Vaulker Haug Studio

May 8, 2024

Volker Haug, a German-born product designer based in Australia, shares insights into his journey from being a hairdresser to becoming a renowned creator of industrial and sculptural lighting over the past two decades.

Volker Haug, originally from Germany, is an Australian-based product designer that has been creating industrial, sculptural lights for the last 20 years. Unexpectedly, Haug reveals that his first career began as a hairdresser. This avenue led him out of his hometown Stuttgart to Berlin and then to London, UK. “I remember having lived in London for three and a half years I wanted to move on. I couldn’t see myself growing old there,” he tells darc. “I met a lot of Australians that reside in London. So, I thought I would travel to Thailand and then to Australia to see some of these friends. Which I did, and never left!

“I remember arriving in Sydney in 2000 and I fell in love with Australia straight away. I was so happy to be there. I was in Sydney for about three months and tried to make a living there. It didn’t quite fall into a place, so I thought I’d go down to Melbourne after some friends told me I’d love it. I arrived in August, so it was winter, it was raining all the time, but things fell into place for me pretty quickly and I ended up staying. I got my residency through Australia’s skilled migration system as hairdressing was on the list.

“Why Australia? For some reason I wanted to get as far away from Germany as I could. I think I managed it! Living somewhere else and being independent has always excited and interested me.” Having put roots down in Melbourne, Haug worked as a hairdresser for five and a half years. But lighting, and the idea of creating it, was always in the back of his mind.

“Lighting was something that I had wanted to do all my life. When I was young, I was always playing with lights and switches to the point my parents had to tape them down. When I was about 10-years-old, I started making my first lighting range in a wood workshop in the Czech Republic. It was a ceiling scone, two wall lights, and some track lighting for the kitchen. I still remember those lights very well. They were actually pretty cool, obviously very different to my designs now, but it definitely sparked something in me. “Throughout my whole hairdressing career, I always tinkered with lights. In fact, I made lights for the salons I worked in, and some of my hairdressing clients went on to become my lighting clients. I came to realise that hairdressing was not my real passion. I love it and did it for almost 20 years but I couldn’t stop thinking about lighting.”

The challenge for Haug then came with figuring out how to get into the product design industry. “It’s not a job that you find in the yellow pages. These days it’s a bit different, but back then it was not as easy. Through my good industry friend Christopher Boots, I ended up meeting an amazing lighting designer, Geoffrey Mance, who has now passed unfortunately.

“Chris and I lived together for a while. He met Geoffrey at a university talk, where Geoffrey invited everyone to his studio – being as friendly as he was – so off we went and hours later we both returned with a job, which was amazing. We were working on these twig ball lights made from Hawthorne heads with lots of thorns in it. It was a very sculptural piece and really interesting to work on.

“Working with Geoffrey opened a whole new door for me. There was a lot of magic in the way he perceived lighting design, and he was very playful with it. It was an incredible realisation for me to see that you can actually make a living doing it. It was like fulfilling a dream. Yes, money is something we all need to make, but the chance to fulfil a dream comes first, and he showed me how to do that. He helped me breakthrough into the industry.

“We worked together for about a year and a half, during which I learned a lot of things; I also learned how not to do many things. But I am forever grateful for that experience. About another 18-months after that point that I decided to start on my own.”

And that was exactly what Haug did. In his garage. For a couple of years, he was creating lighting pieces during the day and cutting hair in his spare room at night. He then decided to take the plunge and expand into a 20sqm studio. “The garage was running out of space, and I just needed to separate where I was living to where I was working. It worked well for a time, but you have to be careful that you don’t slip into a place of constant tinkering.

“I remember moving into the new workspace, and thinking ‘Jesus, this place is really big, how am I going to fill it?’, 11 months later I had to move because I needed more room.”

Haug’s second studio was located at an old convent in Abbotsford, which are being converted into artists’ studios as and when they receive funding. The 200sqm studio again seemed like a daunting place for Haug to grow his business and collections.

“The studio had two rooms and part of it had a glass floor, which they told me was indestructible. I managed to break the glass floor…Twice. So, I guess I proved them wrong! I was mortified. Don’t ever move into a studio with a glass floor if there are heavy tools involved!”

After a little over a year, Haug had to pack up and move on to a bigger space. It was at this point that he changed from a sole trader to a company and had two official employees at the studio. Prior to that, he was hiring friends for AUS$10 an hour to help out.

As the brand began to grow, the team of now 20 including Haug, went on to settle in their fourth and current location at Brunswick East where Haug has been designing and creating for the past 12 years. “It’s a beautiful old 1940s warehouse that used to be owned by Worths Hosiery, which was the first to introduce pantyhose to the Australian market. When we first moved in, we actually found some leg mannequins still there, which we made into flower vases!”

