At 7 a.m. on a Wednesday in mid-August, 2020, it’s 52° (F). There was snow a couple of days ago. Bars and cinemas are open as usual, and no one’s wearing a mask.
If this picture strikes you as something out of a parallel universe, that’s because it is. I’m on the phone with Laura McCusker, who’s bundled up in a sweater, relaxing at the end of her day in Hobart, Tasmania, which she calls “an island, off an island, at the bottom of the planet.”
“Tasmania is a good place to be riding this out,” she says, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are an island state. The borders were locked down early; there have been no active cases for two months.”
The more you learn about Laura and her life, the lovelier this picture becomes. Laura and her husband, Pete Howard, live in West Hobart, a five-minute walk from the center of town. Their three-bedroom house sits on a hill overlooking the river, with fruit trees, a dog and chickens in the backyard. A bush reserve down the street is home to wallabies, possums and pademelons.
Laura’s workshop, in the suburb of Moonah, Tasmania (an indigenous name for a type of eucalyptus, or gum tree), is a 17-minute ride away on her electric bike. The building was constructed as an apple-packing shed circa 1911. Layers of brick with sawdust insulation between them keep the temperature stable and the shop noise down. Add a timber ceiling, picture the place set by a babbling brook, and you’ll get why Laura calls it “completely idyllic. When we came here from Sydney, I couldn’t believe there could be such pretty industrial buildings so close to town.” Tasmania has a lot of Georgian buildings, she goes on; because the economy was depressed for many years, the buildings escaped the razing that most of us know as “development.” As a result, “a lot of old towns look like they’re straight out of Jane Austen.”
Laura’s background is more cosmopolitan than her charmed domestic and work situation these days might suggest. The second of four children (her brother, Jim, is two years older; sister, Anna-Lucia, 2-1/2 years younger; and the baby of the family, Daniel, is 8 years younger), she was born to a Brazilian mother, Lucia, and her father, Charlie, is from Northern Ireland via Glasgow and Adelaide. Both parents are doctors (Lucia, now retired, is a specialist in chronic pain management and palliative care, and Charlie’s an OB-GYN) who met as students at The Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Mass., did their residencies in Glasgow, then returned to Australia.
Laura went to an all-girls high school in Sydney where classes beyond strict academics were limited to home economics or textiles and design. She had no idea that there were people who made furniture for a living. She understood that her future would involve university, followed by a profession.
But in the pause between high school and college, Laura planned to travel. Shortly after she took her final exams at the age of 18, she flew to London. Two days later, she’d slept off the jet lag and headed over to a pub for something to eat. “The guy behind the bar said ‘Oh, you’re from Australia. Are you looking for work?’” He mentioned that a pub around the corner was hiring. She checked it out. “Does the job come with accommodation?” she asked. It didn’t, but the manager said she could sleep on the pull-out sofa in his flat upstairs. Pete was the manager’s flat mate. “I met Pete on the third day I was in London, and that was 27 years ago,” she says, laughing.
They stayed in London for about 18 months, with a trip around the Greek islands along the way. After a while, Laura switched from selling drinks to selling medicinal herbs for Culpepers in Covent Garden. Then, in 1994, it was time to go home and enroll at Sydney University.
Pete followed six weeks later. While she was in classes, he was employed – first at a butcher’s shop, then at a bakery. He forewent candlestick making in favor of management; two notable jobs were preparing for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and working for Opera Australia.
Laura started a degree in fine arts, but left because “it wasn’t hands-on enough.” She took classes in medieval history, classical mythology and social anthropology, then heard that students in an architecture class were building tables. She signed up for the course. But when she heard it was going to cover concrete stress fracture points and building regulations, she says, she “ran screaming from the room,” thinking “there must be an easier way to learn how to build a table.”
Shortly after, she entered a training apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker through Lidcombe TAFE, a vocational school in New South Wales, where she began what would result in a Certificate III in Cabinetmaking.
It was the late-1990s, when a lot of manufacturing was moving to China; that made it hard to find a position as an apprentice. She hired on at a business that made high-end furniture out of particleboard with architectural veneers for offices and law libraries. While it was valuable experience, it wasn’t what she really wanted to do. “It wasn’t solid timber, and it wasn’t fine woodworking,” she says, “but it was a fantastic training in how to be efficient in the workshop and get the job done.” So after a couple of years she went back to school, this time at the Sturt School for Wood, just outside Sydney, which specializes in craft-based traditional woodworking. There she learned coopering, laminating, steam bending, dovetails – the whole shebang.
That was a year-long course. “Completely wonderful,” she says of the experience. “It was monastic. Beautiful. You could cut dovetails to your heart’s content seven days a week.” But she will always appreciate the pragmatic training she got from the job in the cabinet shop, where she learned to run a business and pay the rent.
On graduating from the Sturt School, Laura moved to Sydney and worked at a co-operative, the Splinter Workshop. There were about eight members who shared the space and machines. She set up her own corner and started building and selling furniture, relying on word of mouth at the start. When she didn’t have paid work, she built prototypes to her own design and did her best to get coverage in the local paper. She also tried small-batch products such as wooden vessels to hold ceramic dishes for burning essential oils, a venture that she says barely covered her costs, “but it was really good training in small-batch production, marketing and building relationships with galleries.” She worked there for five years, during which she gave birth to her daughter, Ella, and her son, Jimmy.
