WHILE Greg Hatton shows me around the old Newstead Co-operative Butter Factory, he carries a tap and a pipe wrench with him.
In fact, he carries the tap and the wrench for the whole afternoon I visit, as he wanders around the factory – his new workshop and part-time home – with his elderly dog Kevin limping along behind.
When you spend time with Hatton, a self-taught furniture-maker, designer and landscaper, you get the impression he always walks with a tool in hand and a plan in mind. It’s just as well, because right now, he’s got a hell of a lot of renovating to do.
Last week, he tried welding – out of necessity, before relocating a tank. “I’ve never been scared of having a crack at something new,” he says. “That process is always really rewarding. It’s the way I approach everything: if someone else can do it, I can do it. All I’m missing is the knowledge.”
In late 2009, he bought the old butter factory on the outskirts of Newstead, a small town in central Victoria. It was constructed in 1904, a time when grazing had overtaken gold mining as the area’s main source of income. Most recently it was a candle factory, but Hatton, who still spends part of his week in Melbourne, is giving it another life.
Tap in hand, he ambles through the huge building, deciphering its curiosities and conjuring its hereafter. The places where the giant drive shafts and cream churns were located will be soon converted into apartments, common areas and exhibition spaces.
Already, the space is a designer’s dream: character literally flakes off the old tiles, bricks and beams; its varied textures are cast alternately in sunlight and shadow.
“I’m trying to make things I want to furnish this place with,” he says. “But I’ve been playing catch up with orders ever since I plonked everything down in the new workshop.”
Hatton is seriously busy, but he’s content. It wasn’t always this way.
After studying environmental management at university, he worked as government fisheries officer. Recently, Hatton recalls, his old boss contacted him, reminiscing that he’d been “a square peg in a round hole” as a public servant.
After six years, he quit and set about chiselling a niche he could fit into. He began crafting chairs from willow branches, gathering the sticks by crawling along blackberry-infested riverbanks. His choice of material had two upsides: willow is considered an environmental weed and, when he fetched it himself, it was free.
Ever since, Hatton has insisted on using recycled or reclaimed materials. He’ll buy offcuts from local timber mills, pick up couches by the side of the road or ask beekeepers for their discarded hives.
At the core of his work is a strong environmental ethic, something he ascribes to his parents, “semi-hippy birdwatchers” who dragged him “around every national park known to man” on holidays from suburban Croydon, in Melbourne’s east.
“A lot of my work is based on the principle of using the pile of materials I’ve got,” he explains. “I try to do that in the most aesthetic way, and that’s the challenge.”
Hatton’s distinctive materials, together with a DIY attitude, have become his trademark. He says he “actively avoided” studying carpentry or cabinet making.
“I try to put things together with old bolts and bits of wire instead, and that’s where the aesthetic for my furniture comes from. As soon as you go down the cabinet-maker mould, you end up making stuff like all the other cabinet-makers. A little less knowledge is sometimes better.”
In his workshop, Hatton shows me a four-poster bed he’s building. The base and slats are made from hardwood seconds and the corner uprights from unsawn Sugar Gum posts that are thin and sinewy, but hard and heavy as stone.
(A piece like this starts at about $3500, depending on the detail. A solid outdoor table, with benches, goes for about the same).
But his simple approach shouldn’t be mistaken as rough or slipshod. Behind all his work lingers a single-minded attitude to design.
“I try to make my things so they’ll last a hundred years. You always see rustic furniture that looks too heavy or clunky. I try and add classic lines to create something that’s not going to date too much,” he says.
Lately, he’s become interested in lighting: one of his fittings employs leftover landscaping netting; another, opaque plastic floral buckets. “I’m always trying to experiment with different materials so I’m not constantly doing the same thing. Everything has to have a little bit of fun or quirkiness to it, otherwise I get bored.”
Hatton’s source for the buckets-cum-lights is his partner, Katie Marx, a florist who specialises in large shows and installations. She is pregnant with the couple’s first child, due at the end of the year.
After my tour of the workshop, we all retire to the concrete slab at the back of the factory, for afternoon tea in the sun. “It was through work that we met,” Marx laughs. “I hired some logs off him – and that started the rot. I still get called ‘The Florist’.”
Recently, for Hatton’s 40th birthday present, she tracked down an old windmill to install on the butter factory’s disused well. The only catch is that it’s still standing in a paddock about 8 kilometres away.
But that’s no worry for Hatton – it’s just one more project to complete. He’s got it on his mind, alongside the concrete air-conditioning tank he wants to convert into a swimming pool, and the handcart he wants to build so they can ride the abandoned railway line that runs nearby.
“It’s quite risky when you say, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to make things for a living’,” he says. “There are a few minor heart attacks along the way. But that just makes you resourceful.”
Just before the sun sets, he wanders off again, finally heading around the corner towards where that tap needs to go, Kevin hobbling along in his wake.