Artist Eugenie Kawabata has covered numerous art and design disciplines over her career, everything from painting to upholstering furniture. She even spent a number of years running her own graphic design studio. Although each path was separate, each was linked by a love for making things with her hands. Kawabata has also travelled widely, covering most of Australia and spending three years living in Japan. “As a child, I always drew or painted,” says Kawabata, whose great aunt was well-known painter Georgina Smallpage. As a teenager, she also remembers the continual stream of her parent’s artistic friends regularly dropping into their home. And unlike teenagers now, glued to their iPhones or wired into the latest technology, Kawabata was not permitted to watch television, except on special occasions, but was encouraged to read and draw instead.

Kawabata’s career has been extremely varied to this point. She spent time teaching English in Japan, returning to Melbourne to study computer-generated art and design, just before the digital wave took off in the mid-1990s. Whichever direction she took, visual arts and the process of making was at the forefront of her mind. At one point, Kawabata was living in India, working with artists and master dyers who are renowned for their wood block printing and textile dyeing. She could have stayed indefinitely had she not become ill and needed to recuperate back home.

“One of the problems is that I am interested in so many things. I’m always curious and you could say that I have a tendency to get sidetracked,” says Kawabata who after teaching at University High School for a year, enrolled in furniture design at RMIT University. Then, in 2012, she took herself off to study sustainable design at the University of Tasmania (in the School of Architecture).

And for four years afterwards, she studied upholstering at Homesglen College. “I love restoring things,” says Kawabata, who would head off to South Australia and visit the auction houses. “At that stage, I was looking for great mid-century furniture (1950s), reupholstering these finds and selling them on,” she adds.

While in Tasmania, Kawabata was already starting to make small objects, boxes, and side tables. Her body of work seems to evolve rather than being overly planned. Her ‘Yakka’ range, a series of decorative vessels, features a charred timber vase-like base, with luscious liquid-like ‘crowns’ in vibrant colours such as orange, red, yellow, lime and pink (17 colours are available). These unusual forms, each one different, look like resin but are considerably more glossy.

“My tools to make these pieces are quite simple,” says Kawabata, picking up a caterer’s piping bag (used to decorate cakes) and a condom (hence the dimple-shaped form at the tip of some vessels). “Each piece, cast in situ, needs to be balanced, with tiers stacked up to 250 millimetres,” says Kawabata.

Other designs, such as ‘Flocked’ is less tricky, but requires considerable effort to produce. Made from resin, these coat hooks resemble birds in flight when placed on a wall. As sculptural are the candelabras, also made from resin. Stacked and interlocked, this design can be used as a candelabra with brass stems, or simply vases for smaller flower arrangements. “I’m conscious of not producing waste, preferring to use recycled materials,” says Kawabata.

One of her latest designs is the ‘Fold’, a small side table featuring solid brass legs that can be folded away and a simple resin tabletop placed on it. Each tabletop is available in several hues, depending on which pigment is used. There are no fixtures attached and it can be easily assembled, particularly attractive for smaller spaces.

Kawabata sees the Fold tables as being ideal for one-bedroom apartments, where space is at a premium. She lives in an apartment and can see the benefit, as well as from her time spent in Japan, where space is a premium. “Families there would often pack up their lounge furniture in the evening and lay out their bed,” says Kawabata. And although the Fold table appears simple, the ‘devil is in the detail’. The solid brass legs are fabricated outside her studio, a light-filled atelier at the Abbotsford Covent, and all the tops are created from start to finish by Kawabata, including sanding each piece.

One idea tends to morph into the next, while some of Kawabata’s designs, such as the Yakka series, is likely to evolve into something similar, but also with a ‘voice’ of its own. “I love the idea of one offs. I’m particularly focused on the collectable design market, not just simply producing mass produced furniture that ends up in land fill,” says Kawabata. “I’m much more comfortable with looking at my work in terms of ‘Art & Design’,” she adds.

Kawabata feels there are more than enough chairs on the market to last a lifetime. She prefers heirlooms, such as the 200-year-old-chair her mother owns, passed down from generation to generation. “Those ‘now’ or ‘on trend pieces’ are destined for landfill. I think people are gravitating to things that last. It’s much more sustainable,” she adds.

Eugenie Kawabata can be reached on

Text by Stephen Crafti

Lifestyle & Design

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