In 2003, when Ella was 4 and Jimmy a few months old, she and Pete decided to move to Tasmania. Real estate prices in Sydney were out of reach for a furniture maker and arts administrator, and getting worse by the month. They realized that quality of life was important and felt that they wanted to give their kids a home where they could settle, rather than having to move every year or so from rental to rental. With no local contacts or work lined up, Laura took a job at a shipyard, building furniture for a 60-metre (nearly 200′) luxury super yacht. She also completed a bachelor’s degree in adult and vocational education, which certified her to train others in the trades. It seemed like a good idea – she could spend part of her time teaching and the rest in design-build for her own business. But as things turned out, she didn’t need the back-up plan. “Work got so busy, it was hard to do both,” she says. “I made the choice to go back to my studio practice.” In 2010, she convinced Pete to leave his work in management and work with her full-time.
When we spoke, they’d just finished a set of shelves for a local client and would be moving on to a couple of mobile cabinets for a client in the hospitality business. Other jobs coming up include a big dining table in Huon pine. They’re also trying to finish up some jobs at home, such as a pair of decks and a studio flat on the lower floor of their house. It may be a place for friends to stay, or perhaps an AirBnB.
They work primarily in local species. One is Tasmanian oak, which Laura points out is not in fact an oak, but an umbrella term for a variety of eucalypts. “In Tasmania they call up to five different euycalypt species ‘Tasmanian oak,’ she says. But in Victoria they’ve got the same lumber and they call it ‘Victorian ash.’” It’s a big tree, so she suspects Europeans who took over the region simply called it “oak” in a generic sense. It’s easy to get, kiln-dried, quartersawn, consistent in color and consistent in price. Although it’s used primarily as a building material, Laura says “I actually think it’s a beautiful furniture timber as well.”
Huon pine is another prized species. Laura says it’s soft, and perfect for boats. But “it costs a lot of money, so people think it has status.” Another regional species is blackwood, which she compares to chocolate cake. It’s variable in color, which makes it hard to get a uniform look for a piece of furniture, and the dust is carcinogenic.
Much of their work to date has been for clients in the tourism and hospitality industries – hotels and event spaces. They’ve done pieces for the MONA Museum and built tables and seating for restaurants. Tasmania’s economy relies heavily on tourism; as a result of the pandemic, that kind of business has taken a big hit. But as more people have shifted to working from home, those in the building trades have had new orders for decks, home offices and interior renovations. She and Pete have moved, at least for now, from contract clients to domestic ones. “I feel we’ve been really lucky,” Laura says. “It’s kind of weird to get on national television and see what’s happening in the rest of the world.”
She didn’t expect to make a living as a furniture maker when they moved to Tasmania, but as it happens, she could not have been more mistaken about the prospects for doing just that. “If I could find some way to live, own my own home and have a high quality of life,” she remembers dreaming, “to actually have a viable business making beautiful and interesting furniture for people… I never expected to be able to do that in Tasmania.” Handmade furniture, she explains, was always “very, very expensive.” But Tasmania turned out to be the ideal place to make furniture for a living. “You don’t have huge overheads, so it doesn’t have to be that expensive or exclusive.” She compares her current circumstances to those of the past, recalling how she and Pete weighed pros and cons as they considered the move to Hobart. There’s a lot of money in Sydney – “big-city paychecks.” She wouldn’t have that in Tasmania. But, she thought, “I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll flip burgers, or I’ll teach.” In fact, her studio rent plummeted with the move; her annual rent for that idyllic timber-ceilinged industrial space is what she paid in Sydney each month. Marketing via the internet means she doesn’t have to sell her work through galleries; given that galleries typically make their money by doubling (or more than doubling) the price an artist puts on her work, selling directly to customers makes her work vastly more affordable. And shipping costs from Hobart to Sydney have turned out to be almost the same as what it cost to move a piece of furniture from her studio on one side of Sydney to the other.
“But it’s also a much nicer quality of life,” Laura adds. “Living in a big city was wonderful when we didn’t have kids, but once you have kids it all changes. We had a wish list consisting of (amongst other things) good coffee, live music/theatre venues, good food, museums, beautiful beaches, bushwalks etc. and an airport so we could get out quickly if and when we needed to visit family overseas and interstate. Hobart ticked all these boxes and more…they even have the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and now there’s MONA. It’s also in the same timezone as Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane so it doesn’t really feel like we’re very far away from grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins when the kids speak on the phone. Hobart is still a small town but has enough to keep us interested and it’s only a short flight to Melbourne or Sydney when you feel you need a fix.”
At this point, Ella has one year to go in her fine arts degree at the National Art School in Sydney, with a focus on printmaking. Tuition is paid for by the government through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS); students repay the investment in their education by means of a prorated tax over the course of their working life, once their income reaches a certain threshold – interest-free. “So, if you’re an artist or a teacher or a nurse, you pay a lower rate” and it takes longer, Laura explains.
Jim, she says, “has a really mathematical and engineering brain” but is also into philosophy – he reads Kafka, Foucault and Chomsky “for fun” – and plays piano and guitar. At 17, she says he’s “interested in everything. I don’t think he’ll be hanging around Hobart.”
Reflecting on how views of work and higher ed have changed over the course of her life, Laura recalls the way things were when she was the age her kids are now. “If you’re intelligent and good at academics, you will go to university and become a professional. The fact that I didn’t want to do that – the idea of wanting to go into a trade – wasn’t ever on the table. If you’re a girl who’s smart, you don’t go into a trade.
“I think I was just a bit of a shit stirrer; I probably wanted to wind my parents up a bit.” She mentions Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett. “If you work with your hands, you’re not very bright, and if you’re bright you get ‘rewarded’ by being able to work behind a computer for up to 10 hours a day!
“I feel very lucky to have a job where it’s intellectually challenging as well as physically rewarding. I’m able to be creative and analytical… It’s like productive yoga. It feels so good to be moving and producing and making and…by the end of the day you look around and it’s very satisfying.”