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September 17, 2015

Career path: Daniel Emma

While the talent of South Australian design duo Daniel Emma has long been acknowledged internationally, it is only now - with an exhibition of their work set to open at the National Gallery of Victoria tomorrow - that they are being given proper recognition on home soil.

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  • Words: Krisha Barton and Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Andrè Castellucci

Husband and wife team Daniel To and Emma Aiston have always made beautiful objects, but the story of how they came to live, work and exhibit in the National Gallery of Victoria together is not as romantic as you might assume.


See more of Daniel Emma’s work at their website.

“We met at uni,” says Emma. “It was love at first sight (not). Daniel thought I was very noisy (as he recalls he heard me before he even saw me) and I thought Daniel was pretty arrogant.”

But throughout their study of Industrial Design at the University of South Australia, the pair came to understand that they had more in common than they thought. As their relationship developed, so did their practice – with a shared interest in creating simple home and desk objects rising to the surface.

“We like using basic materials – timber, stone and brass. But always incorporate this with something unexpected whether it be colour or texture,” says Emma.

After graduating university, the pair set off for a year in London to gain experience in several highly-regarded design studios, including Thorsten Van Elten and Marc Newson. It was after these experiences that they officially established Daniel Emma as a studio and began to chip away at making a name for themselves in a notoriously fickle industry.

“We don’t follow fads or what is ‘on trend’ we just design things we like and if other people like them it is a bonus,” – Emma Aiston

One of Daniel Emma's larger works - the Mish Mash chair

One of Daniel Emma’s larger works – the Mish Mash chair

To date, their biggest clientele and recognition has been outside Australia. Daniel Emma’s work can be found in cities like New York, Miami, Berlin, Tokyo and Paris and they have collaborated with brands like Hay (Denmark), Wallpaper* (UK) and Guerlain (France).

But slowly, the hand-crafted, Australian-made products emerging from their studio are gaining ground at home.

After winning the Bombay Sapphire Australian Design Discovery award in 2010, Daniel Emma have been noticed by local brands like Tait and Aark, and have had work acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

The nature of their practice has also expanded beyond objects that can be held in a hand, and now incorporates larger design pieces from tables to installations and fit outs.

While the characteristics of what they’re designing might have changed, Emma says their inspiration and aesthetic remain consistent.

“We don’t follow fads or what is ‘on trend’ we just design things we like and if other people like them it is a bonus,” she says.

And it seems other people do. This year is the first that the coveted Rigg Design Prize has been opened to practitioners outside of Victoria, and Daniel Emma are one of  seven finalists selected “for producing the most interesting and compelling object and furniture design in Australia today”.

An exhibition of work from all finalists opens in the National Gallery of Victoria tomorrow.

“It feels amazing,” says Emma. “To have been selected as one of seven other designers representing excellence in contemporary Australian design at such an early stage in our careers is humbling and very special.”

There’s a wait to find out whether Daniel Emma will ultimately win the $30,000 Rigg Prize, but clearly they’re winners regardless.

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