A childhood fascination with antiquity led act-based Brian tunks on an artful odyssey through Europe, culminating in his colourful range of glassware and ceramics.
When Brian Tunks’ mother gave her son a set of children’s encyclopaedias, she probably had little inkling of how life-changing the gift would prove. The ACT-based ceramics and glassware designer recalls being instantly captivated by entries on antiquity, in particular the cave paintings at Altamira in northern Spain.
“There I was as a little boy in primary school in Grenfell in the NSW Central West, just fascinated by the colours and evidence of an ancient culture on the other side of the world,” Brian recalls. “I registered the Bison Home trademark long before I had the business, because somehow I just knew it would be important.”
These days, Brian divides his time between designing his homewares from his studio in Canberra, and two beautiful, repurposed buildings on the Pialligo Estate that serve as his shopfronts. In his “spare” time, he exercises his formidable green thumb propagating the dahlias, roses, lavender, lupins and peonies that fill his vessels in the shops to display them at their stunning best. Brian also sells his jewel-coloured fluted and plain glass vases, jugs, decanters, bowls and tumblers and the more muted, Mediterranean-toned ceramic tableware online and through a range of stockists across Australia and overseas.
It’s been a remarkable journey for a country lad and he’s quick to add that his story is “the sum total of everyone around me”. “I guess I was the archetypal young gay male,” Brian says. “Awkward at sport and good at music and school. I was just lucky to be born into a supportive family.” At the end of high school, he went on a Rotary exchange to Sweden, where he felt he fitted in. “It was a transformative experience and I’ve kept in touch with my host family,” he says. “I even named a carafe and tumbler set for Pappa Elias and Mamma Birgit.”
Brian returned to Australia and an undergraduate degree at Armidale’s University of New England, where he studied ancient history and languages. While still studying, he returned to Sydney and worked in hotel management before moving to events and fundraising for the AIDS Trust of Australia.
“In 1993, I moved with my now husband David to Canberra, where he was working on a PhD and I did a master in literature,” Brian says. “It began as an investigation of masculinity in the ancient world but delved into definitions of society by looking at the margins. I thought we’d do the study and move on, but we discovered that we loved living in Canberra. It’s a city with an incredibly supportive design community.”
Brian’s interest in ancient civilisations led him to archaeological digs in exotic locations including Aleppo in Syria and Antalya in Türkiye, which in turn deepened his interest in the glass and ceramic objects found at these sites. Along the way, he added Asian ceramics to his portfolio of passions, inadvertently laying the foundations for the design aesthetic he champions in his own work.
“After all that study, I was feeling the need to do something just for myself,” he recalls. “So I did a
ceramics course. David bought me two books on glaze formulations and I pretty much taught myself from there.”
Brian dipped a tentative toe into the waters of retail with a stall at Kingston Markets. “For the first two
weeks, I sold nothing,” he recalls. “So I decided to tune my range and take away all the clutter and strip my work back to clean lines and let the colours and textures speak for themselves.”
His ploy worked as his designs came to the attention of the mavens of home, entertaining and design magazines, and suddenly Bisonhome ceramics and glassware were in demand.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the people I’ve met and worked with along the way,” Brian says. “The business kept growing and I kept pushing myself to keep up with the demand. But working all hours of the day and night took its toll and after 17 years of turning off kilns at 3am, I ended up very ill. The medical advice was walk away or reconfigure the business, so in 2012 I opted for the latter and pushed pause. I loved the hands-on nature of what I was doing, but I just couldn’t keep it up.
These days, Brian focuses on designing and collaborates with studios in India, Thailand and Indonesia. “I chose to be very open and transparent about manufacturing overseas,” he says. “I’m pleased to say the market has been very accepting of the decision. It’s given me more time to concentrate on the things I love, which include gardening. I thought as I was making so many vessels for displaying flowers, I might as well grow my own. About the same time, I was able to open stores in two wonderful old buildings on the Pialligo Estate.”
Brian’s beautiful wares are displayed with a profusion of old-school flowers in the sympatico environs of the estate’s one-time glasshouse and a former chaplain’s cottage from the Duntroon Military College campus.
“I find gardening a great antidote to being ‘on’ all day,” he says. “I love being able to get my hands dirty and then relax into the evening with a glass of Champagne enjoying looking at the flowers when everyone has gone home. It’s as though I’ve come a beautiful full circle here in Pialligo. I’m a good example of someone who has taken a kernel of what they love and made a living from it, but I have to be honest and admit the way I’ve gone about it is a highly impractical way to build a business. I’m just lucky to have had good people supporting me along the way to get to this happy position.”
Photography by Ken Brass