In a push to a sustainable existence, we are all cautioned to challenge excess. Restrained design and a minimalist aesthetic has always been at the heart of Jess Humpston’s work and is evident in Ch-air, her winning design from this year’s Maker of the Year Awards.

Humpston started her career in fashion design in Perth before entering the world of interior design where she found she missed the designer-maker opportunity that fashion had afforded. In order to close the distance between design and outcome she turned her hand to furniture design and in 2021 embarked on full time study at the prestigious Sturt School for Wood in Mittagong where she then stayed following graduation for a 6-month residency.

“Fashion influenced my interiors work which has in turn influenced my furniture – it’s a nice loop” she says of her approach. “I think a lot about functionality and how something sits within a space, how will people interact with it, where it will exist, how it will be used?”.

Humpston likes the structure of a strongly defined brief “I give myself very strong parameters. That’s a driving force for me and also my work is very human centric, I like to think about the body in a space which I think goes back to my fashion and interiors career”.

For Ch-air, the concept revolved around lightness. In part driven by the need to transport the finished piece easily, combined with her minimalist approach, Humpston gave herself the brief to create a chair that was both visually and structurally lightweight. “I knew I wanted to create something that was a scaffold for a textile or weaving overlay and whilst I didn’t know what form it would take I started modelling using a number of traditional references”. Referencing traditional stick chairs, including Welsh stick chairs and the iconic Jimmy Possum chair, she experimented with triangulation to create a rigid structure. “It was very challenging to get the structure right” she says of the process “All elements have to work as one and if one is just slightly off then the whole doesn’t work. It was hard to work out the angles and the compound angles and at times quite painful but it eventually came together well”.

Humpston chose American white ash for her design, realising early in the design process that few timbers would offer the structural stability and strength she needed. Whilst initially intending to keep the ash in its natural state, she opted for a black Japan stain which provides drama whilst still exposing the natural grain of the timber. In her work Humpston, like many Australian designers, has turned to American species for the consistency they provide and suitability for the high-quality finish demanded by fine furniture.

The seating for Ch-air is monofilament. Selected to create an outcome that was as visually light as possible, to achieve an open weave Humpston devised a fluting detail on the back rest and sides of the chair which allows the filaments to sit apart.

Rod Wiles, AHEC Director commented “The Maker of the Year Awards is a fabulous platform for uncovering the vast design talent that exists in Australia. Sturt continues to produce world class designers with skills to match and Jess’s work exemplifies this. What I love most about this design is how cleverly she has used the inherent strength of the American ash to create something that is so light and refined. The idea of creating more with less also is so important in a world where we need to learn how to achieve the most out of what we have and that includes how best to use a sustainable resource like the American hardwood forest”.

Humpston has recently returned to Melbourne and has taken up a tenancy at Vic Woodworkers to spend time developing her folio and aesthetic. The generous prize money from the award has enabled her to invest in her studio where she is now focusing on the development of a series of products including furniture and homewares with a view to production. We expect her star to continue to rise.

Image credit: Greg Piper