Life & Style
Cooks Hill

Newcastle Art Gallery

A creative force arrives in Newcastle

When it comes to the art and design world the names Louise Olsen and Stephen Ormandy don’t get any bigger. Best known as the co-founders of the internationally loved Dinosaur Designs, since 1985 jewellery lovers have been head over heels for their brightly coloured, hand made resin designs.
Meeting at art school in 1983 the duo have gone on to carve out an illustrious career that has offered collaborations with some of the worlds most recognised brands and events, and has seen their designs worn by some of the worlds most famous faces.
And now, thanks to the Newcastle Art Gallery an exhibition curated by Louise and Stephen has landed in Newcastle. An incredible and surprising collection that takes us back to their art roots, and one that you must see.

We had the privilege of chatting to Louise and Stephen as they set up their exhibition and caught some of the behind-the-scenes art magic that is now on display at Newcastle Art Gallery until February 17.

Is this the first time that either yourself or Stephen have exhibited your work in Newcastle?
Louise: It is and we are so excited to exhibit at the Newcastle Art Gallery, my father [John Olsen] was born in Newcastle so I feel a really strong connection here and I love it as a city, it’s like the perfect balance of being a city but having a great lifestyle.

How did this exhibition come to be?
Louise: We’ve been exhibiting for a while at regional galleries like Bega and Hazelhurst, but it came about from Lauretta [Newcastle Art Gallery Director] who had seen a few of mine and Steve’s works and invited us to create our own exhibition. It’s been amazing as it’s given us the opportunity to really scale up.

I mean you’ve got this incredible gallery here, the most incredible space for us to explore and the exhibition OLSEN ORMANDY: a creative force has been the first time that we’ve ever been asked to show who we really were and where we really stem from and that is our art practice. It will be a real discovery for people to see who we are as creators.

Are you happy with how the exhibition has come together?
Stephen: We’re ecstatic, I always knew this space was utterly amazing and when Lauretta approached us to exhibit it was a wonderful inspiration and it drove a lot of the work, particularly the new works. So it was very exciting not only to have the opportunity but the time to think and digest and work through ideas and get to the point where you’re happy with the way things are going and where things will go.

What can people expect from the OLSEN ORMANDY: a creative force exhibition?
Louise: This is purely our art practice, we are both known for our Dinosaur Designs work but it’s not a retrospect of Dinosaur Designs. We both came from an art background particularly me, I grew up in an artist’s family, both my parents being artists, and we trained as artists not industrial designers. You can see connections with Dinosaur Designs because of the resin but it is more about the art of Dinosaur.

Would you say the focus of your work these days is mostly around the art rather than the jewellery side of the business?
Stephen: The thing about Dinosaur is that it’s purely a vehicle for us to fund our art, Dinosaur’s focus was about using our creative skills in an immediate way and creating things that can sell more readily, and jewellery was a great thing to get involved in, there’s a really strong interest in Australia for art based jewellery.

It’s funny in that we wanted Dinosaur to be really commercial but we couldn’t change the way we are, we obsess over the jewellery as much as we obsess over our sculpture and in fact we treat everything in that respect, every little bead is like, for us, a sculpture and we look at it’s sculptural properties and we’re looking at positive negative space, how it falls, its movement and get obsessed with the whole process. Which is possibly why Dinosaur is seen a little differently and people feel that it is more of an art movement, which I kind of feel that is.

In 2015 Dinosaur Designs celebrated 30 years of business, it seems that the core of the business has very much stayed the same, in that the design and production takes place from your Strawberry Hills studio in Sydney is that still the case?
Yes that’s where we work, we’ve got studios, painting studios, we’ve got the design spaces. It’s a wonderful building, it’s like a Soho warehouse, without the steel staircase out the front. We’ve have just under 100 staff working with us worldwide at the moment, which is significant. It’s kind of fun, it’s like a tree that’s grown.

