Daniel Emma, Product Designers

Australian wine capital Adelaide has a population of 1.3 million, putting it on par with Dallas or San Diego. But as native Daniel To sees it, it’s a big city with a small-town mentality — one that nearly consigned him and his wife Emma Aiston to a life designing laundry lines. “We met at the University of South Australia, where our design program was heavily engineering-based and suited to what’s required for the city’s industry,” explains To. “Adelaide has three main manufacturing companies: one making garden sheds, one light switches, and a third clothes-drying lines.” Rather than learning about mid-century modern, Memphis, or the Bauhaus — all of which would later inform their work as the independent studio Daniel Emma — the pair were taught to perfect their technical-drawing skills and gear up to become cogs in the local wheel. Just as they were starting their final projects in 2006, though, they had a kind of mutual awakening: “We started reading a lot more blogs and realizing what was happening in the rest of the world, and suddenly we got it in our heads that we didn’t have to design a kettle or a computer or some electronic device for our final,” recalls To. “We could design normal products, with a concept, and work on finding a new aesthetic.”

It was that momentum that led them to co-found Daniel Emma upon graduation rather than going to work for someone else, but before finding a new aesthetic, they had to work on finding common ground. “In school we did this project together called recycled racer, a vehicle which you could race around a track,” says To. “After that we agreed we’d never do a project together again, because we argued the whole time. We both had strong heads in terms of design: Emma is more crafty, and a bit more feminine. I was always a very traditional industrial designer, so we never met in the middle.” The pair agreed that if they were to start a company together, they’d never release a product that didn’t represent them in equal parts. When they launched their first collection Shapes, a series of housewares and office supplies based on Bauhausian geometries, they both had what To describes as a “gut feeling” about the direction, and they’ve stuck with it ever since. “For each collection we give ourselves a restriction, which guides the general aesthetic,” he says. “Shapes is four flat shapes, Solids is two forms interacting with one another, and Basics is a single solid. Our aesthetic will always be very simple, but it will evolve over time as we find new restrictions.”

For now, the couple are focused on the release of their first commercial collection, D.E., which combines pieces from both their Basics and Solids series. They’ve already had quite a bit of success — and been recognized as up-and-comers by Wallpaper magazine — after debuting their work at 100% Design in London in 2009. Upon their graduation from university, To and Aiston took off for the British capital on a special two-year work visa, during which time they actually founded Daniel Emma; To was interning for Committee and Aiston for Thorsten van Elten. They were forced to come home only a month after the show, but not before the momentum of the London scene had rubbed off on them. Back in Adelaide, they bought a small house in the port area of the city and took dayjobs — Aiston as a secretary in a mental health clinic, and To in a lighting shop that sells design knockoffs — while building up their local manufacturing connections for Daniel Emma. They’ve also begun doing design work for European retailers. “We never got a job in design in Adelaide because we wouldn’t want those jobs,” says To. “Our whole thought is, if we want to live in Adelaide, and do what we want to do, we have to start up our own thing and not really care what everyone else thinks.”

Design or art hero: “We love Wes Anderson, especially The Darjeeling Limited, which we’ve seen a million times. We watch it just to see the train, its interior, and the Louis Vuitton Luggage. Also, any Studio Ghibli film, in particular Ponyo (about a fish that likes eating ham). Both directors create beautiful scenes with unique compositions, and that’s what we try to do when designing a collection.”

What objects do you keep around your studio for inspiration? “We’re collectors of junk and old useless things. Our studio is full of these quirky objects that may seem useless but to us are very special. There’s a quality about products made before injection molding, a heaviness and simplicity. We love collecting things that are colorful, especially old toys. These things are indirectly inspiring — we have them around mostly because we’re hoarders!”

Last amazing thing you bought on eBay: “We’ve never gotten into eBay, but we do have an unhealthy obsession with a local auction house that holds weekly estate auctions with up to 1500 lots in one go. We always come home with things we don’t need but couldn’t possible live without. The most amazing purchase we made from there is a 1900’s dentistry cabinet. When we were bidding on it we thought it was just a shell with nothing inside, but once we won the auction and got it home, we discovered it was full of beautiful little drawers, all of which are numbered.”