industry trends.”
Bouw says the sisters have been successful because marketing and design were high priorities from the outset. “Cabinetmakers and furniture manufacturers often don’t have good designs and don’t know how to market themselves. We do, and we have everything in the one business model. Maybe that’s because we are female.
“We go to important international furniture and design shows, and spend a lot on marketing and design. We also benefit from four people all contributing their ideas.”
So what’s next for the zusters? Branded retail stores nationwide; then, all going well, the international market – with an overseas manufacturing base.
- American alder
- American ash
- American aspen
- American basswood
- American beech
- American yellow birch
- American cherry
- American cottonwood
- American elm
- American gum
- American hackberry
- American hickory & pecan
- American hard maple
- American soft maple
- American red oak
- American white oak
- American sycamore
- American tulipwood
- American walnut
- American willow