A spirit for good eyewear design

By / 14th of May, 2015
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CHAMPAGNE, tequila, malt, gin and shiraz are ingredients that bring a touch of indulgence to a regular Friday evening.

They also feature in the recipe to success for South Australian designer, jeweler and metal smith Peter Coombs.

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Peter Coombs

They are the names of the five designs in Coombs’ latest eyewear collection, the “4 O’Clock” range.

The range is a finalist in the 2015 Good Design Awards, and funnily enough it was during a speech at the 2013 Good Design Awards, in which his previous collection “Elements” was nominated, that the spark of inspiration for the latest collection was ignited.

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“The chairman of the judges (Robert Pataki) said ‘good design is the simplest solution using the least materials’,” Coombs said. “It just spoke to me. I grabbed a couple of napkins off the table, disappeared from the room and started drawing these designs.”

The branding of the collection represents the ease and joy that comes with after-work drinks at four o’clock on Friday afternoon.

“(The design) should give you that feeling of happiness when you finish work and relax with a drink,” Coombs says. “It’s an honest reflection of what we’re about and where we are.”

His designs are clean and streamlined with little embellishment. Just rich, luxurious colours and artistic shapes, what Coombs calls “jewelry for the face”.

While simplicity is at the heart of the concept, the execution is anything but.

The frames are all cut from single flat pieces of titanium joined by sterling silver hinges individually made by Coombs (some are made from 18-Karat gold) and then assembled by hand.

The Good Design Awards judges said the range combines form and function perfectly.

“Great to look at and even better to wear,” the judges said. “Good quality finish and carefully considered materials give the range a distinctive and original aesthetic.”

Coombs sought out the best producer in Japan - the birthplace of titanium manufacturing and industry leaders in titanium eyewear – to produce the titanium component of the frames. Artisans in their own right, the company also expressed awe and respect for Coombs’ pioneering design.

“When I sent them the drawings they told me ‘this isn’t possible, who made this?’ and were surprised when I told them it was me,” Coombs said.

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Coombs sent five handmade titanium pieces to the suppliers to inspect and they were inspired to take on the challenge. Small obstacles were overcome through Coombs demonstrating the process via short videos. It took further innovation on their part to create new tooling similar to what Coombs had built himself in his home studio.

The studio also plays a part in Coombs’ success. The transformed garage in the suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia was a farm equipment workshop almost a century ago. It has natural light and a simple fit-out: perfect for long, inspiring days of tactile work.

“I’ve touched metal every day for more than 30 years. I’ve pushed it, twisted it, cut it. I understand what it can do,” Coombs says. “That to me is really the key to design; understanding your materials. It shows you where it can go and this opens your mind up to immense possibility.”

The current range is the first to be partially produced by a manufacturer with 100 pairs of the $1000 glasses made of each style by colour.

His first pair of glasses came about while studying design at the University of South Australia and was made for a very personal client – himself.

“In the 80s I wasn’t wearing any jewelry,” he says. “I was spending a lot of time at the beach and I loved working with metals so I thought ‘maybe I’ll make a pair of glasses’ and it started from there.”

Thirty years later, Coombs re-released some of his earliest designs – four vintage styles – in celebration of a career that includes being a collected artist at the l.a.Eyeworks boutique.

Today, simplicity of form and use of the best materials have taken precedence to combat one of the most common problems of eyewear design: fit.

As with bodies, every face shape is different. Coombs considered this quandary and through the profile of the frames and the flexibility of the titanium, ill-fitting glasses are no-longer an issue. The 4 O’Clock range moulds to the dimensions of the owner after repeated wears.

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“Having really thought through all the problems and really seriously tested what might be the problem with the form, we just kept going,” he says.

There were 22 designs in contention for this range. Those that weren’t selected this time will be considered, adapted and re-worked for future collections.

Coombs says creative-block has never been an issue for him, and that the process of drawing all his designs by hand helps him see the form in 3D.

“Then I don’t have to think about that idea anymore,” he says. “It’s a really nice way of freeing up space in my mind.”

Among Coombs’ extensive and varied portfolio are trophies for the South Australia and McLaren Vale wine awards, two Lord Mayoral medallionss, a badge that was given to astronaut Dr Andy Thomas by former Adelaide Lord Mayor Michael Harbison – and then worn in space - and furniture at a historic hotel called the Salopian Inn in the McLaren Vale wine region.

No matter the project or the material, Coombs said his approach was always the same.

“When I think about design it’s actually quite holistic. When I’m working on jewelry, I work through levels of magnification. For a bigger piece I need to scale my tools and perspective the other way.”

Peter Coombs Designs products have received a lot of interest from niche boutiques in the United States and parts of Europe, and have been invited to present at trade shows in Paris and Milan later this year.