I founded Koskela with my partner (now husband) Russel Koskela. In 2000 we were both working for big corporations with promising careers ahead, but shared a vision to create an ethical design company. So with not much to lose and $10,000 in our pocket, we took a leap of faith.
An interior designer by trade, Russel had spotted a gap in the market for contemporary furniture with an Australian aesthetic that could be manufactured locally. I studied law and was working as a business consultant but aspired to create a profitable company with a more conscious outlook. We both recognised there was already more than enough stuff in the world so if we were going to bring more into it, we needed to do so with integrity.
Koskela makes furniture that I think is best described as modern Australian. It has contemporary lines but with a playful twist. It is durable and flexible – the kind of furniture that can adapt with you. Backed by a seven year warranty, we also offer a refurbishment service to reupholster or repair wear and tear beyond that period. We firmly believe in designing timeless furniture that can be treasured and passed down to future generations. We are also committed to manufacturing in Australia.
Staying local was considered a risky move in 2000, a time when industry was moving offshore. It was initially challenging to find Australian manufacturers and when Russel and I did, we often had to push for newer and more environmentally friendly processes. But our hard work has paid off and the business can now rely on a network of established manufacturers who go above and beyond to deliver quality furniture within a much smaller environmental impact as the pieces aren’t being shipped across the globe.
The benefits of this Australian made policy are numerous. Firstly, the workers making our furniture have good conditions and receive fair pay. We also reduce freight miles and our carbon footprint. Plus it’s quicker and easier to implement changes; we are constantly investigating new input materials that are less toxic and better for the environment and roll them into production wherever possible.
In 2009 when the company was firmly established and profitable, I wanted to start developing social enterprise products. I’m acutely aware that opportunities have been plentiful in our own lives, and want to positively contribute to Australia’s Indigenous communities.
After seeking advice from ANKAAA (Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists), I approached Elcho Island Arts, which is an indigenous owned and operated art centre off the north-east coast of the Northern Territory. Working with the Yolngu fibre artists they developed Yuta Badayala, a series of pendant lights which are woven with fibres that have been collected and dyed using locally available flora.
A design product collaboration with Indigenous artists had not been done before and almost a decade later, Yuta Badayala is an ongoing success story. Exhibited at Salone Del Mobile in Milan, a finalist for the Rigg Design Prize 2015, commissioned for Noma, Qantas, Deloitte and many other clients. Demand remains so high that retail customers join a waitlist to purchase one.
The success of Yuta Badayala has led to many other collaborations with Indigenous owned and operated art centres throughout Australia. Koskela now puts aside one percent of profits towards developing social enterprise products. Our goal is to celebrate and promote the incredible talents of Indigenous artists and their ancient culture, while also providing a livelihood independent of Government funding. To date we are incredibly proud to have returned nearly $500,000 in income to the art centres.
This ethical approach to running a business seems to attract customers, and in 2012 we had outgrown our inner-city location. Once again Russel and I saw the opportunity to do something different and open a more holistic interior retail concept store, which had not been attempted in Sydney before. We stumbled upon an untouched 2,000m2 heritage warehouse on the city fringe in Rosebery. To draw crowds we developed multiple attractions – a furniture and homewares store, cafe, art gallery and workshop space – we even convinced the landlord to sacrifice parking space for an edible garden!
The Rosebery store is a space that embodies the values of Koskela. Almost everything is Australian made, many products are social enterprise, and Indigenous art and design are wholeheartedly celebrated. I hope that it’s an inspiring and influential space that encourages anyone who visits to embrace a sustainable mindset.
Behind the scenes the Koskela team continues to work hard on making a difference. It can be challenging because you need to constantly think outside the square – from developing a new product to buying stationary. We buy our a5 ring binders here. Of course we think it’s worth it; our furniture is not destined for landfill and we can sleep better at night knowing we are not laying the planet to waste.
We are also buoyed by milestones such as saving an entire hectare of Daintree Rainforest. By partnering with non-profit organization Rainforest Rescue we have bought back and protected privately owned land at risk of development in Australia’s most ancient, diverse and fragile rainforest ecosystem.
Earlier this year we achieved another major milestone and became the first furniture and homewares company in Australia to become a Certified B Corporation®. This independently verified tick means we meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. But there is always room to improve and we are focusing on increasing our score, especially for environment criteria. For the first time ever we have a sustainability metric to work towards, and are committed to doing the best we can. We figure as global citizens, it’s the least we can do.