At one point in his life, Will White must have looked at a mirror and decided that he could do better.
Will and his wife Joe live in Red Hill and design and make wall mirrors – but they take the whole form and function of our usual concept of a mirror right off into left field.
Their stylised mirrors have found favour with a diverse range of people from all over Australia and overseas – they have tickled the fancy of discerning folks from all walks of life. It seems that a lot of people find the Whites’ creations irresistible.
Baroque-with-a-twist may be one way to describe their creations. And although unmistakable in function, it can be hard to tell where the utilitarian ends and the artistic takes over.
The mirrors are made exclusively from recycled timber. The glass itself is made in Germany but finished in America, where a mercury backing – which is not available in Australia – is applied. The resulting finish is almost impossible to replicate due to this unique process.
It was back in Will’s salad days that he first applied his talents to used timber, when he started making furniture out of selected pieces of old wood. What is a given now – re-using timber that may not otherwise be readily available – was in the mid 70s an unusual approach. “In those days, none of this went on very much. But I loved old timber from the start – it has much more character,” Will says. “The move to mirrors was really an extension of the furniture making. But they took over, they were so lovely as a finished product.”
Will says his mirrors need that certain something – the “X-factor”, as he calls it – to keep bringing people back. “I think people see that themselves. The mercury treated glass, the mouldings and the nice timber, all work together to make a unique product.”
The mouldings Will and Joe use have been taken from originals found in their travels, but are primarily from Europe. “I make my own moulds directly from old pieces that I have picked up here and there. A lot came from antique French or Italian pieces,” Will says. “So the shapes and details are unique.”
About a decade ago, after some time in the mirror-making business, living and working in Brisbane, Will and Joe turned to designing bathroom and tabletop accessories – things like designer bath plugs, napkin rings, sink strainers, bottle stoppers, quirky toilet roll holders and cupboard handles. The range was known as Billy Joe (“I’m the Billy and she’s the Joe”) and did so well that they moved the business to the United States and started to produce and sell their range of products over there.
“We took Billy Joe to America about six years ago and it went crazy. We really went well over there,” Will says. “But eventually we got homesick and decided to come back, so we sold out.” The Billy Joe range is still sold in the US, but now under different owners.
The move to Red Hill came about when Will and Joe were in Melbourne one time to visit his sister. “We were on our way down to Portsea for dinner and we passed this place, saw the ‘for sale’ sign, and bought it,” Will says. “We had to go back to the States to sell the business, and to Brisbane to settle things, but now here we are. It’s been a year now and we love it.”
And it’s easy to see why they fell in love with their Red Hill home. Their house is a 1920s homestead, set on a five acre block, with a neighbouring vineyard’s wine grapes growing in rows on the slope below them. Rolling green pastures are on one side and the charming Stony Creek Cottages bed and breakfast on the other. The view sweeps back towards Flinders and a glimpse of the ocean.
Will and Joe also maintain a house in Fitzroy. “I am really inspired by Melbourne,” he says. “I mean, Joe and I have lived in New York – we lived there for a year. And Chicago. But apart from simply missing Australia, we came down to Melbourne and just fell in love with the place. It really is the best city in the world.
“And being here on the peninsula has been very inspiring for the both of us. It is a great place to live and to work, and we count ourselves as being very lucky to be able to pursue a living from such a wonderful area – to be able to live here, and make a living too.”
They have just finished a showroom, but also have a lot of mirrors hanging in the house, which they share with their two children, China aged six and Rhett aged three. Will says he finds most people like to see them actually hanging on a wall – in position, as it were, in a real house and on a real wall.
As a business – which is now called William & Johanna – they have found that advertising has never really been necessary. “One person buys one, and tells or shows someone else,” Will says. “One day Jacki McDonald walked in, and she bought quite a few mirrors. Then all her friends started coming in. One thing led to another, and I ended up being flat out.”
They also have a couple of mirrors hanging in a shop in Fitzroy, which belongs to a friend. “She got so many comments and inquiries. I wasn’t really ready for the orders that came out of that,” says Will. “It was hard to know if I wanted to get back into the mirrors after the whole BIlly Joe period. But since I have been doing them again I really have enjoyed it.”
Will and Joe are no strangers to success in the mirror making area, however. As was the case years ago in Brisbane, they never find the need to advertise. And yet they have sold mirrors to restaurants, hotels – the Marriot group for example, and Hyatt hotels – and personalities big and small. Paul McCartney has some of their mirrors, for example. Of course there is no need to be famous to appreciate their creations, and in fact Will and Joe are actively reluctant to play the celebrity card.
That theirs has been a business by osmosis – one person telling another, with no need to push a product – is a satisfying aspect of William & Johanna, Will says. “I love that people hear about us, come down, look at the place and look at the mirrors – and have a good time doing it. Luckily, we enjoy it just as much.”
This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine