Mark White
I was keen to ‘give back’ and make a difference to other people who are not so fortunate.
Founder of Milingimbi Furniture

Mark White is the ‘brains’ behind the Milingimbi furniture. Founding director of Ramvek, a joinery and shop-fitting company in Lynbrook (outside Dandenong, Melbourne and employing 100 people), White came upon the idea while trekking through some of the world’s poorest countries from Burma to South Africa. “When we flew over Arnhem Land (with his wife Mandy), I started to think of the divide back home, in particular amongst the Indigenous people,” says White. “I was keen to ‘give back’ and make a difference to other people who are not so fortunate,” he adds.

Giving back took the form of setting up a furniture industry in Milingimbi, where locals could learn the skills needed to produce furniture under professional guidance. Engaging some of Australia’s leading furniture designers and creatives, including Jon Mikulic, Liz Doube, Chloe Walbran, Alexsandra Pontonio, Ashleigh Parker and Suzie Stanford, the Milingimbi collection of furniture showcases not only their talents, but as importantly, the enormous talent found in the Milingimbi community.

“In my mind was beautiful handmade furniture which could sit as comfortably in the foyer of a corporate office or in the sitting room of a luxury apartment. I also wanted the furniture to incorporate the art and local skills, as well as the materials found in Arnhem Land. But the furniture had to be commercial which will allow the furniture industry on the island, to not just survive, but thrive,” says White.

To create a sustainable business, White also understands the need to respond to a market, to what it wants and the most efficient manner to deliver this. “Furniture needs to be beautiful and unique, with the ‘voice’ of the Milingimbi community clearly expressed,” says White, who sees the market for the Milingimbi furniture as going beyond the local shores to overseas markets. “I always aim extremely high. I would hope that in the years ahead, we would be represented at the Milan Furniture Fair.”

Designer Jon Mikulic, director of Newline Design, is one of the handful of designers involved in the Manapan project. Mikulic’s approach was to understand what was unique about this region, the Milingimbi community and the local arts and crafts scene. The local timber, Darwin Stringybark, the distinctive ‘woven’ handicrafts, as well as ceramic pottery, also came to the forefront of his mind.

In my mind was beautiful handmade furniture which could sit as comfortably in the foyer of a corporate office or in the sitting room of a luxury apartment. I wanted the furniture to incorporate the art and local skills, as well as the materials found in Arnhem Land.
Mark White

“The Milingimbi pottery has a certain roughness to it, as well as being slightly asymmetrical. Both these traits aren’t deliberate,” says Mikulic, who was as inspired by the region’s palette of rich red and ochre hues. Mikulic’s bench beautifully combines the traditions of the Milingimbi community with contemporary design. One of his other bench designs includes four spears aimed directly towards the seat. Each of these spears, fashioned by the Milingimbi craftspeople, is a sculpture in its own right.

Chloe Walbran, another designer, came up with the idea for an art cabinet. Combining her skills and talent, this art cabinet almost becomes recessive to the woven textiles from the Indigenous artists. “I have always been drawn to textiles. What a great opportunity to combine this love with creating furniture, my other passion. I saw the timber like the frame of a canvas, stretching it across the cabinet’s two door,” says Walbran, who was keen to ensure the timber edges framing the doors were as fine as possible to allow the textile to be given the maximum exposure it truly deserves.

Furniture and lighting designer Suzie Stanford has had an illustrious career and continues to gain the ‘spotlight’ she truly deserves. Her designs for Manapan have taken her into a new direction. Her ‘waders in flight’ design, inspired by the waders that lay their eggs in the region, has been beautifully transformed into ‘flocks’ of timber lights. At the undercroft of these outstretched wings is a small light bulb that highlights the unique texture of the timber, complete with its distinctive knots.

“The light emitted from these lamps reminds me of the local Indigenous community sitting around camp fires, celebrating the fire, with all its burning embers,” says Stanford. Selecting designers for this unique project not just required talent, but as importantly, having the right mindset. “I was looking for designers who have a passion and love for fine furniture, some who are well established, but also others who are emerging and showing great talent,” says White, whose brief to the designers was to research Arnhem Land and the local culture.

“The story associated with each design needs to be as compelling as the design itself,” he adds. After decades making furniture and joinery for some of the world’s most prestigious stores, White also understands that furniture is an individual taste. But what is shared with people is the quality of each piece and how it has been made with the touch of the hand. “I love looking at a piece of furniture where you can tell that it has been made by someone who really cares what he or she is doing. It’s a truly masterful piece.”

White certainly hasn’t chosen the easiest path to create this unique range of furniture. Milingimbi is an island 500 kilometres east of Darwin and everything needs to be barged in. This includes the materials, together with the tools and machinery, used for its manufacture. The furniture is then barged out to Darwin where it’s then transported to the southern states by road. “I think the reason this project is so exciting and unique is that everything is a considerable challenge to achieve,” says White. However, White has surrounded himself with not only some of the most creative and talented furniture designers, he has also engaged keen locals from the Milingimbi community, who he refers to as ‘trailblazers’. “Some of these people have never seen members of their family work. Seeing the locals bound out of bed every morning to make furniture is a reward on its own,” he says.

White’s journey, which initially took him over Arnhem Land, will gain momentum as each design is added to the Milingimbi furniture collection. “I want to create a brand of furniture which is known worldwide, where furniture isn’t just seen as ‘functional’, but as importantly, as ‘art’,” says White, who receives enormous pleasure working with the Milingimbi community and regularly visiting the idyllic island setting.

The Manapan Furniture project is under the umbrella of The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA), a not-for-profit Aboriginal corporation that was established in 1972 as a cooperative of community stores in Arnhem Land. As well as being the largest employer of Indigenous people in Australia, the Northern Territory management of Milingimbi Furniture is orchestrated through the ALPA.

Words by Stephen Crafti.

Lifestyle & Design

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