Rory Morgan, Kati Morgan and Christian Hakansson are the impressive humans behind Mast – a furniture business focused on timeless design and quality craftsmanship. Though still in its infancy Mast has designed and produced some beautiful products to date, including the Willox and Title Series. The latter features beds with stunning steam bent headboards. Mast was initially set up by Rory and Kati in Noosa, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. In mid-2017 they relocated the business to Brisbane to be logistically better placed. On their journey to date, Mast have found it challenging to find the time to design new pieces while tackling the myriad demands of running a small business. However after much hard work, and huge learning curves, they’ve built a strong industry relationship base and are now focusing on growing their furniture range and doing less custom client work. They’ve also just opened a brand new showroom in West End where customers can physically experience Mast products, along with the aesthetic vibe of the brand, before committing to a purchase - exciting times for this talented crew!
As lead designer and maker, Rory’s journey into furniture making was somewhat accidental. He’d originally thought he'd become an architect. As a child, his mum always had architecture magazine subscriptions, and Rory can remember eagerly flicking through the pages for ideas, then drawing up his own designs and making model houses. After school, Rory completed a Diploma in building design as a stepping stone to an architecture degree. Though while working as a draftsman for a couple of years following the diploma, he developed a keen interest in furniture – he began to recognise great value in the integrity of the designs that sit within the architectural forms, bringing them to life. Rory started playing around designing some furniture pieces that he and Kati needed at home. Through self-directed research and many-a-YouTube-video-tutorial, Rory developed the skills to start making furniture himself. From that point, his skills and interest have grown from strength to strength.
Kati is Mast’s Business Development Manager. She focuses on marketing and sales and is also now the new Showroom Manager (exciting!). Originally from the northwest of the USA, Kati travelled to Australia on a student visa to study a Business Marketing and Creative Writing degree at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her and Rory became a couple in her final year of study, and tied the knot in 2016. Kati worked primarily in retail throughout her 20s, and also maintained a stall selling handcrafted homewares at the Eumundi Markets.
Christian worked as an accountant for a few years before travelling and deciding to study Danish followed by furniture making at KTS Copenhagen Technical College. Part of his course involved finding an apprenticeship, so after spending a year working at a well-known Danish operation producing iconic wooden monkeys (yes those ones!), Christian contacted Rory and completed his apprenticeship with Mast, travelling between Australia and Copenhagen to study and practise as the course required. He has recently completed his studies and become the third owner of the business.
The three of them bring complementary skills to the table and share a hard-working ethic and strong vision. “There are two values that underpin our work: good design and quality craftsmanship. In my view nothing we do can be relevant in the long term if one of these two things is missing. Longevity of our products is the end goal,” says Rory.
"Longevity of our products is the end goal."
Originally based at the Sunshine Coast, Mast’s range evolved through working on small projects with clients. Their first piece was the Willox Barstool 01. The Willox collection spanned out from there, with a couple of other pieces joining the range. New designs then plateaued while Rory was kept busy with custom work. But ideas were percolating and as soon as he could find the time, Rory completed a short steam bending course with renowned woodworker, Ross Annels. Around this time Rory and Kati were inspired to step things up with Mast and design their “ultimate piece of furniture” – the Title Bed 04 with its brilliant steam bent headboard was borne, initiating the development of the rest of the Title Bed range. Minimal but imaginative, the Title Beds caught the attention of the design industry and design enthusiasts, and clearly positioned Mast within the higher end of the market.
Now the business had a firmer foothold, Kati and Rory strategically considered their future. “We actually made the decision to move when we were in Los Angeles on holidays,” Kati explains. “The busy-ness and energy of the city, and the success of people growing businesses doing bespoken things was very inspiring. People move for work all the time so why should we be any different just because we’re self-employed? It makes a lot of sense for us to be in a metropolitan centre.”
“The busy-ness and energy of the city, and the success of people growing businesses doing bespoken things was very inspiring.”
In mid-2017 they relocated their workshop from Noosa to Brisbane, taking up an industrial tenancy on the north side of town. Then in early 2018 Christian bought into the business, solidifying Mast’s core team.
It’s a sunny day when Mindi and I visit Mast’s large workshop in Brisbane; staggered skylights let in a good amount of natural light. “Before moving in we sat down and designed the layout to optimise work flow,” Christian tells us. “In essence, the raw materials start down the back where we have our table saw, planer and thicknesser, etc. There’s a spray booth in the middle. Then furniture is sanded at the front before heading into the spray booth for finishing. The workshop has high ceilings and roller doors at either end, so we can open them up and get some nice airflow going. An office and staff room is in the pipeline for later in the year.”
Christian gets back to sanding. He and Rory are busily finishing two Willox tables. The radio is on in the background and the buzz of tools punctuates the air. Kati tells me that they recently built storage cupboards in the front area of the workshop using offcuts from other jobs. The cupboards add some structure and design to the voluminous space.
Using offcuts wherever possible and minimising environmental impact is important to Mast. They’ve recently designed and started producing their new Lo Side Tables using smaller pieces of offcut timber for the table tops. The Lo Side Table is also intended to diversify their range offering a practical, multi-purpose piece at a lower price point than their larger items. A lot of their other timber offcuts they donate to Men’s Sheds in Noosa who collect them every couple of months. As well as this, Mast work only with FSC certified timbers including Tassie Oak, American Oak, American Ash and American Walnut. “Wood is a great medium to work with; the look, the smell, the feel,” says Christian. “It’s the antithesis of a monotonous material. Each piece is different and has its own characteristics. It’s a living material which keeps things interesting and challenging. You can saw a board down the middle and watch the board warp right in front of your eyes with the release of tension.” Rory laughs: "It can be a pain in the arse for the exact same reasons though!"
