The intoxicating craziness of love can make us do the wildest of things – often on a whim – that we might not have otherwise had the courage to do. But while the love affair itself might only be fleeting, the place it takes us to is often where we belonged all along. In Greg Hatton’s case, his heart took him to Europe, in pursuit of an Austrian beauty he had met in Australia. And it was there that he unearthed his passion for handcrafting furniture, which, it turns out, might just have been his calling all along. Now happily settled in matters of love, Greg has become known for his beautifully rustic furniture creations that manage to imbue a living space with a calming sense of nature.
“Geography won in the end,” Greg says of his inevitably doomed relationship with the Austrian girl, much of which was spent travelling between Austria and Melbourne. “It was one of those things where home is home – there were no mountains in Australia for her and it was too cold over there for me.”
Long before he was off gallivanting overseas in name of love, Greg grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, on an old apple orchard that had been recently converted into a housing estate. “The thing I remember most about my childhood is freedom,” he says. “There were a lot of nature reserves around and there were lots of young families, so I grew up in a street with about 50 kids my age. Being a rather obnoxious child, I was basically told as soon as I got home from school to go outside and play.”
As a young lad, Greg’s first taste of building something from scratch with his own hands came while running with that motley neighbourhood pack, when he constructed his own billycart from neighbourhood jetsam. “We lived in a fairly hilly area and billycarts were a pretty serious occupation for us all,” he recalls. “Every rubbish day we’d all be running around the neighbourhood first thing, scavenging the wheels of old lawnmowers to build our next billycart.”
His fascination with pulling things apart and putting them back together and making things from discarded objects only grew from there. His handcrafted repertoire soon extended to cubby houses, bicycles and a chair he made for his mother when he was 12 from a fallen tree in the backyard.
Greg’s handcrafting skills ended up serving him well later in life – specifically when he was searching for a way to earn money while accommodating his Austrian beloved’s penchant for moving countries on a whim. His prospects were limited by his lack of working visa and German language skills, but after having tried his hand at a few different professions – such as bike courier, fisheries officer and vegetable farmer – he soon realised that woodworking fit him best.
When he finally returned to Australia for good, following the demise of his relationship, he decided to try woodworking as a career. Using recycled willow branches, Greg began crafting furniture, fences and sculptures that still maintained the organic, rustic aesthetic of their original form – gnarls, knots and all. Having studied environmental management at university, Greg felt especially connected to Australia’s natural environment and using it as his medium. “Growing up, every holiday we would go camping in national parks – my parents are both fairly conservation oriented. For me it’s about trying to capture the beauty of the raw material. I think there’s so many manufactured things in the world that it’s so much better if you can do it while still maintaining a sense of origin, using timber that looks like it’s from a tree. I also started off using weed tree species like willow, elm and poplar, so that I was using plants that had a negative impact on the environment, but in a positive way.”
To help pay the bills during the fledgling stage of his business, Greg began working as the ‘mudboy’ mixing cement for a childhood friend who was a stonemason. He soon realised that the best way to get off the arduous cement-mixing shift was to learn the art itself, and he set about learning the intricacies of stonemasonry. Drawn to the rawness of the rockwork, he then began to incorporate the skill into his own work.
While his first workshop was based in Melbourne, Greg would make regular trips to country Victoria to scrounge for his materials. The lure of nature grew increasingly stronger, and he soon realised that he’d rather base himself in the country and travel to the city when he needed to. In 2000, he packed up his workshop and the rest of his belongings and moved to the small town of Newstead, in Central Victoria. “I haven’t really looked back,” he admits. “The locals here say that the best view of Melbourne is in the rear-view mirror and I kind of feel that way – this is home now for me.”
A few years ago Greg and his partner, Katie, moved into a dilapidated old butter factory in Newstead. Despite its sorry state at the time, the couple fell instantly in love with the space – seeing the potential beyond the crumbling walls – and have been slowly renovating it back to life. Included in the renovations is kind of bed-and-breakfast-style apartment that people can rent out for weekend sojourns in the countryside.
“We’re thinking of also doing an artist-in-residence kind of thing – and having a selection process – to encourage people to come and stay for a while,” Greg adds. “I like the idea of feeding off other people’s work as well and being inspired by it.”
As for his other inspirations, it’s Katie – mother to their two young daughters – who inspires Greg both personally and professionally. “She’s a florist and she’s just one of the happiest people you’re likely to meet,” he says. “She relates to everyone so easily and is an incredibly hard worker at the same time. To me, that’s one of the most important things in someone.”
With his handcrafted furniture, sculptures and other work in high demand, Greg says that he feels successful in that he has been able to turn his craft into a living, but that the true meaning of success for him is something different. “I’m more interested in being recognised by my peers as having some integrity, whether that be through design or my own personality,” he says. “I think that defines success more than anything.”
When seeking moments of peace amidst the craziness of running his own business and helping to raise two young girls, he heads off into the bush to find solace in nature. “If I’m ever starting to get a bit frayed around the edges, that’s where I find my peace, whether it’s sitting on top of a hill somewhere or finding a nice spot along the river.”
One of life’s most important lessons, he says, is recognising – and respecting – our relative insignificance when compared to majesty of the natural environment. “Never consider yourself to be above nature or think that you have the power to control it. Human beings aren’t beyond nature – we’re part of it.”