Designer Talks · AARK Collective (Draft)
AÃRK Collective is an Australian watch brand that exceeds at combining an original contemporary beauty and functionality into timepieces that are designed to be worn and appreciated daily, but also to look fantastic with whatever you wear them with. AÃRK watches will always be a talking point of any outfit.
Unlike a lot of watch brands AÃRK don't use stock parts, every component is custom-designed by the team entirely in-house. Everything about AÃRK is thoughtfully designed with every detail carefully scrutinised by the team from their Melbourne studio, from the details of a crown to the impeccable packaging.
In just a few years AÃRK have grown to become stalwarts of the Australian design scene, and their collection of iconic timepieces continues to grow with the recent release of their Multi and Prism series (in store now). As long time fans and stockists, we went behind the scenes to get to know a little more about the foursome, and how hard it is to bring a watch collection to market, and excel in doing so.
Cedric, Sara, Celia and Karla run AÃRK Collective from their studio in Melbourne, Australia.
Photos by John Tan.
AÃRK Collective, Melbourne, Victoria.
Who's involved with AÃRK? How did you initially come together to create your brand? What were you each doing at the time, where were you living/working?
AÃRK was founded by friends; Cedric Austria and Sara Su. Cedric' s partner Karla Magayanes and Sara's partner Celica Austria grew to become invaluable members of the ‘Collective’. Cedric and Celica are also siblings, so in terms of the team formation, it was a seamless and easy starting point. The concept for the business centred around our desire to; a) create objects that we connect with and; b) connect with likeminded people through these objects. It was never our intention to explicitly start a watch brand – the idea of developing our own range of timepieces evolved organically and slowly through a series of conversations about why certain objects pull on people's heartstrings.
There was something about watches that intrigued us. Timepieces serve a functional purpose but at the same time they are also a form of adornment so they serve an aesthetic purpose too. As an object, we knew that this was something we could put our twist on and have fun with.
Cedric is our Creative Director at AÃRK. His educational background is in Multimedia Design and as his title suggests, he’s in charge of all creative from branding to product design. He also concurrently works as a Senior Art Director at a Silicon Valley start up. Sara has an Entrepreneurship degree which helps drive his role at AÃRK as Company Director – he handles all major operations from sales to manufacturing. Celica worked as an Account Manager at a few creative agencies before jumping on board as our Marketing Manager, and Karla brings over 10-years of fashion retail experience to the table.
It was never our intention to explicitly start a watch brand – the idea of developing our own range of timepieces evolved organically and slowly through a series of conversations about why certain objects pull on people's heartstrings.
What’s the meaning of the name AÃRK?
AÃRK is an acronym deriving from our names; Auver (Cedric’s first name), Aura (Celica’s first name), Ra (Sara’s nickname) and Karla. When choosing this name, we also liked that AÃRK (or arc) is a reference to shape and form as this is a common thread in everything that we do.
The addition of the tilde on Ã represents our quirks as a brand.
So why did you decide to make watches?
When we first conceived the idea, there weren’t many Melbourne-based watch brands around at the time. We were drawn to watches because we identified that although we were not typical watch enthusiasts, we had a design opinion which we felt was worth expressing. Our unconventional way of thinking and approach to timepiece design is what has allowed us to come from a fresh perspective in the industry.
How would you describe AÃRK as an organisation/design-brand? What’s your mission?
Our mission is to make beautiful objects for people who have an eye for beautiful things. At the heart of everything that we do is an appreciation for great design across all art-forms and disciplines. People that identify with our brand do so because they share this appreciation. We choose to speak to a visually-driven audience so it’s very important for us to maintain high standards and push ourselves creatively in everything that we do.
Our mission is to make beautiful objects for people who have an eye for beautiful things.
What was the biggest risk you took?
Ironically, we believe the biggest risk we took when taking on this venture was time. It took a long time to develop our ideas into tangible objects, so we invested a lot of hours into getting this off the ground. What you do with your time is important as you can never have that time back and there’s an opportunity cost that comes with this. Second to this of course there’s the financial risk, but with the right planning we see this as calculated risk.
To that end, how did you put together the funding to get started in the beginning? Was it bootstrapped, self-funded or outside funded/backed in some way?
The business was self-funded from savings from Sara’s previous ventures. When we launched AÃRK, we were all living at home with our parents (thanks folks!) so our day-today spending was minimal and were able to keep funds aside for the business. Given the partners’ roles we had the skill sets to start the business without commissioning too much work to third parties. We leveraged off our networks of friends with specific skills such as web development and CAD-modelling to help bring the start-up cost down.
At what point did you know AÃRK was a business? How did you know? What was the founding moment?
Shortly after launching the business, we committed to a second production run. This came sooner than we expected and was definitely a pivotal moment for us as we knew we had created something that connected with people—which was our main objective from the very beginning—so it was validation that our efforts had paid off.
Do you aim for, or are you conscious of, an overarching style or common aesthetic of the AÃRK product range? Is it important each design is identifiable as an AARK design?
We want to be unique in our approach and thinking, acting on our instincts alone. It’s always our goal to inject our character into everything we do so that people notice something distinct about our work. Although it's never marked on our products, we hope that AÃRK's brand is expressed across our collections, and in each watch's personality, originality and refined detail. We have noticed other watch brands taking existing moulds and simply rebranding an off-the-shelf product. The difference with us is, we start backwards and work from the movement out, ensuring that every component of an AÃRK timepiece is custom-designed.
Tell me about your decision to not have numbers on the dials of your watches, only subtle markings?
Numbers is not something we’re against nor deliberately avoiding, in fact it is something we would like to explore in the future. It has just so happened that our design expressions to date have been graphic/abstract executions and have not included numbers. Our first range was guided simply by our own ideas of what we wanted to see in a timepiece and what we ourselves would like to wear.
There was something about watches that intrigued us.
Since launching, we have stayed true to our own design instincts but we are mindful of which models have done well for us, so in turn this has influenced our design decisions, whether conscious or subconscious.
The art direction on your website, the photography and packaging are phenomenal - did you do it all in-house? Someone is obviously uber talented in that area!
Most of our art direction and photography is done in-house. We do use some outside help to achieve some of the trickier product shots, but for the most part we do it all ourselves and work very closely with anyone that helps us out.
Prior to his current position, Cedric worked in animation for over 10-years where he developed his experience with live action and photography. You can see this influence in some of our campaign imagery with its surrealist qualities. Our overall aesthetic is geometric and clean. The word “minimalist” gets thrown around a lot, but for us we try to focus on the concept first and foremost and let this drive the imagery and packaging instead of doing something to retrofit a desired style.
We strive to inject a certain amount of quirkiness into our work and try different approaches to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. We love to interpret and experiment with the presentation of our watches to draw out each of their personalities in our campaigns, and make sure that there is a relationship with the product and each execution. This is also a great opportunity to take a step back and be mindful of the consistency with the actual brand and ways which we can position each watch within it.
Could you describe your work process, (collectively or individually)? In what way does design play a role in your processes?
It starts with plenty of sketches and quick mockups to see how we can push the next range to stand apart from our previous range. From there, we determine which ideas have the potential to go through to the next round of refinement and which ideas deserve further exploration. This is quite a lengthy process as there are so many variations and directions we can take with each design. We take the time to explore all corners of an idea even if they lead to dead ends. This then brings us to deciding on materials and finishes, and really analysing the range as a whole which can result in going back and repeating steps until we (as a collective) feel that it’s right. For us it’s all about new ideas and refinement, refinement, refinement.
Your studio/warehouse is beautiful. How important to you is environment in the creative process and business operations? What aspects of the space were deliberate design decisions?
Thank you! Creating an environment that reflects us as a brand and is conducive to productivity was very important to us. We share the space with other creatives, whom are also our friends so it feels like our second home which is a nice feeling. It helps that we all share similar design tastes as we have each contributed to making the space feel like home.
One of our biggest considerations for our studio was storage. We wanted to ensure that we had ample space to keep our inventory in a way that was accessible and easily managed, hence the floor to ceiling cabinetry. Another consideration for us was our packing station for dispatching online and wholesale orders. We designed and built a roving packing table with wheels to allow for easy processing and movement.
Briefly, can you sum-up the design and production process of an AÃRK watch?
It starts off with sourcing the best materials and partnering with only the most experienced manufacturing partners. At the heart of each AÃRK timepiece lies a precision Japanese Quartz or Swiss Quartz movement. Every part encasing this movement is custom made through the aid of specialised trade companies within the watch game; our leather straps are sourced from Italy, the playful colours seen in our collections are made with a painfully pantone-matched acetate or polyurethane plastic and the 316L Aircraft-grade stainless steel components are CNC cut for precision. Once each part is formed, careful assembly takes place in our Shenzhen factory (neighbouring HK) by skilled technicians with at least 10 years of experience. The finishing process involves water resistant testing and QC before the final product is shipped to different parts of the world.
How long did it take to bring the recent Daniel.Emma collaboration MULTI series watches to market? What was the design process like from conception to it arriving on Compendium’s shelves?
Like most discoveries these days, we first came across the works of design studio Daniel.Emma online and immediately connected with their story and aesthetic. They expressed a mutual admiration for our work and after a few online conversations we decided to meet in person. Everything ensued from there.
The Marble watch was our first collaborative effort with Daniel.Emma. From this, we formed a genuine friendship as we related on both a professional and personal level. The decision to do a second collaboration series was an easy one and the development was effortless and relatively quick (3 months concept work, 6 months manufacturing).
The way in which we work together is quite relaxed – there’s a comfort that comes with working alongside creatives you trust. Being based in different states means the completion of these kinds of projects involves a lot of phone calls between the two teams as a lot can get lost in translation via email. While we don’t have a lot of structure to the way that we work together, we’ve established a rhythm of teamwork that encourages open communication and is adaptable to overcome the varying challenges that come hand-in-hand with collaborative design.
Do you ever feel any restraints being a product design company located in Australia, or what's the most challenging part of making the business side and the creative side work?
The biggest challenge in making the business side and the creative side work is taking designs from concept stage to production ready. We normally have a good understanding of the required balance of components in each model before we take them into CAD (computer-aided design), but there are always limitations in movement restrictions, height clearances and weight distribution of parts which can sometimes throw us off track. Some ideas we have our hearts set on are not feasible to manufacture due to constraints or production costs and we can easily become attached to new concepts at times, so it’s not easy to have to make changes due to technical restrictions, especially if it alters the aesthetics of the model.
The Australian design scene perhaps doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves, but nonetheless there is a strong community of people out here who appreciate exceptional design and have the wits and problem solving skills required to run a successful product design company. We don’t see being based in Australia as a disadvantage as most of our communication is done online and we are willing to travel for anything that requires a face-to-face meeting.
What experience would you say most influences your company?
Art and design play a major role in influencing ideas and provoking new thought, which in turn shapes our brand direction and aesthetic. Although we are each drawn to different facets of this field, our individual experiences and interactions with what inspires us is what we each contribute to the ‘Collective’ to help drive the business forward. That’s why this dynamic has been so great – we bounce off each other. If all four of us are aligned in our vision and we all have the confidence to move forward with a decision, that’s good enough reason for us.
How important is it to you to have your products presented in a brick and mortar store and not solely online?
As consumers ourselves, we know that the abundance of online information can be overwhelming at times. As a brand, we understand that in addition to our online presence it is very important to have a physical presence in brick and mortar stores. There is a different emotional attachment when you can touch, feel and interact with a tangible object so this is where working with retailers you trust becomes crucial. With Compendium Design Store for example – we see your store as an outlet for the design community. You have a great understanding of design products and an appreciation for the story behind these products, so we can be confident that our brand is being represented fittingly in store and we’re very grateful to be partnered with such a retailer.
What would be a tip you'd give to someone that's wanting to start out their own product design and manufacturing business?
Ask yourself the right questions and don’t bullshit yourself. Know your market, know your opportunity, be cautious and have patience.
The biggest lesson we’ve learnt in business is that people fool themselves by telling themselves what that they want to hear instead of the hard truths. If you think you have a good idea, scrutinise your idea from every angle and if your idea passes this test, pursue it and be relentless in your pursuit. Business is always going to be challenging so as long as you have a comprehensive and strategic plan, have faith and confidence in your idea to get through the lows in order to experience the highs.
When we first started out, we knew nothing about the watch industry. Since then, the years we have taken to learn the watch game is one of our biggest assets. We are going to continue to push the envelope with our timepiece designs and continue to grow the business in a way that feels right to us. We don’t see ourselves expanding into new categories any time soon, however we are constantly evolving and maturing individually and collectively, so we’re always open to new ideas.