In conversation with Hugh McCarthy of H.McC.
Hugh McCarthy is a Melbourne-based furniture maker whose work reconciles the visual and the functional across a portfolio spanning both furniture and sculpture. Formerly trained as a landscape architect, Hugh deviated from his chosen design field for what he thought was a temporary departure in 2008 when he found himself working in a custom furniture workshop. We spoke with Hugh about his journey since, his establishment of H.McC and how he has cemented himself within the Australian design industry as both a maker and an artist.
Open Journal (OJ): Describe H.McC.? What sets the brand apart from other furniture brands?
Hugh McCarthy (HM): What sets the brand apart is that I design and make everything in-house to order and I don’t have a large catalogue of pieces to suit everyone. It’s rare for me to outsource components and that allows me to be across the production from the first meeting with a client right through to delivery. What distinguishes my work from other brands might also be that I design for my own home vs creating a family of objects with any theme or trend. The benefit in living with the furniture I create is I get to see with my own eyes if something will work or not.
OJ: Can you explain the process of engaging a furniture maker? I.e. does budget or design come first?
HM: I have my own designs but if it’s something custom then clients usually brief me with what they want via my website or Instagram and from there I develop a design from rough sketches and mood boards. A budget is discussed early in the process so there’s clarity around what is achievable.
OJ: Who or what are your influences?
HM: I’m drawn to so many designers, craftspeople and artists but I like to think my designs come about through my own values and a process of sketching, prototyping and refinement. The things I value most are craftsmanship, longevity and highlighting the look and feel of wood which I hope is what makes my work appealing for a long time. I’ve recently taken a lot of inspiration from utilitarian, low-tech objects you use all the time but hardly notice – such my stainless-steel pencil sharpener, 80s Japanese Radio, Coffee Grinder, Swedish wood chisel… those sorts of things.
OJ: You work with lots of interior designers, custom making pieces that fit within the scale and scope of a space. What have been some of the stand out engagements so far and why?
HM: A large six-meter boardroom table for Foolscap Studio in the ANZ Head Office would be a one of my standout engagements and an example of Interior designers working collaboratively with a maker to create something unique. It was interesting for me from a technical point of view with so many curves, and working with walnut is always satisfying given its rich colour and grain.
OJ: The custom furniture industry can sometimes have a bit of a $$$ stigma to overcome. I’ve noticed time and time again that people are often really surprised at how optimised the process of engaging a furniture maker to design and build a custom piece can be. Especially when compared to high-end furniture retailers or buying and then restoring an antique/vintage piece. Have you found this?
HM: There’s always going to be comparisons to mass-produced products made overseas but one of the advantages of using a local maker is their ability to provide a tailored service. A craftsperson’s versatility gets you closer to what you need with the budget in mind.
Perhaps another stigma around cost might be that furniture makers share photos of complex joinery on high-end projects to showcase their skills. But small and simple pieces are equally as satisfying to make, and I’m sure a local maker will be happy to look at your project if you asked them.
OJ: Your furniture making skills have largely been learnt in a mentor/hands on type environment. How do you continue to learn now that you have your own studio?
HM: I am fortunate enough to have learnt fundamental skills from talented craftspeople but achieving any sense of mastery is elusive in woodwork since you constantly discover alternative methods of constructing something faster or stronger – you can learn a lot from studying something like an entirely handmade antique from the past or a mass-produced object using high tech computers and CNC.
Every piece seems to require a different set of techniques to bring it to life, so I continue to learn by doing. For instance, if it’s a large-scale production run then I’m having to think more about how to make it faster without compromising on quality.
OJ: How did the transition into sculpture come about? What is the story behind your pieces?
HM: Sculpture came about because .M Contemporary Gallery in Sydney were interested in some irregularly shaped objects I was experimenting with and asked me if I wanted to explore this further with a solo exhibition. Unlike furniture, where I work to a brief and rationalise a form in relation to its function, I am able to improvise 3D forms through sculpture and use what I love about joinery in a different context.