Returning to the topic of Haug designing his first “lighting collection” at the young age of 10, he explains how his family were creative but in the musical sense, and perhaps weren’t a direct influence on his interest in interiors and product design. “I was made to play instruments, but never had an interest in it. None of my family had worked in design or ran their own business and it took them a while to get their heads around the fact that that’s what I was doing and are now very happy for me.”

When discussing influential elements in his life now as an established designer, Haug references the world he sees around him as a constant source. A key figure in the design world he has always admired is the late Ingo Maurer, whom Haug was lucky enough to meet a couple of times before he passed in 2019.

“I remember going to Milan around 2010 with a bag of lights on a mission to meet Maurer, and to see what Milan Design Week was all about. Maurer gave me some really great feedback and inspired me to take things further. For example, I had a light fitting made from plastic adapters, which he liked the look of but thought if I was to change the material into something more sophisticated and increase the size, it would potentially be a great thing. I ended up exploring that idea and doing exactly as he suggested. I made the fixture out of ceramic porcelain and blew them up in size, which meant they became a very different product. The other thing I learned from him and all his books (I’ve read them all) is to keep going and never stop.”

A significant moment for Haug in his career was when his designing ventures came full circle, and he was exhibiting at Milan the same year as Maurer. “That was an incredible moment when I realised, I am in this same world as him. It made me very happy.”

Another notable marker for Haug was working with the National Gallery in Melbourne when it acquired an OMG chandelier. It’s made out of aluminium light shades crushed into a really flat pizza base shape and then anodised in beautiful iridescent colours, then bolted together into one big shade. So, roughly 20 crushed old factory lightshades have become one new big light shade. The space the gallery had was so big we had to create a larger version that was roughly 2.1-metres in the end. “This installation really means a lot to me. The light, which is still hanging there today, really sums me up, as it’s brutal and crazy, but beautiful. Well, I’m not brutal, just the industrial aesthetic.”

These chandeliers were also commissioned by Westfield shopping centre back when Haug was first starting out. “I remember where I was standing when the lady called me, and that’s when my whole future changed. Westfield, being huge, needed 65 shades. It was then I had to stop cutting hair. I already knew that point was coming soon, but this cemented that moment. I remember the day I finished, I just cried because it was so overwhelming. It was bloody scary.

“We still do some shopping centre projects alongside our more luxury clients. But I am forever grateful for the shopping projects. Westfield was one of the instigators to me quitting my hairdressing job and got me into gear to become a lighting business. And the shades are still there today. Reflecting on this, I am also very grateful to Australia, as the country provided me with real opportunity. I sometimes wonder if the same would have been if I had stayed in Germany.”

Haug’s studio is currently formed of 19 international and local employees. Each coming from various industries and backgrounds, which has enabled Haug to create a design team that brings something unique to the table, yet in line with his vision. “We make such a good team as we all have a say. I really value everyone’s opinion. Everyone has a different role in our business, and everyone is important. I’m very grateful for their amazing loyalty; many of them have been with me for many years and it’s just crazy.”

Industrialism is a constant aesthetic theme that can be seen in Haug’s work since the beginning. He likens this to his personal taste as well as being influenced by the materials that were available to him at the time. “We have explored many different materials and ways to use them over the years. Anything from glass, which we’ve only introduced in the last five years or so, to brass which I have always worked with and pushed to its limits. That’s where many of our industrial designers come in – they have such a knowledge about materials and how and what you can use them for, it’s incredible.

“Another thing we do, which is always well-received, is not hide the materials in our products. We may polish them, for example, or seal or patina them, but you can always tell what is underneath. And with the casting, you can feel the roughness and unevenness, which adds to its beauty.”

When asked what qualities a good light should have, Haug explains that it’s always a good balance between beauty and functionality. He also believes they should be built to last a long time. To aid this, his studio provides a service for repairs and cosmetic touch-ups to ensure clients’ can keep the piece in situ for as long as possible. Not only does this allow the lights to be passed down generations, but it is also a positive approach to sustainable product design, to discourage waste.

Reflecting on his two decades as a designer and manufacturer, Haug describes the most frustrating and most rewarding aspects: “I think probably the most frustrating thing about design is if you are being copied by other people. Sometimes it can be ruthless. I never thought it would happen to us, but it has. I’m glad to say it’s not as often as other designers, but there are particular ranges that have been copied. “When I see our lights on eBay for a 10th of the price, but also 10th of the quality, it’s very sad.

