It’s a rarity in life to find people who have a true passion for something. Not just a fondness or a passing interest but a true, feel-it-in-your-bones, passion. When somebody has this in depth thirst it is radiated in everything they do. Sam Johnston is this somebody. He lives and breathes design. As a child he grew up with a dreams of being a carpenter and now, not only does he run his own design business, SEM Design, tackling landscape, furniture, fashion and graphics projects, but he gives back to the design world. Teaching landscape architecture, first in London at Kingston University and now at Melbourne’s RMIT were he runs a design studio, Digital Craft, Sam is more than just your average designer.
This passion has seen Sam and his family travel the world, working as a landscape architect for design firms in London, New York and Brisbane. “New York was one of the best cities I have lived in. I remember moving from New York to London and thinking perhaps we should head back pretty soon! I grew to enjoy London but the thrill of New York is still there and I hope to get everyone packed up and back there for a while one day”. Now settled in Melbourne, SEM Design – Landscape does various projects around Victoria providing master planning, feasibility studies, conceptual and detailed design and contract administration services. His broad exposure to the design world has lead Sam to awaken to the potential of digital design and manufacturing techniques that put the power to make back in the hands of the designers. Through exposure to talented architects, landscape architects and designers around the world, Sam has broadened his mind to the breaking down of traditional disciplinary boundaries and investigating the avenues to design and make many more things than just landscapes. This revelation has led SEM Design into the world of furniture. SEM Design craft superbly finished, unique pieces that are an artistic display of his years of industry knowledge and in depth understanding of digital design and digital manufacturing techniques. In Sam’s own words “basically making stuff using cool machines”. With three submissions in this year’s Melbourne Furniture Fringe and a New Brunswick studio space on the horizon, big things are in store for SEM Design’s future in the furniture industry.
The Vault Coffee Table was inspired by the rigidity and structural integrity of vaulted ceilings. This design simplifies the traditional form of a table to the bare minimum, allowing for a visual lightness that emphasises the immensity of the table top that is supported on four slender legs. The process for making the Vault Coffee Table was complex! The material is created from Tasmanian Blackwood off cuts, a by-product from the veneering process that would otherwise be discarded. Using laminating techniques and computer controlled milling, a unique display of timber grains and landscape-like contours are created which emphasize the colours and form of this piece.
The biggest challenge with this design was getting the detailing of the layers correct and ensuring the continuity of the form was passed down the legs. This all came together to create a truly elegant and alluring coffee table design at 50% scale and an outstanding 8 person dining table at full scale.
A true standout piece from SEM Designs furniture range is their Drape – OC Chair. This chairs relaxed form invites you to take it easy, have a rest and stay a while. Hand crafted from laminated hoop pine and upholstered with a leather inlay and cushioning for extra comfort and a tactile experience, the unique process of bending wood to create this design is something that Sam has always been interested in.
SEM Design has also created a highly durable range of outdoor furniture that comprises modern concrete with recycled timbers. This range is their own take on the ubiquitous cast iron garden setting. Using Sam’s in depth knowledge of landscaping and architecture, the table top is inspired by a complex city street network. The lattice network of lines creates a ‘figure ground’ diagram, a 2D map of an urban space that shows the relationship between built and unbuilt spaces.
The table top is made from glass fibre reinforced concrete. Concrete is a temperamental material that reacts differently every time you mix it, based on the mix ratios, outside air temperature, relative humidity and it seems, one’s own mood. This made the Cast – Metropolis Outdoor Table a tricky design to master. The harshness of the concrete top is balanced with warm, recycled hardwood timber legs. The spiralling form of the legs lightens the form but also acts to re-calibrate the legs to the often uneven outdoor ground. This table design has a clever self-tightening system which is created by the interlocking nature of the joint- as weight is applied to the legs the joint becomes tighter.
With such a vast and busy work life, it’s hard to imagine Sam having time for much else! But when Sam is not working you’ll often find him cooking, gardening, swimming and snorkeling. With a love for the sea and great food, Sam loves being down the beach in front of a BBQ. However, being a strong family man, his favourite place of all is at home with his wife and kids “There is not a day that goes by without me being amazed at how full of life our kids are and I look forward to helping them navigate the world”.