Big down under

SIX years ago Mark Landini took the decision to leave Britain for good. London lost its wild boy champion of design to the Sydney scene, but now he could be about to make a comeback.

Half Italian and born in England, Landini was educated at public school in Bath. He was to enjoy a distinguished career at the side of heavyweights like Rodney Fitch and Terence Conran, cultivating a maverick public image somewhat in reaction to his success.

Once he was to be seen clutching a British Design and Art Direction award while practising a tabletop trot through the middle of the awards ceremony. His design work – simple, clean and modern – was celebrated.

By 1990, having held the top design slots at both the then Fitch RS and Conran Design Group, and turning down a record deal for his 12-piece jazz group The Polo Club (Landini was the singer), there was seemingly no end to what his talent and sheer bloody-mindedness could achieve.

Inevitably, something had to give. In acrimonious circumstances, Landini took off. Sydney was to become home, from where Landini Associates began to make waves seldom watched from the northern hemisphere.

The trip was not planned, but the result of seeds sown during a weekend break from Japan where he was on assignment. From humble beginnings his retail and brand consultancy has now grown to over 20 employees, mostly British, many on leave from the likes of Design Bridge and Fitch. He is also quick to put in a plug for more backpackers to grace his business.

His extensive client list includes multinationals like Shell, Mobil, Volvo, Fox Studios, Qantas, Toyota and Liquorland (sister to Thresher).

Now he plans to set up a mini London studio for Landini Associates, on the strength of potential work with his international clients and old comrades like Habitat’s new design head, Tom Dixon. This will serve as the platform for the Australian studio to run UK projects, although Landini is cautious about trying to grow too quickly. “I will never forget what Terence Conran once said – turnover is vanity, profit is sanity,” he explains. He is already in close discussion with a number of important UK food and drink firms which seem suitably impressed by his Australian portfolio.

Simon Needham of The Attik set up in Sydney this year. He says that although Landini Associates does not like to be pigeon-holed as a retail design group, this seems to be its strength. The Conran influence is clearly seen throughout Landini’s work.

“Two of Landini’s most notable projects that I am aware of, are The Volvo Gallery in the Central Business District – blonde wood floor, minimalist, white walls, chrome, glass – it has quickly become the chic venue for launches and parties. The only drawback is the location as it is quite odd, but I guess Landini had nothing to do with this,” says Needham.

“The second is Vintage Cellars – upmarket off-licences with wine and associated products making up 90 per cent of its stock. We have spoken to the guy who briefed Mark and, basically, within seven days Landini came back with the total concept from the naming and interior design to devising a loyalty scheme for customers.

“We believe that his reputation was built on the design and success of this brand. Vintage Cellars is a real departure for the parent company, Liquorland, which is a totally unpretentious drive-through liquor store.”

Needham continues: “Mark Landini has been quoted as saying his intention is to bring modern London to Sydney. He has certainly made a mark on the Sydney scene with safe, tasteful and modern design, but not revolutionary.”

How does Landini see Australia compared to modern day London?

“The industry is small and not so competitive. I have always felt that in England it has been fairly competitive. I don’t know if it is a true reflection of what is going on over there, but I genuinely don’t really care what anyone is doing.

“I don’t think you have to play the game here. I was relatively young and I had a fairly high profile so the game is almost forced on me. In Sydney people are more interested in your work than they are in your personality or the politics of the situation,” he says.

A self-confessed control fiend, no work leaves the Sydney office without Landini’s close scrutiny and nod of approval. He has suffered from delegating responsibility in the past – he received little credit for his extensive input into the Foundation restaurant project at Harvey Nichols, for example – so now he runs the show.

On arrival in London earlier this month, Landini says he was astonished by the sudden appearance of our coffee shop chains. But he has been working on a few culinary projects himself. Let’s Eat, which is four months old, sells “home meal replacement” food (high-end ready-meals), and is rolling out in Melbourne.

“There is more of a sense of an evolutionary aspect to design in Australia, whereas in the UK a lot of people seem to be preoccupied with the latest trend. I was always asked ‘what are you going to do next?’ There is a tremendous pressure put on you to perform,” says Landini.

“I see myself now as someone who is better able to do the things I have always wanted to do. Australia is the place which has given me the opportunity to do the modern design that I always wanted to do in the UK – clean and simple design.”

Australian life is not a bed of roses though and Landini will always harbour fondness and even some envy of the great work he says UK designers are getting. He has no regrets, but perhaps making a reappearance in the UK is understandable.

It also makes great business sense: Landini says his overheads in Australia are so low compared to London he could discount UK projects by as much as 50 per cent and still co-ordinate them from overseas. Even so he claims to pay his designers the same rates as they get back home.

He has also gained more freedom to explore architectural opportunities, having designed a petrol station, and is designing his own home.

“As a designer I have always tried to challenge preconceived ideas about how you do things conventionally and a house was always an interesting proposition. It has taken three years to plan,” he says.

The wunderkind has grown up and could be set to give London a taste of Sydney. The British design industry might ordinarily laugh at the prospect of the Aussies showing us a thing or two, except it knows just what Mark Landini is capable of.

Opportunities in Australia

On a trip to Sydney earlier this year, Richard Watson of client advisory agency GDR visited Mark Landini at his offices above those of Interbrand Pacific. When he first called Landini, Watson says it sounded as if Mark was working from home sipping a cocktail.

‘The big thing out there is the lifestyle. Half the designers roll up to work at half past nine after surfing on Bondi beach. I don’t think they quite have the sweat shops we do back here,’ says Watson.

Watson sees opportunities for Landini and other ex-UK designers in the international markets alongside the Australian mainland base, from West coast US to Hong Kong, Singapore and along the Pacific rim.

‘The Australian economy is booming when every one said it would be going downhill. Landini is beautifully positioned for when Asia picks it back up from recession,’ he says.

Watson also draws attention to the benefits currently afforded by the international rate of exchange – the cost of living is much lower, and operating costs and salaries are greatly reduced. He admires what he says are the few designers who decide to travel.

Watson reflects that while London was once the centre of things, now at least in packaging, print and multimedia this is no longer completely true. Retail design and corporate identity is still the pride of the US and UK, but Australia, with the help of Landini and others is having ideas of its own. Watson sees the wild bright style of the beaches coming through into Australian graphics, and anything they are doing with food should be watched closely.

The UK Years

1989: divisional director of Fitch RS (head of Fitch design team)

1990: joined arch rival Conran Design Group as creative director to oversee seven new divisions

1990: made CDG joint managing director after the group’s takeover by French conglomerate RSCG

1992: Landini reported to have been given a vote of no confidence from the new CDG board

1993: left RSCG to set up Landini Associates in Australia

1995: opening of Foundation in Harvey Nichols

1999: plans to set up a UK studio

The Australia Years

Landini Associates in North Sydney has handled a number of principally retail and brand consultancy projects:

Wine Cellar – off-licences owned by Liquorland, sister chain to Thresher

Mambo – the surfwear chain working on an international look

Awaba РSydney caf̩ on Balmoral beach voted one of five must-see venues by Wallpaper

Shell – identity and architectural work for one of its sub-brands

Volvo – the hugely successful Volvo Gallery used for product launches and fashion shows as well as art exhibitions

Fuel Рdelicatessen and caf̩ concept fronting a Lamborghini and Land Rover showroom

Fox Studios Рa 450-seat caf̩ space inside the film studio

Willis – an independent chain of fashion outlets

West Park Beach – re-establish its identity

David Jones – retail project for the department store

Brambles – corporate identity project

RE – brand concept to sell products related to regeneration

Phat Boys – a Thai restaurant located in the hip eastern suburbs

Let’s Eat – home meal replacement food outlet currently only in Melbourne

Miscellaneous clients

Mobil, Qantas, Toyota, Chinatown restaurants, Shack, Flower shops, Federal Air Authority

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