Text: Gillian Serisier
The brain-child of brothers Kris and Kim Torma, Axolotl, or as it was known then, Axolotl Metal Finishes, has come a long way since it first started transforming surfaces with lustrous layers of semi precious metal in 1995.
Now in its 21st year Axolotl has burgeoned into an international practice with factories operating in the UK, China, Hong Kong, and India. Closer to home a 1,100sqm factory and showroom provides the company headquarters in Matraville Sydney.
Interestingly, though a robust program of research and development went into Axolotl before they started their business, neither saw it as their primary career path. (Kris was a highly regarded and successful art director working in film and television while Kim was equally well regarded in his field of horticulture, while not hand building a mud-brick adobe house in Broke).
“The launch of Axolotl itself ended up being a pivotal moment in our business lives. It began almost as an experiment and we thought it would just be part time alongside our existing careers. However the reaction received for our metals was quite phenomenal and ultimately, we had to make the choice between pursuing separate careers or pursuing Axolotl” says Kris. But then they are no normal dabblers; rather, they are possibly the most driven and innovative pair working with surface technology today. And it is this aspect that has seen them steadily expand their offering from the original metal finishes, to concrete, glass and a soon to be launched paint range.
What makes them exceptional is a rare combination of a curious mind, excellent business sense and fearless experimentation: “Each product since inception has centred around using common materials and manufacturing processes in ways that really push the limits and haven’t been seen before. Our business is based on experimentation and not every venture eventuates – but the successes are truly bespoke” says Kris.
This coupled with an inherent ability to design, manifests as a unique formula of layered expertise. Where most would conquer a material simply by creating it, Axolotl see this as the starting point for evolution and innovation. The fact that they have the ability to work artistically with their own materials works in two ways, in that they are able to show application possibilities immediately, while having the requisite skills to deliver their client’s vision. Take their glass range for example, which they started manufacturing in 2005. “Glass was a key turning point for the business and seemed a natural progression of the Axolotl offer. Working with two materials gave us the opportunity to target the same clientele with a broader scope of materials and infinitely more design possibilities” says Kris. Not resting on their laurels, Axolotl have spent the intervening years innovating and developing glass processes that are recognised as unique in the world. In 2012, for example Axolotl Concrete and LINK were voted ‘Material of Excellence’ and selected for inclusion into the material archive by New York’s prestigious ‘Material ConneXion Resource Library’. And while each of their products is consistently recognised with awards, their most recent accolades include the 2015 ADEX Awards Platinum Award for Design Excellence’ for Axolotl Concrete and ‘Gold Award For Design Excellence’ for Axolotl Terracotta.
Key to the success of the product is the small amount of material needed to create a surface. Axolotl Concrete for example, as a surface finish uses 1.5% of the raw materials needed for a square meter of solid concrete (they are currently creating concrete blocks for a luxury yacht interior!). Metal finishes also use far less material and have the additional bonus of being 100% recycled. As such, while art projects have always been part of the Axolotl portfolio, it was not until they were invited to tender for a 520sqm feature wall for Hong Kong Airport in 2013 that they recognised both their talent and expertise to create and manage large-scale public art projects. Required to present a 6 x 6m section of art wall in Hong Kong as part of a competitive pitch against two other designs, the project used custom designed Axolotl glass and their inaugural use of computer synchronised lighting. “Whilst it was disappointing that we didn’t win, as the art piece was truly beautiful, it gave us the impetus to start Axolotl Art Projects. AAP now accounts for a large proportion of our work and really complements our core business” says Kris adding that the piece they created for artist Don Salisbury was recently awarded the 2015 Luminaire Design Award of Excellence for Light Sculpture and Installation.
At 20 plus years they could be forgiven a rest, but in true Axolotl form the showroom is brimming with new ideas and challenges to the way they use materials. Furniture, ceramics, art works, a motor cycle restoration, paint, concrete, glass and terracotta sit and merge with the original metal finishes in myriad incarnations, which, if the Tormas can find a way to do it (ie if it’s at all possible), will include paper by the end of the year. They are in fact an amazing Australian design manufacturing story and truly deserve all accolades.