Destiny by design: the career of Helen Kontouris

14 Oct 2019

Written by Jan Henderson

As far as designers go, they don’t come better than Australia’s Helen Kontouris. Not only has she achieved great success at home but her star also shines bright on the global stage of product design.

We first met in Milan several years ago during Salone del Mobile and I was immediately taken by her charm and warmth – not to mention her design prowess as she was launching a product at the fair. Since that time, I have watched her spectacular rise with pleasure but no surprise. In a constantly changing world she has kept her resolve and explored her talent and, if awards and accolades are anything to go by, Helen has rooms filled with trophies and certificates that attest to her skill.

She also possesses wonderful character traits. She is bold, relentless in her pursuit of what she wants, and with a solid and unshakeable belief in herself. That’s not to say she is egocentric, for she is small, gentle and almost shy, but there is a steely resolve about her – she has no fear of doing things her way, which generally means going it alone.

Unlike many designers, Helen’s journey to product design luminary was by a circuitous route. Design was not a family trait, although the discovery of her mother’s private paintings at age eight was a great influence and she began to draw. It is the style of Helen’s drawing that is most interesting, however, never removing the tip of the pencil from the paper, thereby creating a fluid form and layers of lines – the style, a precursor to the fluency of her designs today. Of course, the young Helen was also interested in how things worked, taking objects and furniture apart and putting them back together. This inquisitiveness has stood her in good stead as she now creates seemingly impossible objects and discovers how they will work.

As a 12-year-old, she decided to become an interior designer and so conducted detailed research into her desired profession-to-be. This led to a change of schools, moving to Box Hill Technical School and combining her formal education with hands-on making in order to generate a portfolio of projects to be exhibited. Serendipitously, the inimitable Judith Augustine noticed Helen’s designs, and the student began work experience with the noted interior designer. Following this, she studied a two-year arts, interior decoration and design course at RMIT, after which the real work began.

Have I mentioned Helen’s determination? Well just to reinforce the fact, as a young interior design graduate of 19, with limited practical experience, she decided to establish her own practice (which was not so successful), but then decided to do it all again a few years later. Helen recalls, “I had a lot of confidence and thought I would give it a go but also learnt so much when they [the two practices] were not as successful as I had hoped.”

As in all good tales, it was third time lucky, and finally, Migg Design was established with Dion Hall. Now success was at hand and the duo worked together gathering clients and making a name for themselves. Helen describes their style as “contemporary with architectural elements, as every step of a project was developed to be unique and bespoke.” After three intense years, Helen was exhausted and, while on a family holiday to Greece, came to the realisation that her passion lay in the designing and making of objects, and so upon returning home in 2001, the Helen Kontouris studio was established and concurrently the idea for the iconic 101 Chair was conceived.

La La Stool and 101 Chair, courtesy of Helen Kontouris.

So how did Helen create this modern masterpiece? By deconstructing the form of a chair and then re-building it into a sculptural object, she explains. “The idea of a chair is to incorporate a seat and a backrest while the design is in finding the fluid form and negative space and building around that.”

The 101 Chair was undoubtedly ahead of its time and the major challenge was finding a manufacturer who shared her vision. There were many who said the design couldn’t be done but, as Helen remarks, “You don’t know what you don’t know, and the more you push and give people a vision, the more breakthroughs you have.” The 101 prototype was made from fiberglass, worked and re-worked until finally in 2002, it was presented in Japan at Tokyo Designer Block’s Hybrid Objects exhibition, and then in 2003 at Milan, where Helen was a solo exhibitor. The press reports were excellent, however no tangible contract was signed.

Returning to Milan to exhibit the following year, Helen showcased the La La Lamp and Minka Chair and Chaise, and this time renowned Italian lighting manufacturer, Kundalini, agreed to produce her La La Lamp. However, it was back in Australia that a chance meeting with Peter Schiavello changed Helen’s destiny. Impressed with the designer and her 101 Chair, Peter commissioned the piece’s production, thus assuring its place as a modern-day icon that now resides in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

With projects in production, Helen’s design output grew exponentially. The La La Stool was developed in 2006, followed by the Chubby Sofa (both manufactured by Schiavello), while overseas, manufacturers such as De Padova, Celda, Ritzenhoff, and Alessi were contracting her designs.

Helen’s design journey has been meteoric and is still rising but what differentiates her work from others is a sculptural aesthetic, a delicate touch, and a lightness to design that translates perhaps to a ‘certain femininity’. “The products take their scale from interior design but are influenced by sculpture,” she says.

Creating and designing is air and water to Helen. It is in her blood and the objects ‘come to her’ in many ways, sometimes as “a Butterfly Moment, when I can’t sleep and the adrenalin is rising in my body and an idea is percolating. It’s then that I reach for the pencil and paper by my bed or the iPad to draw,” she explains.

At any time there are some 50 ideas on the drawing board at the studio and as prolific as her work is, it is something of a marvel that Helen has received no formal industrial or product training, instead gathering her knowledge through aptitude and determination.

Life is busy for Helen, running a studio of five, balancing work, home and creating, however there is no doubt there are accolades on the horizon, with her now back to the drawing board to create the next new icon.