I get chatting with Rory and quiz him about his (predominantly) self-taught skills. “When I get interested in something I just get obsessed with it,” he explains. “There’s so much information online now, whether it’s put out by an old woodworker from his garage workshop who’s been doing it his whole life, or whatever… I approach furniture making more from a design perspective. My interest in learning how to make things grew out of the desire to be producing something I’d designed, rather than just wanting to make something."
"I approach furniture making more from a design perspective."
2017 was a busy year for Mast with lots of custom work ticking over – “a little too much” according to Kati. “It was stressful. Making and selling everything leaves little time for much else, which means we are very time poor on the design front. There are different challenges at every stage of this business and some have tested us more than others. I jokingly refer to all mistakes as ‘learning experiences’, because as time goes on we all see that mistakes are where the growth comes from – it’s just as important to work out what you shouldn’t be focusing on as to learn what you should.”
"As time goes on we all see that mistakes are where the growth comes from."
The challenges of the journey so far have resulted in a clearer vision for the future, with a fresh focus on purposefully growing the Mast range. “Over the last couple of years we’ve learnt that we don’t want to take on projects from a purely economic point of view,” says Rory. “Our experience has emphasised to us that we need to focus on growing our range of furniture. We’re starting to work with some other Australian designers to help us do this, which I find really exciting.”
One of these designers is Tom Fereday who Rory recently engaged to design a dining table and bench seat. The process is collaborative – Tom provides designs, Mast create prototypes, Rory and Tom critique the prototypes, iron out issues and make again, until a design is final. “I love designing things myself, but I also really love seeing what other people design. And I think doing a mixture of both is a healthy way for us to grow and engage with a wider audience,” Rory explains.
Rory tells me his own design process involves a lot of thinking, for days or weeks, until he can’t move forward any further without sketching ideas and then drawing them on a computer. Interestingly, he notes ‘knowing the purpose for creating the product in the first place’ as the biggest design challenge: “Without a specific goal of what you are trying to create and the reason for it, it’s hard to know if the design is good. I like to have an end goal to work towards. It could be something as simple as ‘a barstool with back rest for commercial use’ – it really helps.”
“Without a specific goal of what you are trying to create and the reason for it, it’s hard to know if the design is good.”
When Mindi and I visit there are two Willox tables in the finishing area. Observing Rory and Christian at work, there’s an ease with which they go about their tasks – an air of productive teamwork. Sometimes they’ll work together, such as when they need to join the components of a table, and other times they’ll work separately, such as prepping wood in the thicknesser and planer, or spraying parts in the spray booth.
Starting out doing everything by hand, Mast have introduced machinery over time to make processes more efficient and the business viable. Their biggest investment is their CNC machine. Put simply, this is like a large computer that reads digital data to do particular tasks such as cut shapes in the wood for them. It’s been a game-changer and they all speak of the CNC fondly! That said, Rory and Christian still find their hand tools, particularly the planes, are very important and they’re involved in the making and finishing of most pieces. When I ask about them, I’m lead over to three storage drawers and voila – the saws, chisels, handplanes and more, appear neatly laid out before me. “Hand tools give you a great foundational knowledge as they teach you how to read wood really well – you need to know the grain direction of the timber so you don’t tear it up. All that translates across to machinery as well,” explains Rory. “Whenever I get the opportunity to use handtools it just kinda slows everything down a little bit and takes a bit of noise out of the workshop. That’s definitely enjoyable!”
Until now, Kati has been a regular presence in the workshop. Her tasks have been a “mixed bag” ranging from quoting on jobs, and working on the marketing of Mast, to applying for business support, running errands for the boys, and keeping an eye on cashflow and finances. With the opening of the new showroom, things are shifting.
“I think working from the showroom every day will give me a stronger focus.”
“For me, there’s a been a lot of jumping around from task to task,” Kati explains, “I’ve always got so many little projects on the go. So, I think working from the showroom every day will give me a stronger focus. Obviously I’ll still be doing emails and all of that from this space instead, but running less errands for the boys!”
Online has served them well, and the Mast team have worked hard to develop a cut-through brand with a strong visual presence. That said, they all feel the time is right to take the next step of having their furniture in a physical space that represents them - a Mast "home". The new showroom is located in inner Brisbane’s vibrant West End, in a building designed by Vokes + Peters. “The interior is basically a big blank canvas for us to work with. It’s a polished space that maintains the industrial feel of the original building with high ceilings and exposed steel trusses…We’ll be rotating a selection of pieces from our range, starting mostly with our hero pieces. If people have an interest in furniture, they can come and enjoy a casual viewing with no strings attached. That’s what the showroom offers,” Kati explains.
“Through our travels over the years we have fallen in love with makers from all over the world.”
While the showroom will offer the joyous experience of actually lying on a real Title Bed (I know I'm not the only one coveting these beds!), it will also stock a select range of homewares. “Through our travels over the years we have fallen in love with makers from all over the world. When we started planning the space, we immediately got in contact with several of these brands. Luckily for us, they’ve all come on board.”
"Having a space to host our customers in will be amazing!"
"Everything about opening the showroom is exciting... Having a space to host our customers in will be amazing! I think in the past when people came to the workshop to view our furniture they felt like they had to commit – it can feel quite intimidating and I don’t want people to feel that pressure,” says Kati. On that note, if you're in West End, pop in and check out the showroom; Kati will be pleased to see you. “We've tried to create a space that's minimal but interesting...It almost feels like we’re starting a whole new business, sort of like we’ve graduated to the next level in our industry and added a whole new facet to our brand!”