You've worked with some incredible brands, events and some big names in fashion and music over the years, was there one that has stood out above the rest?
I think it’s been a build-up, it’s a wave, not just one thing but a cumulation of many things that propels you. One of our first exhibitions that we were invited to be a part of was at the Victorian Albert Museum in London, which was an incredible milestone. That was in the late 80’s and from doing that exhibition we ended up going to Harvey Nichols and Liberty’s in London and we were designing jewellery for INXS and Kylie Minogue, and all that celebrity thing started to happen, but that’s the thing about creating, once you start one thing leads to another.

You opened your first international store in New York in 2002, was this a big risk for you at the time?
It was, it was around the time of 9/11 and we were in the exclusion zone and we had just signed a lease, luckily the landlord was lenient at the time because we couldn’t open the store for about 5 months after. One of the reasons we couldn’t open was because we couldn’t get a front window, all the glass makers in New York were fixing up so many buildings there was then a shortage of glass. That was a scary thing to do, and our dollar was at .46 against the US dollar so it was a very expensive thing to do, but you can’t discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.
We’ve been in New York for 17 years now and it’s been incredible and we’re now stocked at Bergdorf’s and Net-a-Porter, we’re probably stocked more overseas than what we are in Australia.

So what has been the major factors that have allowed you to continue to grow the business?
Louise: Obviously you’ve got to dive in and take the risks but it is good to do the pros and cons, sometimes the cons outweigh the pros, but if you believe in it enough to have the courage I really believe in taking the dive because so often in life you don’t know the outcomes but if you don’t give it a go you won’t know.
Stephen: We’ve taken a risk but never taken crazy risk, that’s why we’re still in business. We’re fairly pragmatic but at the same time we’re not afraid to have a go and actually make some dangerous decisions. Opening our first retail store in Australia, in The Strand Arcade, was a first big step for us.

I think what helps is to break things down to the increments, don’t look at that rent for a year, what is it a week and what do I have to sell to break even, is that 3 necklaces, I can do that. Demystify it for yourself, that’s what I’ve always done and it works for me.

We’re lucky in that we have competition, but no one has our product, only we have our product and it’s fairly unique so we kind of protect ourselves as a retailer.
I was reading through your history of awards and milestones and collaborations, it's incredibly extensive and diverse. Does winning awards and seeing your work worn still give you the same kind of buzz as what it did in the early days?

It does, it never disappears. I find it completely fascinating to see the different ways our jewellery is worn and how people make it their own and bring their life force to it and I think the art world is very much like that. The way an artwork infiltrates a space it’s very powerful, more powerful than you think, how it changes how we feel.

Your work has always seemed very individual, steering clear of trends of any kind, you get the feeling that you design and produce items purely that you love would you say that's true?
Yes it’s very much a gut feeling, it’s what I love to see and wear myself.
Sometimes I visualise a certain type of person that I would like to dress but I love that timeless element, I want to be able to see that bangle can be worn and be passed down and I love that it has a continual life force and it’s not just a trend that gets thrown out. I hate that throw out fast fashion because we can’t keep living like that as human beings, we need to be more immediate about creating designs that live on.

And do you think that has been a big part of the brands success and your longevity?
I think so, I think that people like that they can buy a piece and that they can live with it for a long time or pass it on and it continues, I love that and always think about that.

Because of your ties to Newcastle do you get to visit very often?
We last visited when my Dad had his show here, but I want to come up to Newcastle more. Talking to Lauretta there are some incredible shows coming to the Newcastle Art Gallery next year so we’ll definitely back to visit those.

What’s your thoughts on the Newcastle creative scene?
Newcastle probably shines a bright light as far as young creatives because I think it gives a lot of opportunity for space. Sydney’s very expensive and it’s squeezing a lot creativity out of it, same with New York a lot of the creatives have had to move to Brooklyn or Red Hook because it’s just too expensive to live in the city. Newcastle seems to be a marriage of both worlds and a great environment for creativity, you’ve just got to look at the incredible artists and musicians that have come out of Newcastle and that’s because they were given the opportunity.

Newcastle Art Gallery

1 Laman Street, Cooks Hill, NSW, 2300

Today - 1000 - 1700