Sisters Wilhelmina McCarroll and Fleur Sibbel are the much loved award-winning design duo behind the Zuster brand, a name synonymous with beautiful, bespoke Australian made furniture. We spoke to Willy and Fleur about their design legacy and the DNA of their brand, as well as what’s coming up for Zuster and Reece in the bathroom.
Q. You have a strong, super recognisable aesthetic, which is the DNA of your brand. What is the Zuster DNA?
Willy: I think the Zuster DNA is knowing trends but not actually following them, trying to sort of start your own trend and working with how people live, what the function of the piece is meant to be, working with different beautiful materials, and really trying to have your own signature look. There’s just a fine line between too much or too little detail to get the perfect edge.
Fleur: I think it’s really important with our Zuster DNA too, is our design heritage. So we have five generations of design behind us and each piece is very handcrafted and you see our expertise and craftsmanship in the pieces.
Our father had a building business and a factory where he did the kitchens and the window frames and everything for his building business. So we actually use a lot of the details that he used in his building business for many generations as well and then we’ve just added layers of that. I think clients recognise Zuster too for our craftsmanship. We use American Oak to manufacture with, so we celebrate the timber grain.
Willy: It gives a lot of warmth and that’s the beauty. And because it’s timber grain, it’s always a little bit different every single time and I think that gives it a little bit of luxury as well.
Fleur: We’re using a lot of three-dimensional surfaces and a mix of materials too.
Willy: Yeah, definitely a mix of materials with stone, glassblowing, some brass and metallic materials, as well as fabrics inside drawers.
Q. How do you plan to stay true to your DNA, yet still continue to evolve and innovate?
Fleur: We work on evolving the brand and moving forward, which is something that’s really important these days, to be surprising people with new design trends and new finishes but then also being very true to our DNA, which is all about luxury, craftsmanship, fashion-forward furniture.
Q. Who or what inspired you to get into design?
Willy: It was really our father because we’d always been to the jobs with him and worked on construction sites and had a bit of time in the factory. And I always really enjoyed furniture. We’re actually two of four sisters and we’re all very, very close in age, it’s only seven years between all of us. And so whenever anyone needed a piece of furniture, they’d always come to me and say, “I need a new wardrobe,” or, “I need a new bed.” And so I’d design it probably from the age of about 14 and then I’d go to the factory and have it made. And then Fleur would be the person… the Tradingpost was around at the time, so she’d sell all the old furniture on the Tradingpost.
Fleur: Dad would talk about quality and design at the dinner table. And how when you would buy a lounge, you would buy the quality lounge because that would last you a long time, and you wouldn’t buy the one that was cheaper and then it would become rubbish. We were getting these lectures at 10, from Dad about quality.
His father was also a massive influence on us. He was a designer as well, a builder, and their family lived on 40 acres in St Andrews. It was almost a creative hub, and they had a studio where they would do woodturning, pottery. They would have different artists that would come and do artist-in-residence in the studio.
Willy: And they made mud bricks because all their house was made of mud bricks. And then our auntie and uncle and a few other people moved to the same block and they all hand-built their own homes.
Fleur: So as children, that was where we would go on school holidays. And we’d go into the studio and just marvel at the smell of timber and then the work that they were creating. And so we were really immersed with design.
Q. What have been some highlights over your 25 years in business?
Fleur: Willy started the business back in 1994, when she designed a small range while studying furniture design at RMIT. And it sold straightaway. I was working in fashion and joined maybe a year later.
We’re 25 years so we’re really proud of the history we have in the business. There have been quite a few milestones. One in particular is that we’re still in business and the business has grown so much. There hasn’t been a year where we’ve gone backwards, we’ve gone forward every year. And we don’t take that for granted because manufacturing in Australia is not easy but we’re so proud that we’ve been able to maintain that and to grow and to employ so many people. And we have guys that started with us as apprentices and then got married and then have children and then the children are at school. So we’re really proud that we’ve been able to build an extended family with Zuster.
And a big highlight was starting the collaboration with Reece. That was an amazing opportunity for us and quite surprising for us too, for Reece to see our brand at such an elevated level with their brand leverage. And then, Jackalope.
Willy: We did all of the furniture for the Jackalope Hotel down at the Mornington Peninsula and that was a really exciting project, working with such incredibly creative, amazing people. And then other one was probably Jet Base.
Fleur: We recently fit out the private jet airport for the Little Group out at Tullamarine. It’s a full private jet airport, so it’s a different world out there. You fly in on your private jet and if you want to stay and have dinner or sleep over, everything is Zuster. It was amazing for us because they had been specified international furniture and the owner said, “Why are we specifying international furniture that anyone can buy or see all over the world? Why wouldn’t be using the best Australian, fashion-forward furniture?” So then they said, “We have to call Zuster.” And so then we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to fit out the whole airport.
Q. How do you ensure the bathroom products you design maintain longevity?
Fleur: We offer a seven-year warranty, but we know the furniture that we’re manufacturing lasts a lifetime. Our father built bathrooms and we know these houses, 40 years on, their bathrooms are still functioning. And so we have the utmost confidence in what we’re manufacturing for its longevity.
Willy: When designing the bathroom range, it needed to be really adaptable to go into all sorts of interiors. We wanted to keep the lines really nice and clean and the proportions right, as well as the materials. It’s extremely adaptable to go into any type of home, whether it be super modern or classic.
Q. What’s next for Reece and Zuster in the bathroom?
Willy: Next in the bathroom is going to be Blossom. If I was to describe the new Blossom range in three words, it would be glamorous, decorative, and functional. I’ve been inspired by a lot of pattern, so I’ve actually incorporated the pattern into the fronts of the drawers, in kind of a subtle, classic way.
When I designed the Blossom range, the element on the front of the detailing, I actually saw something similar in a balustrade, overseas, and then I put it together in a timber form and it just worked out so perfectly. I was so happy.
Fleur: We’re also introducing marble for the first time, so there’s the option of marble handles in both Halo and in Blossom, which is going to be really beautiful, and some very organic shapes. We feel like it’s very on trend with people wanting to go back to more organic shapes and materials. And then she’s designed this series of incredible mirror that are oval, very organic.
Willy: Oh yeah, we’ve done a lot of new mirrors which are going to be terrific. They’re a little bit more decorative than we’ve done before. I think that they’re really going to give the bathroom lots more character too. We’re pretty excited about launching them.
Fleur: When we started the bathroom collaboration with Reece, we both really felt like there wasn’t a good solution on the market that offered storage, that was a beautiful, clean-line design, that had the longevity and the quality, and the day-to-day experience would improve people’s lives. And we really saw that as a niche, and same with Reece too.
The ISSY by Zuster Blossom collection will launch in August 2020, and the Ballerina, Z8 Butterfly and Halo collections are currently available exclusively through Reece.