The Design Files – Meet Manapan, Furniture Makers In Arnhem Land

The Design Files – Meet Manapan, Furniture Makers In Arnhem Land

500 kilometres east of Darwin is a remote island called Milingimbi. It’s the largest of the Crocodile Islands, and Yolngu people have lived on this land for over 40,000 years.

These days, around 1200 people occupy the area, including an Aboriginal-owned, high-end furniture business, Manapan Furniture, that has been quietly growing for the past 12 months.

Given its remote location, all materials and machinery is brought in on a barge weekly, and all furniture produced is shipped out to Darwin.

Mark White, director of Manapan Furniture, has been working on developing the high-end furniture project for the past two years with the Aboriginal-owned not-for-profit organisation, Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (or ALPA). After heading up his commercial shop-fitting company, Ramvek, for three decades, in addition to working in other capacities with ALPA, Mark saw space to utilise his skills in a new way. ‘The best thing I knew was joinery’, Mark says, ‘so that’s how we decided to get involved’.

The basic principle of Manapan is simple. ‘Manapan actually means “together”’, Mark explains to me, and this namesake is echoed in the operations of the business. Together with the ALPA, Mark built a workshop on Milingimbi Island, which is owned by ALPA and operated by Yolngu. Master crafstman Rob Crisfield was brought on board to share cabinetry making skills with the local staff, and cutting edge designs have been contributed by six leading furniture designers from around Australia. All of the product is crafted out of the Manapan workshop using Australian timber. The idea of teaching and transferring lifelong skills between cultures seems like a pretty basic concept, but there’s really nothing like Manapan anywhere else in the country.
‘Our aim is to create a business that is commercially viable, where every cent of the money we make buys us new equipment or goes back into the community in some way,’ explains Mark.

12 months into operation, and Manapan Furniture employs five people on Milingimbi Island full time, and has become somewhat of a hub for community activity. The ‘Woven Cabinet’ features a central panel of weaving incorporated into the design, which is created by a group of local women. Traditional spear making is used as a feature in the ‘Art Bench’, and kids from the local school are able to come up to the factory for work experience.

The ‘Woven’ cabinet, designed by Chloe Walbran for Manapan Furniture.

‘One of the most important parts about it is that as a white person [on Milingimbi Island], you’re in the minority,’ explains Mark, ‘you’re on [Yolngu] land, in their community, and you have to respect that.’

What the Manapan team have been able to create is quite remarkable. Given the remote location of Milingimbi Island, all necessary materials and machinery are brought in by barge every week, and everything they make is shipped out to Darwin. From there, pieces are loaded onto a road train to Adelaide, where they’re distributed to their final destination. It’s quite a process, but one that the Manapan team now have down pat – ‘we are completely self sufficient, and the whole system is working’.

Despite the measurable positive impact that Manapan is able to contribute to the local community, the rapidly growing small business has received little attention from the federal government; something that clearly bothers Mark. ‘I’ve written to many people explaining what we’re doing and have had zero back’, he tells me, ‘there should be an Aboriginal piece of furniture in every single Australian embassy throughout the world – and that could be made by Manapan. Why can’t we get it done by the people in Arnhem Land?’. It’s a question that begs an answer.

When I asked Mark what he felt Manapan needed to grow to the next level, it was clear that he and the team have used this lack of funding and acknowledgement to date as a driving motivation. ‘We don’t need a handout, and we don’t want any money, we just want orders,’ he says, ‘give us an order to build joinery for every embassy throughout the world and we’ll make it happen.’
Mark and the Manapan team will be at Denfair today and tomorrow – you can find them at stall 105. Otherwise, the Manapan furniture range can be seen online or at their Melbourne showroom.

Manapan Showroom
18 Wilson Street
South Yarra, Victoria

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