New life of Brian
Bison's principal designer, Brian Tunks at the shop in Pialligo. Photo: Rohan Thomson
It was a brush with death that forced Brian Tunks to re-evaluate his life priorities.
The owner and creative force behind Bison, the wildly popular stoneware line based at Pialligo, suffered a medical emergency earlier this year, the details of which he doesn't want to go into, other than to say it was serious.
''I've got it behind me but it could have potentially killed me. I was very lucky,'' he says.
Tunks, who turns 48 on Wednesday, but looks younger thanks to regular gym and yoga sessions, started Bison 14 years ago.
The line is about to go through an ''evolution not a revolution'' partly to give Tunks more time to design and to help him escape the unrelenting demands of the production line.
His products will be made overseas rather than on-site at Pialligo. He is branching into new designs and colours. And he is starting to add new features to the line - wooden bowls and serving sets, wooden accents to the ceramics such as ginger jars with timber lids and napery with his own designs. In short, a much broader homewares label. Bison will become bisonhome.
''I guess you could say after 14 years of being in one cubic metre of a glazing booth in the back of the building I thought, 'I can't keep going like this, I can't grow a business and evolve. I can't see a bigger perspective or viewpoint from that tiny confined space','' he says.
Tunks will travel to international locations bi-monthly to oversee the production. He is teaching local Indonesian artisans to glaze ''the Bison way'' with strong attention to quality and detail. The timber is from sustainably-harvested moneypod or rain trees. But he'll collaborate with producers anywhere in the world, including Australia - wherever inspiration strikes.
''I'm working wherever I can in the world with people who adhere to ethical practices and sustainable practices. The same as I've done basically here,'' he says.
Again, it was the importance of his health and a desire to spend more time with his partner that led Tunks to decide on-site production would cease at Pialligo after Christmas.
''[The health scare] forced a lot of changes and the way I was working,'' he says. ''I either had the choice of walking away from something I really loved or restructuring it in a way that would give me a more interesting future.''
The Bison ceramics line found almost instant acclaim, featuring in all the glossy magazines and exciting fans worldwide.
Tunks started the business in a round-about way. He trained in classics, ancient history and archaeology at the Australian National University and it was during his work on ancient Greco-Roman excavations in the Middle East that he developed his love for ceramics, both classic and contemporary.
So he started firing his first works in a kiln in his dad's shed at Wanniassa.
''I was time-sharing with his chocolate-brown Jag so whenever the Jag was out, I'd fire up the kiln,'' he says.
Tunks opened his business at Queanbeyan, sold at the Old Bus Depot Markets at Kingston, was picked up by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, was featured in Vogue Living. The ball started rolling very quickly.
''The business just grew steadily and I tried to build an infrastructure of production throwers around Australia but frankly we just don't have the numbers,'' he says.
''This has presented with me an opportunity to go in a broader direction driven by me rather than be dictated to by availability of people and me constantly wanting to design but being pulled back into production.''
The business is now based in Pialligo in an airy studio that showcases the pieces, vases filled with beautiful bunches of roses from his mother's garden. Shelves bursting with the colours of the range line the walls.
Tunks says he's never considered leaving Canberra for bigger centres such as Sydney or Melbourne.
''I was offered numerous times to be really honest and I could have done it years ago and in a business context, possibly it could have been smarter,'' he says.
''But there's another side to that and that is this place has given me the ability to think and a bit of time. Those other places are far more distracting. There's too much happening.
''You know, I need a bit of calm around me. I still live in the same place, I still walk my dogs twice a day around the parks there, I've got great friends here. And uni, ANU, was a bike ride away. So, for me, there's a lot of positive associations. But now I'll probably spend a lot more time travelling and that will stimulate the design again.''
And he's already feeling energised by the expanded range.
''I've always felt I could create more and add more depth to the collection if I gave the ceramics context. Like putting it on a wooden tray or having napery with it and designing even the motif that goes on the napery. So I've done that on napkins, tea-towels, runners, place mats. And I can't tell you the joy it's given me,'' he says.
The motif on the fabrics and repeated in raised accents on the new ceramics is actually a stylised poplar tree.
''I grew up in the bush so every country property I knew as a kid had avenues of poplars running down the driveway to the home paddock,'' he says.
''And there's a row of poplars I'd see coming by Lake George back from Sydney. And I remember as a 17-year-old seeing them in Italy when I was being drawn to ancient history and archeology. And I thought, 'Why not draw on something with those real positive associations?' ''
Tunks says bisonhome will keep producing the tried-and-true favourite ceramics such as the milk bottles and mixing bowl sets. He sees the new line as complementing rather than competing with the existing designs.
''I don't want it to be a complete cut with the past because I love what I've done,'' he says.
''I even went on eBay this morning and had a look and saw four bowls that I'd glazed nearly 13 years ago and I bid on them, just to put them in my own collection because they were really beautiful. What you fail to remember is how far you've travelled and how far design can take you. This is giving me such a wonderful opportunity to do both.''