“Another thing that I find difficult is the fact they can ruin your reputation. We have been contacted in the past by people claiming they have a crooked light, or it doesn’t work. So, we ask them to send over photos to discover it’s not an original lamp, but a copy. It can ruin your name.

“Some still say it’s a flattering compliment, and we do what we can to help mitigate it. We make a racket to those that are copying, tell them we know they are doing it and ask them to stop, and that’s pretty much all we can do.”

Continuing on this moment of reflection, Haug looks back on how his studio has changed over the last 20 years, as well as his personal development: “It happened gradually. Of course, there were moments where things grew really quickly and other times slower. I remember there were certain growth bursts, which were frightening but also incredible. When they happen, it can be daunting; I would need to employ another two or three people at once. You employ them for a reason, and if it works and makes your life easier, then it’s obviously the right decision. Stick to trusting your gut and see what works.

“On a personal level, I don’t how I’m juggling it all, but you just sort of do. I guess it’s all happened gradually, and you just learn as you go. You must listen to what’s going on and what people have to say, what people’s needs are, but also people have to listen to you. Having regular meetings and involving people is really important. Together, we can do more.

“I think I’ve become a fairly natural leader. I haven’t done many leadership courses – I need to do more – but I just go with my gut. Sometimes I have success, and sometimes I want to hit my head against the brick wall! But then, I have been told by some that I have been the best boss. What can I say? That’s what I really want to achieve, and if that is being affirmed then it’s a beautiful thing.

“From a design perspective I have changed the way I approach things a lot. I have worked alongside many professional industrial and interior designers as well as jewellers.

“I look at things very differently, much more critically and through a different pair of eyes. Also, more practically. Before it was like, ‘Oh, I love this, I want to design it’. And now it’s more like, ‘Okay, we want to design something that is a bit more restrained’, but restraints are there for good reasons such as what does the market need? If it’s a wall light, how much should it cost to fit a particular brief? Or what size does it need to be to fit the American market? These are things I’d never thought about before.”

The conversation turned to discussing current product trends and aesthetics. He explains that as a studio, they typically like to visit different eras and take inspiration from some of the best that era has to offer. “At the moment, the 1970s is definitely coming through. I still have the industrial boldness to it, which is really beautiful, along with brutalist elements. We like to reference certain times and the way things were done but bring that to the current day with today’s technology.”

During Milan Design Week 2024, Volker Haug debuted Me and You, a lighting collaboration with Australian multidisciplinary architectural designers Flack Studio.

During a Flack Studio project instal, a vintage glass wall sconce was irreparably broken. With the back plate already in place, Flack called on Haug to urgently design a new, site-specific fitting. Fuelled by simpatico and shared aesthetic sensibilities, a long history of friendship, and neighbourly proximity, the rapid-fire nature of ideating, prototyping, and editing was an experience of total cohesion. The error that instigated the collaboration ultimately produced a playful and friendly design journey.

The collection expresses a shared studio vernacular, and the functional symbiosis of interior and industrial design disciplines. Flack’s design discernment came from envisioning each light’s presence in-situ within the space; whereas Haug would see a light from all the same angles, only to push technical and material features even further.

As the name suggests, Me and You speaks to the collaboration, but also to the inherent interplay of light and space — a relationship that the two studios believe is the most important decision of the design process.

Eschewing the prescriptive idea of building a collection with strict features scaled across different, singular light forms, they favoured an unrestrained approach. Through lines of instinctual familiarity, from repetition to material to colour, yielding a satisfying series of diverse styles, proportions, materials, and detailing. Foundational to the collection is a set of interchangeable wall sconces—differentiated by their varying luminosities—that are intended to be installed as individual lights, sets of pairs, or as a series. Dualities of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ echo throughout. In contrast to mouth blown glass elements and features like rotund metal cages, there was also opportunity to apply material refinements to some of Flack Studio’s more angular earlier designs.

Iterations of their original lighting for Ace Hotel Sydney—think grid-like characteristics and linear silhouettes—came to life alongside another of the new collection’s stand-out lights: Troye. The re-envisioned sconce found its inspiration in a custom lamp designed by Flack Studio for actor and musician Troye Sivan’s Melbourne home. Its edgy metal exterior hugs a hidden light source, with punchy perforations to reveal its glow.

The collection represents Flack and Volker Haug’s shared belief in the truth of materials, and their innate ability to speak for their own beauty and radiance. With this ethos in mind, the lighting is designed in a consciously limited range of brass, aluminium, glass, and fibreglass.

“It was such a pleasure working with Dave and his team from Flack. It’s just been a beautiful, easy, and fun collaboration. And, one of the most rewarding things is when the doors opened for our exhibition in Milan, people came in and they loved it. That’s when I think, ‘Wow, we’ve nailed it.’”