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‘Okay, Take Two’: Introducing Base Design Melbourne (again)

Listen to the first 30 seconds of the 1965 song ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ and you’ll hear Bob Dylan making a false start, causing everyone in the studio to erupt into contagious laughter. “Okay, take two!” announces producer Tom Wilson, before Dylan launches into the six minutes of surrealist wordplay and gleeful rock’n’roll that would become integral to the success of the album Bringing It All Back Home. When something doesn’t go to plan, it can define you – but it’s up to you to decide how. This is a lesson Base Design learned pretty quickly when we recently set out to establish our new Australian office.

There’s no playbook for launching a new venture in the middle of a pandemic. Even before COVID-19 hit, it was an ambitious project for Base Design creative directors Caroline Cox and Daniel Peterson, who in 2019 left New York – their adopted home of eight years – to establish a new Base office in their hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Shortly after returning (and the birth of their second child), the world descended into lockdown amid a crisis so new, so pronounced and so pervasive that the word ‘unprecedented’ quickly became unfit to describe it. It would have been nice if there were a ‘how-to’ guide for setting up the Melbourne office during this time – a kind of Freytag’s Pyramid implying the promise of a neat resolution to the chaos – but Caroline and Dan know that’s not how the world works, and what was originally a question of Australasian expansion soon became an exercise in leaning into uncertainty.

With over 20 years of combined experience working at some of the world’s most respected studios, Caroline and Dan have dealt with their fair share of tricky briefs. And while setting up Base Design Melbourne has been perhaps their trickiest yet, the experience has been bolstered by a foundational company ethos that’s persisted throughout Base’s nearly three decades of existence. With its beginnings in Brussels and additional offices in New York, Geneva and now Melbourne, Base has always combined its global outlook with an inherently personal way of working.

“I think Base’s Belgian origins mean there’s a focus on the internal culture of its studios, which is really quite down-to-earth” says Dan, who joined as Design Director in 2015 before assuming the role of Creative Director in 2018. “Base has always grown from within its own network, too – the idea being that you can take anyone from within the company, put them in another ‘Base’ and the model still flourishes.”

It’s an attractive philosophy for Dan and Caroline, who between them have lived and worked in Melbourne, Sydney, Tokyo, London and New York. Having met while working at Studio Ongarato in Melbourne, in 2012 the couple packed up and relocated to New York. Less than two weeks after arriving in their new city, they’d each landed new jobs: Dan at design consultancy 2x4, as a Senior Designer with a focus on environmental and spatial design for clients as diverse as Google, Pérez Art Museum Miami, and Tiffany & Co.; and Caroline at creative agency Lloyd & Co., where she would go on to become Associate Creative Director, working with Adidas and Pharrell Williams, and later as the lead creative for Calvin Klein under Raf Simons.

“I think after eight years in that role, what I left with was a distinct ability to identify and craft a unique visual tone for a brand,” says Caroline, who made the move to Base in tandem with the move back to Melbourne. “Brand identity is super important, but what backs it up is engaging visual content that can carry brand storytelling over time, long after a new brand identity has been launched.”

This multidisciplinary approach is key to Base’s philosophy, which aims to mix creative disciplines; is led by ideas rather than medium; and which seeks out projects with like-minded people rather than being driven by sector. Also at Base’s core is a deep level of branding expertise unusual for a medium-size studio.

“What connects all our work at Base is this idea of cultural impact. You can’t just enact change for change’s sake – it has to be deeply intentional,” adds Dan, who’s led some of Base’s landmark projects including (fittingly) the Bob Dylan Center, the Prince Estate and Los Angeles Master Chorale. “These projects really shaped how I think about brand as something that can never be fabricated – it’s something that is revealed, cultivated and amplified. A strong vision can give your team a sense of pride and belonging, and when you get it right it can have a powerful influence – or indeed cultural impact – no matter the scale of the organisation.”

In the early days of the Melbourne office, Dan and Caroline were busy seeing through larger international projects (including campaigns for Pharrell’s new Goodtime Hotel in Miami and retail giant DFS), not to mention juggling the relocation with a newborn and toddler in tow. At the start of 2020, things were looking up: Caroline and Dan had signed a lease on a new studio space in Richmond, hired a local designer, and brought on their first local client Urban Climb. Then, in March, COVID took hold.

“Suddenly we had to close the studio and work from home, and all that progress ground to a halt,” says Caroline. “Projects and prospects were put on hold and, like so many other businesses, our future became wildly uncertain.”

Before lockdown, Caroline and Dan had approached West Space – a non-profit, artist-led gallery in Melbourne’s Collingwood Yards – and agreed to work with them pro bono. With the onset of COVID, what started as a conversation became both a rebrand and the launch of a new publishing platform, Offsite, which has enabled West Space to digitally interact with its community during lockdown. “A lot of good comes out of working with people doing good themselves,” says Dan of the collaboration, which ultimately carried Base’s new studio through the majority of Melbourne’s notoriously strict lockdown.

With the symbolic emergence of spring, early conversations initiated with prospective clients pre-lockdown began to reanimate. Now on the horizon for the Melbourne office are projects with arts organisations like The Substation and Blindside, major architecture firm BVN, and property developer Time & Place.

“I think there’s a certain directness about the way people operate in the US that we seem to have brought back with us to Melbourne,” Caroline reflects. “When we started to meet with prospects here, we’d say: ‘we need you as much as you need us!’ It was clear that we’d be working our asses off to make this some of our best work while the studio establishes itself. I think clients responded really well to that transparency.”

Dan believes their successes in Melbourne so far can also be attributed to the sense of adaptability and good humour that’s central to Base’s overall ethos: “This attitude has gone a long way, especially when COVID hit. It wasn’t until we went into lockdown that we realised the true value of this openness to trying new ways of working.”

‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ is just one of so many iconic recordings throughout history that sets the scene with a botched take – and the result is a song that gives you a better sense of Bob Dylan’s character than any interview ever has. For Base Melbourne, its own ‘take two’ moment has been a defining experience for Dan and Caroline personally as well as for the company more broadly.

“Base has a successful proven process, but at the end of the day there are no surveys, no templates, no playbook and definitely no secret sauce,” says Dan. “It’s about good ideas, good business sense and good energy. That’s what makes the work exciting.”

Written by Base Melbourne co-founders Caroline Cox and Daniel Peterson.