For the design duo Dowel Jones, a recent showcase of new work, Lobby, represented a number of firsts: the first time founders Dale Hardiman and Adam Lynch worked in collaboration with another designer, the New York-based Australian, Tom Hancocks; and the first time the brand had produced an upholstered collection, Sister, being chief amongst them. Lobby also signalled another significant milestone for the enterprising Melbourne-based designers: it would mark the first time that Hardiman and Lynch had taken their work to surreal new frontiers – the virtual space and the United States alike.

Presented as part of OFFSITE, a design fair organised by Sight Unseen’s founders Jill Singer and Monica Khemsurov that coincides with New York Design Week, Lobby was staged as a response to growing interest from North American audiences accumulating over the past 12 months. The decision to show as part of OFFSITE fifth weekend-long iteration was a natural one considering the shared affinities of Dowel Jones and New York-based Sight Unseen, an online magazine that surveys and curates developments in the field of contemporary design.

“Jill and Monica have been great supporters of Dowel Jones from our founding,” Hardiman told GRAZIA. “I think it was their article around our Hurdle collection that made our campaign images go viral on Pinterest!” Considering the confluence of the digital and the corporeal that has defined their working relationship to date, it’s apt then that the two parties should reconvene on Lobby, a collaborative installation that bridged both the physical and digital worlds and the name of which hinted at the liminality of a lobby as a place of transference between interior and exterior spaces.

Hancocks, an artist and designer who specialises in hyperreal 3D renderings of objects and interiors, had collaborated with Dowel Jones once before. In 2017, Hardiman and Lynch cold emailed Hancocks after some time spent following him on social media and proposed that the latter fashion a series of digital 3D built images to showcase their Thimble collection – a natural progression of their bold campaign imagery from the analogue to the digital space. “At the time, we had no idea Tom was originally from Melbourne and we had no intention at that point to ask him to design a range for us,” says Hardiman.

“We met with Tom in Melbourne and he mentioned he was interested in moving into physical products instead of working entirely in 3D. For us that was incredibly interesting in that we’ve over the years been slowly moving into more 3D works, and Tom has been slowly moving into physical products, so it was a really successful partnership.”

Sister, the resulting collection of boldly-coloured upholstered chairs built on frames of tubular steel, was born from 3D visualisations of Hancock’s designs produced in New York that Dowel Jones then translated into physical products out of their Geelong-based manufacturing facilities. “There was a lot of trust involved in the design process with Tom being in New York,” recalls Hardiman. “We regularly Skype’d to go through samples, but in the end Tom gave us full trust in finalising the pieces as the first time he saw the end products was at the exhibition in New York.”

In the basement of the Lower East Side boutique, Coming Soon, Lobby ushered in another natural progression for all the designers involved. “When thinking about how best to present the new collection, again it was a progression of how we present work,” says Hardiman. “The natural progression was [to] move into virtual reality as a new way of experiencing the products.” Hancocks, who has worked as an interior architect, created two unique environments for Lobby based loosely off those initially built for imagery of the furniture: one, a saccharine Escher-esque pink fantasy and the other a domed rotunda in the sky that for many design enthusiasts might qualify as a vision of the afterlife.

“The idea with presenting the work within virtual reality was that you could sit in our chairs, put the head set on, look down and see that you’re sitting in the chair and then physically feel the chairs with your hands, then look up and around in environments built entirely to represent our aesthetic,” adds Hardiman. The combined effect offered visitors to the installation “a full immersion of Dowel Jones imagery.”

“We were lucky in that the majority of our visitors had never experienced virtual reality previously, giving us an edge of newness,” Hardiman recalls of the experience of showing the work during New York Design Week, which overlapped with Sight Unseen OFFSITE, Wanted Design and ICFF, amongst other fairs. Hardiman’s most significant discovery from his time there? “We were surprised by the amount of visitors who already knew about our work, so that was the real shock.”

Tile and cover image: Brooke Holm/Courtesy of Dowel Jones