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Australian Financial Review - Living Like A King

25 May 2020 |  News

AFR - David King

 

The King of Australian furniture design sits down for a rare chat with Australian Financial Review. Written by Stephen Todd.

For more than 40 years, David King has been a fixture of living rooms across Australia, whether you know it or not.

Throughout the summer of ’69, David King’s dulcet tones pulsated from radios around the nation. Sixteen at the time, he’d formed a band called King Fox with a bunch of high school mates. Their psych-pop single "Unforgotten Dreams" was weaving its way through shag-piled lounge rooms, wafting across pot-planted patios and coming to nestle poolside, as it lingered in the Top 10 over the hottest months.

Fifty years later, King still permeates our homes and gardens – his King Living furniture brand is one of Australia’s most renowned.

King Fox disbanded in 1972, around the same time King’s mum – an ex-model with a fine eye for decorating and real estate – began designing a line of furniture and he started helping her make them. Essentially blocks of carved foam covered in stretchy fabric sheathes, the Kings' lounge seats were an instant hit on the market circuit.

“We knew we had created something special. We’d be setting up at Paddy’s Market and the stall holders would gather around, wanting to know what these cool looking things were,” King recalls. “We ended up selling thousands and thousands of them.”

“So many, that David King established the King Furniture brand in 1977.

“Remember your grandmother saying, 'Don’t sit on the arms of the sofa!'? I thought, why not? Sofa arms should be sturdy enough to be sit on. - David King”

Until then the Kings had been working from their semi-detached Rose Bay home, but as demand increased so did the flow of trucks delivering materials to keep up with demand.

“We had to decide whether to grow the business or stop,” says King.

They decided to grow, and rented a small shopfront on a gritty thoroughfare near Sydney’s Central station.

“Mum would sew the covers at home, I’d cover the foam in the back of the shop, and sell out front,” remembers King. He hung up a sign saying "Direct To You" to attract passing traffic.

“We never wholesaled, we have always sold directly to our customers. This has given us the ability to learn what our customers want and respond directly through product design with solutions to their needs.”

Some 40 years later, French photographer Felix Forest stumbled across a rather slinky two-seater foam sofa in the warehouse that would eventually become his Sydney studio. Drawn to its undulating, continuous seat-back shape, he convinced the owner to relinquish it. Only later did he realise it was an original King Award sofa, vintage 1987.

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The King 'Award' sofa in sculpted foam was designed in 1987. Felix Forest

“The shape was intriguing and it was incredibly comfortable to sit on,” recalls Forest, who shoots interiors for prestige lifestyle titles around the world. “It now serves as one of the furniture focal points within my studio space.”

That Forest should be drawn to the Award is not too surprising, since in its organic allure it is reminiscent of 1960s French furniture by the likes of Pascal Mourgue and Pierre Paulin.

But while the Award is definitely sculptural, it’s also quite sensible: key King Living attributes to this day.

“I’ve never called myself a designer,” says King. “I simply had the desire to create something meaningful, that would improve people’s lives.”

Not long after setting up shop, King began scouring secondhand stores, keen to understand what kind of furniture people discarded. He noted torn fabrics and sagged webbing (both replaceable) but most importantly: broken arms.

“Remember your grandmother saying, 'Don’t sit on the arms of the sofa!'? I thought, why not? Sofa arms should be sturdy enough to be sit on.”

Thus was born King’s signature steel framed sofa system, the familiar riff behind most of the brand’s greatest hits. There’s the Polo couch, launched in 1979, the year King Furniture moved its manufacturing and flagship to Annandale, in Sydney's inner west.

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King in his factory in Turrella in early March this year. Peter Braig

Then came the Delta in 1998; its modular steel armature enabling it to mutate from chaise longue to three-seater bench sofa, to even a queen-size bed. (This slightly louche, lounge-y aspect inspired Vanity Fair magazine to install a series of Deltas in various formations for stars to repose upon during its Hollywood Oscars party in 2006.)

In 2003 King introduced the Jasper, which remains the brand's best-seller to this day. It’s been remixed over the years; updated with extra storage, say, or extendable headrests, or recharging surfaces for mobile devices.

“It’s flexible, like adult Lego,” says King.

At the brand’s current headquarters in Turrella, south of Sydney (there is still a showroom in Annandale), the in-house design team is a band of mostly 20-somethings fronted by David Hardwick, 41, who joined the company three years ago.

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David King with the King Living design team at the Turrella headquarters. From left to right: Stasie Panagopoulos, Bradley Saywell, Alinta Lim, David King, Joseph Romano. Peter Braig

“The studio includes designers, pattern-makers, a product manager and an engineer,” says Hardwick, noting that several started out as interns. All are graduates of local design academies, including University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the University of NSW.

The design team is responsible for researching and developing new pieces as the market evolves. Designer Alinta Lim, for instance, recently nurtured the Issho dining table into being. A modular system based on fin-shaped legs that can be arranged in an open-ended formation or closed to create a single pedestal, it works equally well with round, oval or right-angled tops.

Beyond the design studio, the operation includes textile experts, pattern makers, machinists and dispatchers. While a large part of the manufacturing now takes place in China (King established a factory there in the 2005) this is the beating heart of the business.

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The new King Living Issho dining table sits on a modular, fin-shaped base. Felix Forest

It’s here that Sydney designer Charles Wilson comes when he’s got a product in development with King Living, as the brand has been known since 2015 as it began expanding its product portfolio into beds, tables, and home office furniture.

“There's great respect for the intended design language ... a creative dialogue as to the functional potential. - Charles Wilson”

Wilson's relationship with the brand began a decade ago, with the Andrea sofa. His most recent sofa, the Zaza, features fully adjustable back and arm structures atop a slender, sleigh-style base. King Living’s expertise in steel frame manufacturing enables the precision engineering required to attain such flexibility, says Wilson, who has worked for international brands including Herman Miller and Menu.

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The Zaza sofa, designed by Charles Wilson for King Living.

"King have a very sophisticated design culture now,” he says Wilson. “Better, in fact than any company I have worked with. From the start of a project, there’s great respect for the intended design language, and a creative dialogue as to what the functional potential is and how the design can best be resolved."

For his part, David King reckons Wilson is “probably the best sofa designer in Australia. Not only has a great eye for detail but a superb sculptural approach.”

While David King has nominally stepped aside from day-to-day operations (he appointed CEO Anna Carrabs in 2015), as the chairman he oversees international expansion and has recently opened showrooms in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Vancouver.

Asked to sum up the brand’s enduring appeal, King suggests it’s because they “sit somewhere between the minimalist, European aesthetic and oversized American design.”

And that feels just about right.

Photography by Peter Braig


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