Gerard Pinto with stool
Shuji Sushi designed by Gerard Pinto
Lynton Crabb Photography
Gerard Pinto with stool from Earl|Pinto, and Shuji Sushi designed by Pinto*Tuncer

Interview: Projects with personality

Design a Company publishes interviews with people from the creative industry who have started a company using design processes.

Gerard Pinto is an architect, furniture designer and branding consultant from Melbourne, who has started Earl Pinto, a furniture and lighting design and manufacturing studio, as well as Pinto Tuncer; an architecture studio.

“We decided to start a manufacturing business during the global financial crisis, partly because we were inexperienced in business, but also because it was a great opportunity.”

Did you start off being a designer running a design studio?

I ended up in architecture by chance, and I originally hated it. After my first degree at university I moved to London and got a work experience position at a large architectural firm primarily as the pay was better than bartending. One particular project that completely changed my outlook was about a large agricultural port in Maputo, Mozambique. We were working on these projects without ever having been there. This is the period before the days of ‘Google Earth’ when we had to commission satellite images. I was rezoning what was a shantytown as light commercial. I had this moment of crisis; “I am sitting in this office in London, totally detached and party to a process determining the fate of countless people ”.

I realised in very real terms that design is more fundamental to our everyday and affects everything around us. and that made me want to pursue a career in design further.

For the entirety of my university life in Melbourne I was working on small design projects. A friend of mine owned this place in a franchised chain of bakeries that went bankrupt. He approached me about helping him. He had to rebrand and he had no money. His store was in a shopping centre and after his project, the shopping centre approached me about doing more work for other clients. So that’s when I started working in retail.

That was the beginning of you becoming a brand designer?

Yes, I was designing small stores with low fees…no budget. In that store, I made the lights myself. I photographed the food for the graphics … and I had never been formally trained as a graphic designer.

“Every project and product comes out of a context.”

At one point, sitting in my office at Melbourne University, I had this beautiful light (Lion Fish) hanging above my desk. I was working on a cafe in Melbourne and I decided that I wanted this light for it. I didn’t know who had made it, but I got a call from a friend that said she had seen this light in a shop. So I went down there. The staff told me that the guy who made the lamp was at the back in their workshop. So I went out the back, and there was Alex Earl.

We decided to collaborate on this project and we soon realised that we worked well together. That was how Earl Pinto started.

Had you decided that you wanted to start manufacturing and open a store?

Nothing seemed impossible because we didn’t know how hard these things could be. Sometimes knowing how much work it will be, makes it a barrier to even taking that first step. Sometimes it’s better not to know what you are letting yourself into.

As both our businesses become bigger, and as we get more employees, one of the things we don’t want to lose is our creativity – the willingness to explore and experiment. I see so many businesses become bigger and lose their innovation because they’re so structured. That’s a part of the culture that we don’t want to lose.

Do you feel you work differently when you work with a client as a design studio than when you work as a storeowner or manufacturer?

Every project and product comes out of a context, and has a personality that evolves. It has a little bit of us in it. If we design a store, it has got to have the client’s personality (or the brands persona) in there as well. We like that personality manifesting in the projects.

With Pinto Tuncer, people come to us for solutions; we actively discourage clients who have strong and fixed ideas. If you want someone to make exactly what you want, there are much cheaper options and more compliant people.

Once, we had this client who we designed a number of stores for and the concept was extremely successful, but they thought we were too expensive. They went to someone else. After that experience the client came back to us, and one of the things that the client said to me was: “When I asked this other architect to change something, he changed it, but what was going through the back of my head was that if I’d asked Gerard to change it, he would have probably argued with me about it.”

When you’re working with Earl Pinto, do you know which segment you’re going after?

Customers come to us because they’ve seen our products and they love the products. In that way, Earl Pinto has a look, it has a feel. With Earl Pinto, we pride ourselves on being traditional craftsmen who use new technologies. We haven’t discarded the ideas of traditional craftsmanship in any way by moving towards new technology. They’re embedded within that same language.

Alex comes from a fine arts background and has always been the consummate craftsman. As long as he’s been around, he’s been making things; he’s very much a hands-on type of person. He’s also very laid-back.

Alex and I used to spend Wednesday nights having a couple of beers just making stuff and coming up with new ideas, so within a day, we could go from a concept to a product. It’s very easy for us to create. One of the risks we’re worried about though is that we have so many ideas but not enough time to manifest them.

People are starting to acknowledge that we’re doing something different and interesting. Some people say we’re crazy to keep manufacturing in Australia, but we don’t want to manufacture at arm’s length. We don’t want manufacturing to be something that we distance ourselves from. . Its an incredible feeling having an idea and seeing it realized into a product immediately.

