Celebrity interior designer Shaynna Blaze kickstarts our exclusive Shaynna Blaze Talks Design series with a lighthearted chat with long-time friends Wilhelmina McCarroll and Fleur Sibbel, sisters and the power duo behind famed Australian furniture brand Zuster Furniture
Presented as a four-part story, part one sees Shaynna introducing the Zuster Sisters and discussing the foundation of their business.
Shaynna: Fleur and Wilhelmina, you make up the furniture brand Zuster Furniture, and have been very prominent players in the design industry – not just in Melbourne, but in Australia, for a very, very long time.
So today, I want to talk about your design inspiration, and to let the world get to know you – because you two are a force, and also the most fun, relaxed and amazing women who create incredible design. What you do is so different from what’s out there and you make it work, and I would love to delve into the cogs of that.
Your family history of design goes back to the late 1800s. I knew your family had a long history in design, but I didn’t realise it went right back in Scandinavia.
With five generations of history, legacy and success in your family, especially with your dad, Meyer Sibbel, running a very successful building company – was being involved in the architecture and design industry something you thought you would always go into; or did you feel pressured to go down that road, especially since your parents had four daughters and did not get boys in the mix?
Fleur: It was so funny growing up, because it was kind of really frowned upon [in] our family that we’re [each] one of four girls, and you know, poor dad didn’t have any sons to take over the family’s building business that had been around for five generations. People used to go: “poor Meyer” because he was surrounded by all his daughters!
Wilhelmina: But he really treated us like boys growing up anyway, and we’ve always been really fiercely independent and capable of doing all of the different things we wanted. We spent a lot of time on the building sites as well when growing up, where we werealways picking out planks of wood and helping out on the site.
Fleur: We were hooking up the trailer for Dad and all sorts of things.
Shaynna: Do you think that practicality really worked for you? Many people go to design school, but they don’t teach that level of functionality and that hands-on learning you were telling me [about].
Wilhelmina: Absolutely, that’s right. The experience of being able to get in there and get things done – it also helps to hone a really practical mind. Because of growing up on the building sites, I sort of learned a bit of construction before I’d even left school. Well, a lot actually. I’ve always really loved design, and growing up as a family of four sisters, whenever one of the sisters needed anything, like a bed or wardrobes, dad was really busy with the building business so I just took on the design role and I designed different pieces and had them made at our factory. And it sort of stemmed from there.
Wilhelmina: Absolutely, that's right. The experience of being able to get in there and get things done – it also helps to hone a really practical mind. Because of growing up on the building sites, I sort of learned a bit of construction before I’d even left school. Well, a lot actually. I’ve always really loved design, and growing up as a family of four sisters, whenever one of the sisters needed anything, like a bed or wardrobes, Dad was really busy with the building business so I just took on the design role and I designed different pieces and had them made at our factory. And it sort of stemmed from there.
I did architecture for work experience, and then after that I was just absolutely hooked. I was like: “I definitely want to be adesigner, I absolutely love it.” It was great to have found that path so young in life as well.
"I did architecture for work experience, and then after that I was just absolutely hooked. I was like: 'I definitely want to be a designer, I absolutely love it.'"
Fleur: I have always been more on the commerce side. Even when we were kids, Willie would design new pieces of furniture, like if someone needed a new wardrobe, or when Mum and Dad wanted a new coffee table, and then I loved that opportunity of selling the older stuff in the Trading Post, or in the Weekly Times. So I’d put them in the paper, and then even from age 14 or 15, I’d get people coming over and Mum and Dad would ask who’s at the door and I’d be like: "Oh, someone’s coming to look at the coffee table!"
Shaynna: So you were there right from the start trying to sell the designs and pieces in the Trading Post!
Fleur: Yeah, I know, how old are we!
Wilhelmina: That’s how long the business has been around!
Shaynna: It’s a bit like Melways now, you know, the paper-based maps.
Fleur: I know, it was really big back then though! Even when we started the business, there wasn’t even an ‘online’ aspect –we didn’t have websites or anything. From a really young age, I loved commerce and I loved fashion, so I sort of saw myself more in a fashion career. While Willie headed towards architecture and design, I did work experience with a fashion designer, and so I sort of saw myself going in that direction. And then my mum said: "Fashion is a hobby, it’s not a career." So today, fashion is my hobby.