The Distillery is a design and specialty production studio, all about the idea of heritage soul with modern minds.
A full-service branding and design studio, their team take pride in bringing creative works into the world with the own hands, employing old fashioned techniques including letterpress printing, sign painting, neon lighting and wood working.
Featuring a large on-street-frontage, The Distillery's Darlinghurst studio is open to the public, and regularly plays host to creative speakers, bands and musicians through Live at The Distillery and Creative Mornings. The studio takes pride in giving back to the community, and also coordinate charity fundraisers, workshops, creative classes and community events.
Interview with The Distillery's founder, Nathan Leong
Tell us how you started the studio. Was it hard?
I missed out on studying Visual Communication at uni by 0.5 UAI, and over the years self-taught myself design while forging a corporate career in consulting. It was a great way to learn about how design fits in the commercial world
After starting a yearbook publisher Rockstar Memoirs, I wanted to launch a broader design studio that specialised in building brands and creating design that exists in the real world. Meantime on YouTube, letterpress printing caught my attention and I became fascinated by the process.
One day I decided to find out more and enrolled in a letterpress course (...actually through an Australian InFront forum. A few weeks later, I took the plunge a bought a 1.5T Heidelberg press at an auction, and put it my parents' garage promising it would be there for 2 weeks max... 2 months later my mum wasn't talking to me, so that meant I had to get a lease to move the press into. Once you have a lease, you have to pay rent, which means you have to make it work financially. In terms of learning the craft, I was lucky enough to have contact with the former TAFE head teacher of letterpress printing, and had a few lessons with him... And I guess they say the rest is history?
In hindsight it wasn't that difficult. I'm not the first to do this, and hopefully not the last. While it's not for everyone, you just have to be focussed, and healthily obsessed in achieving your goals.
How have you grown since starting?
We've grown in 3 ways: our team, our practices, and community.
The thing I wouldn't swap for anything in the world are the amazing people who work here. It's as much a creative lifestyle as it is a job. I used to work with Jessica Foy, and she became The Distillery's first employee. The amazing work she did in developing our brand, logo and design pieces is hugely responsible for our successful launch in 2011. Our team today numbers 17 consultants, designers, videographers, developers, printmakers and operations staff. I'm proud that we've offered 18 of 19 interns we've ever taken in, permanent employment opportunities.
The practices of our studio have changed dramatically. In the early days we only letterpress printed for other people. These days our branding and specialty design practice accounts almost half our work. Recently we've launched our own collection of creative merchandise titled Frontiers. We've also recently expanded into South East Asia, with an aim to bring Australian design to the forefront of the massive market of 610M people.
What feels best though is being able to contribute to the Sydney's creative and greater community. We love hosting creative talks, live music and exhibitions, and proud to run our Academy, teaching sign painting and letterpress printmaking. In late 2012 we raised over $20,000 for the Starlight Children's Foundation with our event Suburban Legends.
With so much going on, how do you avoid stretching too thin?
Hmm.. it's tricky. I think that people naturally like variety in their roles - and we try to build that into daily responsibilities. It has been tricky, but we've been quite successful in cross-skilling team members. Many of our printmakers and consultants are also designers, and our ultimate goal is to have everyone in the company capable of letterpress printing.
A lot of your projects require prototyping. How is your team set up for such tasks?
We strongly believe that the best design outcomes begin, and are best experienced outside of a screen. Design doesn't end when you save the PSD front-end, or export that PDF. We're lucky to have created an environment where we can experience first-hand taking an idea from early sketches, right through to real life production. With our new laser cutter, we're becoming more experienced in object design, which helps us understand the iterative approach to design and development.
Tell us about your space
In Sydney, we're on Crown Street, Darlinghurst next to the City Gym. We have three massive on-street windows where we feature our creative collections and pieces. Up the front we feature 6 letterpress printing presses, and members of the public often walk in wondering what we do, and browse our merchandise store. Our desks are located up the back where we mix client consultants alongside designers. We've also renovated our downstairs garage which backs onto Crown Lane, featuring Love Tilly Devine and Red Lily small bars. Later this year in our garage we're opening up printmaking and gallery studio space for designers and artists, and our own printing themed small bar.
What advice can you offer others looking to start their own passion project?
As long as you can pay the bills, happiness should be your only true currency. YOLO is key - you gotta step into extended overdrive to make your dreams come true. Success really doesn't happen working 9 to 5. Those who tend to succeed, back up their passion with smart, hard work. Too often people complain about a poor work-life balance, and they have a legit point. If you can happily make your work, your life, you won't have a problem. If you only want to work 40 hours - and take it easy every day - go work for the government. Make your life your own. As creative people we can take the reigns of our passions. Finally, don't question whether or not your passion project will happen. It will happen - and you know it. You do.