It will come as little surprise to learn that CEO and Co-Founder of ethical Australian design and furniture brand Koskela, Sasha Titchkosky has always fostered an ethical outlook on life. She sat down with us to reflect on a decade at Koskela as well as the challenges and joys of pioneering collaborations with the extraordinarily talented artists in remote Indigenous communities.
I didn’t study interior design. I actually studied law. I worked for one of the leading law firms while I was doing my degree at night. Being surrounded by really passionate lawyers was good because it made me realise I didn’t have the same levels of passion for the law that they did. That experience short circuited my career path as a lawyer. It meant I didn’t have to work as a lawyer before realising I didn’t really want to do it. In some ways I think studying law has also been quite a good training ground for what I do now. Having that professional experience enabled me to work out what was important in terms of the kind of company we went on to create. I look at every opportunity I’m given as an opportunity to learn something else even if it wasn’t my burning passion at the time.
I left law to work for the Australian Stock Exchange. At that time the stock exchange had a regulatory responsibility and it was an interesting environment as we had a purpose that was bigger than making money. I worked on the demutualisation and listing of that company and there was a shift in culture when it went from a mutual to where it was suddenly accountable to the market and to shareholders and investors. People came to care a lot more about their own back pocket. It’s difficult for an organisation to balance it’s for profit motive with its role as a regulator That’s a very fine line for an organisation to walk and I think that’s why the ASX ended up losing its regulatory role. I left that role once the demutualisation was complete, then I met my partner and we started Koskela together.
My husband’s passion is for design, but for me the passion lies in the opportunity to design a company. I have always had strong ethical values. Koskela’s firm commitment to manufacturing in Australia was one of the ways that my ethical values were embedded in the company from the beginning. We knew Koskela wouldn’t be the cheapest player in the market but what mattered to us was that we could stand behind our product and know who was making it, where it was being made and under what conditions the makers were working. I also wanted to prove that Australian manufacturers could create products that were just as good as what was being produced internationally.
“My husband’s passion is for design, but for me the passion lies in the opportunity to design a company.”
In 2000 there wasn’t a large local furniture manufacturing industry and it was all going offshore to China. We were repeatedly told to go there but we refused. Now we’ve come full circle and over the last five years or so there’s been a shift back to supporting local manufacturing. Our corporate clients like to say that a percentage of their workplace furniture or fit out is locally manufactured. We are unique in the market as our origins are as a design based business. Because we manufacture locally there’s a level of customisation and we’re able to offer bespoke products which fit a particular project. If we were selling someone else’s products made somewhere else we wouldn’t be able to do that. Getting our B Corp Certification was another point of differentiation that makes Koskela unique in the market. The certification process wasn’t that hard for us because we’d already had it embedded in what we were doing. I think if we were able to manufacture more inexpensively we could be much bigger than we are now in terms of revenue but we’ve created a culture (celebrating local manufacturing) and used it to our advantage.
I have a philosophy of running our own race. I don’t care what everyone else does. I just want to know that what we’re doing is right and focus on that. I think you tie yourself in knots and don’t run a great business when you spend all your time looking at what everyone else is doing. We’re a small, privately owned business operating in workplace interiors which is one of the most competitive spaces. Every global workplace furniture player has some sort of presence in the market. We focus on excelling in service and creating really great products that we’re proud of.
I think one of the key reasons why so few companies collaborate with Indigenous artists is that there’s a fear of suggesting something that might be culturally inappropriate. I also think that many people don’t value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as part of Australia’s heritage so they don’t see the need to engage. I think this nervousness and lack of caring is because non-Indigenous Australians don’t really have an understanding of these cultures. If we’d received that kind of cultural education in school, then we would have a better understanding. Of course as non-Indigenous Australians, we’ll never understand everything but at least we’d have a good solid grounding in what these cultures are about. Then there would be a lot less fear and trepidation around engaging with these communities. Another factor which contributes to this nervousness are all the instances of Aboriginal people being exploited in these collaborative artistic circumstances, or having their artwork appropriated.
The community at Elcho Island was our first real collaboration. It took about three years to establish and it took quite a bit of research, attending symposiums, and then finally having some direct conversations with the community. The Galiwin’ku weavers of Elcho Island are extraordinarily talented and I was lucky enough that one of the really senior weavers was one of the first people to take on the project. So once they gave it the ok the other artists were happy to work on it as well. Koskela and the Galiwin’ku weavers have now been working together for ten years. We’ve visited with our children 6 or 7 times I guess over the time we’ve been working together. We have very strong relationships with the women in those communities.
“I think that many people don’t value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as part of Australia’s heritage so they don’t see the need to engage. I think this lack of caring is because non-Indigenous Australians don’t really have an understanding of these cultures. If we’d received that kind of cultural education in school, then we would have a better understanding.”
Nonetheless it’s been very difficult to maintain that relationship for that length of time. We’ve had 12 different art centre managers in the 10 years we’ve worked on Elcho Island. To be fair to them, it’s a fairly difficult environment to work in. It’s very much out of our comfort zones, you’re working in a remote community, on an island in far north east Arnhem Land where you’re suddenly the minority. It’s a difficult role, as they are traversing two different cultural worlds, band their role is complex as they have to be able to manage a business, manage artists, know how to market, and manage an online store.
Alltogether we’ve had eleven different sorts of collaborations with Indigenous communities over the decade. This year we launched six new collaborations to celebrate a decade of Koskela working in this space. We launched our impact report which summarises the work we’ve done and then added the six new collaborations into the mix. The communities we are working with as part of the Ngalya (together) collection are the Bula’Bula Arts, Durrmu Arts, Milingimbi Art and Culture, Moa Arts, Ngarrindjeri Weavers, and Tjanpi Desert Weavers.
“I really want to create opportunities for people to see these artists in a positive way instead of always dwelling on the negative. The women we work with have such strong cultural identities and it’s extraordinarily inspiring to work with them.”
I do see the disadvantages and inequalities faced by the communities we collaborate with which are beyond the current scope of our business to address. In the end, I felt we could either throw our hands up in despair and say ‘oh the problem is just too big there is no point in doing anything’ or take a deep breath and do something even if it’s on a scale, we can affect change at then that’s still valuable and still worth something.
At the end of the day all we can do is open up doors, it’s up to the artists themselves to step through. The role that Koskela plays is around creating really positive opportunities and creating a space for the artists to be engaged with something that’s uplifting. To some degree there’s not much more that we can do. I really want to create opportunities for people to see these artists in a positive way instead of always dwelling on the negative. The women we work with have such strong cultural identities and it’s extraordinarily inspiring to work with them. They are so proud of their culture and there are so many aspects of Indigenous culture that our own sorely lacks so I count myself very fortunate to have those opportunities to work with them and learn.