In the Hands of Laura McCusker
Written by Pippa Dickson
Laura McCusker is a force of nature within her Hobart community. Her furniture commissions are highly sought-after around the country. Within the beautiful rivulet nestled studio, once a cold store for apples and the island’s oldest, is a notice board with sticky notes listing projects in priority order. For an outsider it’s dauntingly long – for McCusker and her life and business partner Pete Howard – it’s practical.
The partnership in the studio started 3 years ago when Howard realised that if he didn’t change his day job he would be sitting behind a desk for the next 25 years. He aspired to do something physical with a tangible 3D outcome and undertook a TAFE carpentry apprenticeship, then joined McCusker’s already successful 16 year practice, right at a time when she needed the extra hands due to increasing demand.
They both revel in the creativity and freedom of their work life and being their own bosses. The tone in their voices conjures images of them both leaping out of bed every morning in glee, enticed by their workshop environment. Hardly a day goes by when they’re not working, it is such an integrated part of their being. The highlight of their day is the first cup of coffee and space to assess the day ahead while throwing a few balls to Buster, the little spritely fur muscle that tracks their every move, at this moment the day is so full of potential.
McCusker, epitomises the view that if you want something done ask a busy person. The mother of two is involved in the projects and interests of her children and community and makes a substantial contribution to the arts in Tasmania giving her time and intellect as a member of the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board. Earlier in the year in a horrific public domestic violence event close to their studio, McCusker leapt to action painting a sign that read ‘It’s not OK’ and attaching it at the site of the incident. Through this small, but impassioned action, she raised significant profile for the campaign to protect women and families.
Despite the idyllic setting of their workshop and the aesthetically ordered tools neatly hung on the shadow-board she doesn’t subscribe to romantic notions of being a regional designer maker; ‘I’m not an elf, tinkering away trying to be part of a Grimm’s fairy tale’, I laugh out loud since that’s the picture some ‘mainlanders’ conjure of Tasmania. ‘I live in the real world where you can have your cake and eat it – using the best of contemporary technology and combining traditional hand skills.’ Her furniture pieces convey this.
She loves the most utilitarian local timber, Tasmanian Oak, steering away from Tasmania’s highly sought after special species, often prized for their fine grains, colour and features. She gravitates to oak because she feels ‘…it’s the quiet achiever, an easily available, affordable, modest material that let’s the design speak’. This is no-doubt why clients gravitate to McCusker, her modesty, but also the deliberately considered design, respect for materials and care in fabrication invested in every piece that can’t be found in ‘off-the-shelf’ products.
Further exemplifying this is her versatility and non-preciousness when it comes to the diversity of jobs she accepts. She doesn’t judge projects in a hierarchical way, never ruling out an opportunity, she’ll consider the widest range of projects and apply her normal gusto, seeking to problem solve, improve and refine.
McCusker believes that all work has the possibility of providing a new experience and opportunity to learn. She has no interest in growing the size of the business because at this scale she can manage close relationships with clients and ensure the highest quality results. The idea of the bespoke and ‘one-off’ is important, the notion of creating heirlooms and therefore a legacy to pass through the generations. She feels she inherited this value indirectly from her mother (a doctor) who was once ‘fitted’ for a desk, the idea resonating strongly with McCusker from a young age. The desk now proudly belongs to her grand daughter Ella.
McCusker also attributes the use of her hands to her mother as she recalls the strength and physicality she displayed in her work as a medical practitioner. She credits her for imbuing the importance of ‘usefulness’ which McCusker says is fundamental to her creations. If they are not – ‘then they’re a waste of materials’.
McCusker and Howard work in unison, rhythmically moving around the workshop, thinking on their toes and catering to their many clients who are searching for a unique design made by people with exceptional skills, design sensibility, strong ethics and principles. McCusker concludes the interview, perhaps from having reminisced about her mother, reflecting simply ‘…I’ve got really strong hands, probably because I use them…’, it’s no surprise then that her favourite wood working joint is the finger joint; strong, reliable, simple and beautiful.