My business partner for Pinto Tuncer, I met at Melbourne University. Ilker Tuncer and I studied together. I worked at the same firm. Me at the London office and he worked for the Istanbul office. When he came back, we started an architecture practice together. What’s interesting about Pinto Tuncer is that we pride ourselves on ‘free thinking’; you come to us if you want us to question you, and to throw around some ideas that you hadn’t considered. Pinto Tuncer doesn’t have a look.

Were you running two start-ups at once?

Yes, it was kind of crazy.

Do you use design processes when you’re doing business management?

Sometimes, yes – possibly to the detriment of design processes. For me, design is about collaboration, it’s an amorphous thing and ideas come from many places. You never know where you can go with an idea, and the interesting thing about working with other people is that the end product is never something you could have done on your own.

Is management the same thing?

Well – for us, because we had to learn. We had no business experience. Often designers are unsuccessful business people. Known reality is that creatives don’t think in the same way as business people. At our companies we haven’t lost the cultures of our business, being who we are. We’ve been very focused on preserving that culture. Yes, we need to become more structured, we need to become more rigorous about our business management skills, we have bills to pay and reporting requirements, but we need to stay true to who we are as designers and as individuals. We want the team to be part of the decision-making, and we want everyone to be part of the business.

“Some people say it is crazy to keep manufacturing in Australia.”

Have you succeeded yet?

Ten years ago I would never have thought that I would be where I am now. I have no idea where I will be in ten years from now. I have a strong idea of where I would like to go though.

Where’s that?

With Earl Pinto, I want to create a global brand that is seen differently from other furniture manufacturing businesses. It’s not about disposable consumable products. This is pieces for life; these pieces will become your children’s pieces. I love watching people who walk into our showroom and touch the pieces – and the look on their face when they touch them.

So your ethos is that the products are things for life and that the craftsmanship makes it a lasting piece?

It’s more than that. We’re doing things in a way that we think is right, that has a layer of ethics and morality, that there is a layer of purpose to what we do.

So what is the purpose?

Now you are asking me the hard questions, and I don’t necessarily have a fixed definition. Some of the ventures that we’re currently working on are aimed towards a social benefit. We’re looking at manufacturing with vocational training in mind, and looking at how we can up-skill certain sectors of the population, because for me, manufacturing in developed economies is not lost, and manufacturing doesn’t have to be high tech. It’s about quality and substance. People start to appreciate that we think about these things and that we care about what we’re making.

So you sell most of your products through your online store?

Yes, at our online store and in person at our showroom. People find us through Google, and then they send us an email and ask us if we ship to Hawaii and of course, we ship to Hawaii, or Egypt …. Of course we do!

“You don’t need to have everything you want.”

Are you part of the design scene in Melbourne?

I am too disconnected when it comes to the design scene. I think Australia is this incredible place creatively. We’re starting to see more of Australia’s design capabilities being exported. We are so isolated in some senses that we have to create not to become stagnant.

Has Australia recognised that it’s quite close to Asia?

It’s changing so much. Every year it changes drastically, not just this subtle change, but drastically. The population is changing and we’re becoming far less insular. I was born in Sri Lanka, but we moved to Australia in 1989. I grew up in Warrnambool, which is a country town. I can’t think of anywhere more mono-cultural than where I grew up. Sri Lanka is quite cosmopolitan in comparison to the town that was so oblivious to the rest of the world. The difference between then and now is incredible. Australia is starting to punch well above its weight when it comes to design.

Tell me about an epiphany moment that you’ve had as an entrepreneur.

You don’t have to do everything yourself. I realised that when I was trying to do everything myself and was about to explode. It’s OK to ask for help. If you don’t ask, no one will offer or give. Whoever said: “Good things come to those who wait.” That’s crap. “Good things come to those who take.” ”. By this I mean is that its never going to happen unless you get up and do it – take it and ask for help for the things you cant do. The hard thing about business, and especially about having business partners, is that there are so many personalities around, and you need to find ways to A: negotiate personalities and B: to detach yourself and make the right decisions for the business rather than making decisions that you want. One thing I’ve learned while running these businesses is that you don’t need to have everything you want. You need to approach it with a certain detachment, otherwise you don’t make the right decisions, you’re too vested in it. I want this business to be about good work practices and about a healthy ethical approach to both staff and customers – but detach yourself and let numbers talk and let people with expertise tell you which way you need to take certain things, especially when you don’t have a clue what you are doing.
Christian Leborg

Christian Leborg

Christian Leborg is a visual communicator and branding consultant. He specialises in building brand strategies and brand identities. Christian has worked with several specializations within visual communication as well as teaching and being an author. Christian now works on his third stint as an entrepreneur.