Marc Harrison is a problem solver, a wood whisperer who turns macadamia shell and timber into desirable, beautiful objects. His exquisite products – like the nuts and trees from which they are made – are icons of Australia.
Originally from New Zealand, Marc Harrison came to Australia when he was fourteen, dreaming of adventure. He immediately fell on his feet, working as a tradesman’s assistant while finishing school at night, then studying at the Queensland College of Art and honing his skills in furniture design, interiors and lighting design.
“While I was at Art School I was working on a Queenslander renovation in inner city Brisbane,” he recalls. “There was a macadamia tree there, and that’s when I first experienced how hard the shell is. I began by trying to crack it with a rock, graduating to a hammer and then finally a ring spanner. I eventually understood the point of it all when I tasted how amazing it tastes.”
This first encounter with a macadamia tree helped Marc understand the importance of macadamias to the Australian psyche. Then a residency with a furniture manufacturing company opened his eyes to the incredible possibilities of macadamia shell as a material.
“I was always very interested in doing things a little bit differently and coming up with my own take on things,” he recalls. “The whole idea of me being in that residency was to try and combine art and manufacturing together and see if we could come up with some unusual solutions. One of the ideas I came up with was making a unique Australian chair out of a unique Australian resource, and that was where Husque came in.”
Marc knew that Spanish companies were using waste almond shells to make coffins, so when a supplier showed him some pure macadamia shell powder he began experimenting. As an artist he wanted to stay open to the possibilities of the material, eventually combining the powdered macadamia shell with resin to create a beautiful smooth material to shape into the macadamia-shaped bowls that are now icons of Australian design.
“The macadamia shell has great thermal quality, so it's nice to touch. It adjusts to your body temperature when you're holding it. That gives it a certain tactile quality,” he explains.
Still made by hand in Marc’s studio, the bowls are for sale through Husque and local galleries. The premier of QLD also presented one to Oprah as an official gift when she toured Australia in 2010.
“They’re constantly being discovered!” he jokes. “I'm really just an artist doing my thing. I get a little bit of help from time to time, but I'm heavily involved in actually making them. I've just got no desire to be a large manufacturer.”
Marc’s current project uses wood cut from macadamia trees. Many growers appreciate the beautiful grain in the macadamia wood that they prune from their orchards. Unfortunately, that admiration is short lived when they come to work with the wood.
Marc describes the challenges of working with macadamia wood. “Within a matter of days and weeks the timber starts to split, which makes it very hard to actually do anything with it. It doesn't season nicely and evenly. So many farmers probably cut down a tree and pop the wood to one side and go back to it a year or two later, and they're basically seeing firewood. It just deconstructs itself.”
Macadamia wood is also a by-product of the nut industry. Since the wood isn’t grown for lumber or in straight sections to be used in furniture making, Marc had to develop techniques that would work with very short, thick and gnarly bits of wood. That’s where his creativity as an artist came in.
“The real breakthrough came when I looked at veneering the timber while it's still green, before it's even had a chance to dry out. Veneering it made sense, because the beauty of the timber is in it’s decorative nature. Eventually I got to a point where I could cut a branch off the macadamia tree in the morning, and have this veneered, molded handle by the afternoon. A tree limb the size of my arm could yield between 20 and 40 handles. So all of a sudden you've got an incredible return on investment from this tree.”
Although Marc’s products are at the forefront of industrial design, he approaches his work as an artist and maker first, letting the materials speak to him as he works with them. While notebooks in his home and studio are where he jots down his ideas and inspirations, he tends to really process his ideas in the actual physical creation of a product.
“So often, even before I do a sketch, I'll make something, and that'll be a starting point, and then I'll do sketches from what I've made. And then I'll make something better. But it's very hands-on. I don't spend huge amounts of time in front of the computer, unless I'm at that point where I need to be very precise in my measurement. It's a very organic process.”
It’s that hands-on creativity that has allowed Marc to innovate so successfully with macadamias. First with shell and then wood, he’s taken problematic and even waste materials and developed them into elegant and beautiful solutions.
“We can't look at macadamia wood as a traditional timber resource. We can't. We need to look at this completely differently. We need to slow down, have a look at what's beautiful, and look at the problems with it and try and develop the process and method and products that can work within those parameters.”