In the world of interiors, there are few design elements that say as much – with as little – as colour. Colours also have the power to evoke an era, to be a reflection of where the world is at a particular time. Take Millennial Pink. The dusty blush shade dominated fashion, beauty and interiors from circa 2016, only to be replaced by Gen Z greens in 2020.
Backtrack to the 1950s – an era when nuclear families wanted to paint a picture of domestic bliss – and it was all about mint greens, peaches and soft blues. Likewise in the mid to late ’70s – a decade when rusts, cognacs and sienna dominated – people turned to earthy hues for comfort after the instability of the Vietnam War, the oil crisis and the craziness of the ’60s and its psychedelic palette.
Considering we’re once again dealing with war and climbing inflation, not to mention daily climate catastrophes, is it any wonder that in 2022 we’d be gravitating back to blast-from-the-past browns?
It’s a calculated bet Byron-Bay-based furniture designer Sarah Ellison is willing to make: her latest partnership, unveiled last week, is a branded Pantone colour called Piccolo, a wholesome chocolate brown. Fittingly, the shade will debut on the homeware brand’s new Float sofa, a low-slung velvet sectional lounge, evocative of those ’70s conversation pits many of us grew up with.
Aligning with the American colour company is a bolshie but brilliant marketing move, considering the eponymous brand has been around for just five short years. For not only is Sarah Ellison Studio the first Australian company to work with the Pantone Colour Institute (Piccolo joins hues like Valentino Pink PP, Tom Brady Blue and Nickelodeon SpongeBob Yellow), it is the first to do so in the home category globally.
And the spotlight is only set to intensify. For earlier this year Sarah Ellison Studio achieved what is catnip for Australian homeware brands. It cracked the elusive United States market. That’s a tough process that usually takes decades. (Exhibit A: 40-year-old Coco Republic is only now anchoring its US expansion, with a San Francisco flagship in October.)
Chatting to Ellison and her business partner, Leigh McKeown, at Sydney’s Ace Hotel, I gauge from the 44-year-old’s fidgeting unvarnished fingers, no-nonsense middle-part ponytail, unlined, makeup-free complexion and on-trend oversized blazer that all this attention feels a tad overwhelming.
“We joke the train has left the station and we’re just holding on for dear life,” groans 38-year-old McKeown.
In 2017, the pair co-founded Sarah Ellison Studio as a direct-to-consumer e-commerce business, their initial playbook being to reject traditional marketing and distribution models, shun the traditional showroom route and target a gap between the serious design sector (those willing to cough up $30,000 for a couch) and your Freedoms and Ikeas.
It worked. Fuelled by lockdown demand, 2020-2021 revenue ballooned 350 per cent and, although that’s slowed, the brand is still achieving triple-digit growth, as it has every year since the launch.
“They’re disruptors [who have] gone about things in their quiet, independent way, not caring about the status quo,” says Lucy Feagins, editor of The Design Files. “It has startled a few of the more established players.”
Of the price point ($3500 to $6000 for a couch), where Sarah Ellison plays alongside popular retailers such as Coco Republic and MCM House, McKeown says: “Ninety-five per cent of purchasing decisions are made by women, and we recognised there was nothing in that homes space seen through a female lens. Personality-led brands are common in fashion, and you have your Kelly Wearstlers overseas, so we felt if we pulled it back, refined things and made it more accessible financially, we could do this in a big way.”
Form has been the hero of Ellison’s collections from day one, and although purists would not class some of her early designs – like the Paloma coffee table – as revolutionary (open Pinterest or Instagram and a zillion versions fly at you), her pieces sold their socks off.
Her design confidence grew and by the third collection (Sol, 2020), Ellison found her feet, drawing inspiration from the way the Italian avant-garde of the late ’60s and early ’70s (Mario Bellini, Giancarlo Piretti) used scale and proportion to create impact, and cherry-picking elements from the era as visual cues.
“Sarah has really tapped into that ’70s style and pulls broad references, yet [her work] has a unique Australian substance,” says Feagins.
Adds Deborah Bibby, former Real Living editor and author of The Originals: Beach Houses to Fall in Love With (2020): “The narrative around Sarah’s early days as a stylist – and now designing – is ’70s, skateboarders, surfers and sunsets. Her aesthetic is timeless with a playful edge. She’s a big-hearted person and that comes through in her designs and her ability to reinterpret established trends. You feel warmth in her collections.”
Growing up in Margaret River in the early ’80s when all anyone ever talked about was wine and waves, Ellison had to harness creativity wherever she could. “I used to get my friends and dress them up in my mum’s glitzy aerobic outfits and photograph them,” she jokes. “I was definitely the ‘creative’ in the room.”
After school and a stint in the UK, she returned home to study fashion design at East Sydney, and created a clothing label she later sold to Incu. She then dabbled in visual merchandising at ’90s retail icon Empire, in Paddington, where she befriended interior stylists who were sourcing products to shoot. She cut her teeth assisting, before scoring a coveted job as style editor at Real Living.
“One week you’re styling a Scandinavian shoot, the next issue it would be ’90s,” says Ellison.
“That career shift to designing and forming a definitive point of view was hard,” she reflects. “It took time and I experienced a bit of ‘Who am I?’ One day, I was at Bronte on the beach with my young son and I thought, it’s these neutral, earthy colours and the rawness of nature that’s me. Australian coastal style – just done in a unique way. I suppose I drew it back to my childhood.”
Content has always been king in direct-to-consumer world of e-commerce, but it was easier back in 2017 – when brands didn’t have to jostle for online elbow room and it was simple to build an audience through email, a website and social media. Ellison’s editorial skill enabled the brand to connect with its Millennial clients through a highly curated Instagramfeed.
“Understanding what’s required to show a piece in the best ways possible – that’s been a huge positive for us and how we present ourselves,” she says. “Put great content out there and people will come. Some days I feel we’re a content business that sells product. Our shoot schedule is crazy. I joke my job now is what it was 10 years ago.”
Such content has also exposed the brand to a global audience. Californian fashion influencer @aimeesong (6.7 million followers) owns a Sarah Ellison Yoko bed. Elsa Hosk (@hoskelsa, 8 million followers) ordered an Earth dining set. Athena Calderone (aka @eyeswoon, 910k) secured a Huggy chair for her Hamptons home. Even Vogue US cover photographer Tyler Mitchell has slid into their DMs.
Then there’s the Jenna Lyons connection. In May, the former J.Crew creative director turned interior-design guru hosted a dinner at her apartment in SoHo, New York to celebrate Sarah Ellison’s expansion into the US through Miller Knoll’s retail chain Design Within Reach. Guests included Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Amy Astley and supermodel Helena Christensen.
“The livability of Sarah’s sculptural silhouettes and her distinct approach to texture and materials beautifully complement our assortment,” explains Debbie Propst, president of global retails for Miller Knoll, the LVMH of the furniture world. “Her fresh approach to postmodern design and a focus on accessible luxury was what drew us.”
For Bibby, the appeal of Ellison’s vision is more visceral. More emotive. “That velvet Float sofa in Piccolo is classic Ellison,” she quips on its unveiling. “We’re all looking for a nostalgic escape right now and that couch is the design equivalent of a much-needed hug.”
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