Fabio Ongarato and Ronnen Goren are Melbourne boys “from different sides of the track.” They say this together in unison, in the way only old friends can—with a knowing look and a hearty laugh. As creative director and head of strategy respectively of Studio Ongarato, their newly named Australian design firm, the pair have been in business together for 26 years. Working globally, with offices in Hong Kong and Dubai, their multi-award-winning studio has seen them become luminaries of Australian design, challenging the conventions of branding, way finding and placemaking.
Their studio, located in one of Melbourne’s most creatively charged inner-city suburbs, Prahran, is their third. Towering public housing flats sit across the road from their incognito warehouse. Farther down is the famous Chapel Street strip and its connecting side roads leading to markets, theaters, cafés, nightclubs, bazaars, art colleges, circus schools, fashion boutiques, thrift stores and food providores, all steeped in history. After twelve years in another trendy Melbourne suburb, the pair decided to return about ten years ago to where it all began for the company formerly known as Fabio Ongarato Design.
Art and culture are part of the fabric of this multidisciplinary studio. It’s also the main reason why Ongarato and Goren decided to move back to Prahran. “Where we were at the time was a bit soulless. There’s a more eclectic energy here. There are crazies and stuff,” Goren says. It’s an environment that matches the studio’s broader ethos to embrace the bold, daring and sometimes confrontational. Known as risk-takers in the design landscape and the answer for big corporations looking to do something different, Studio Ongarato has largely built its reputation on the back of its early and ongoing collaborations with contemporary artists, writers, illustrators, architects and cultural organizations.
For the luxurious Jackalope Hotel on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, the studio commissioned Australian artist Emily Floyd, who created a twenty-three-foot-tall sculpture of the mythical creature to stand at the hotel’s entrance. Selected works by controversial Australian photographer Bill Henson were incorporated at Melbourne residential development 85 Spring Street. The studio has a long-standing relationship with Henson, most famously known for his nudes of young teens, going back to their 1997 campaign for fashion house Scanlan Theodore featuring an adolescent with her nipple exposed. Never one to shy away from the complexities and taboos of fine art, the studio curated works by Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, primarily known for his works exploring eroticism and bondage, for Kisumé restaurant in Melbourne. “We’ve always had a very open-table way of creating,” Ongarato says. “Collaboration can be seen as a form of contamination because you have to let go and there’s always a point of risk. But without risk, you can’t really create something new.”
Studio Ongarato’s expressive, sophisticated and edgy work with a wide range of local and international clients is what prompted Louis Li, director of Jackalope Hotel, to give its team a call. “I was looking for a studio with a high level of cultural awareness whose designs can stand out in every market. Their work gave me the confidence that the studio has experience in many fields, and with their comprehensive abilities, they can nail any challenge,” Li says. Referencing Jackalope’s vineyard location with a narrative-led approach based on the theme of “alchemy,” the studio developed the brand identity, way finding signage and art curation, including a custom-made lighting installation for the hotel restaurant that pays homage to fermentation with its dense, bubbling cloud of suspended glass bulbs.
Other hotels stroked with the brush of Studio Ongarato’s narrative-led approach include the Five-star W Hotels in Brisbane, Shanghai and Hong Kong and the artistic QT Hotels across Australia. “We’ve never seen something as just a logo; we always see things more filmic than that,” Ongarato says. “The most interesting brands are the ones that have more layers to them. We don’t look for the obvious; we look for the things that make it interesting, and then we really amplify those points. We always did it naturally, but now we know how to use it as part of our strategy.” It’s a strategy that has helped shape many leading brands and organizations, including Aesop, Medibank and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. In 2017 alone, the studio won no less than twelve awards, including being recognized as the Australian Graphic Design Association’s Studio of the Year, and, in recent years, it has grown to a staff of 30.
Marita Burke, creative director of Mecca Cosmetica, says Studio Ongarato stands out from other design studios for its comprehensive approach to brand immersion. “They simply won’t start any [design] work until every question in their minds has been answered, and that can be a lot of questions,” Burke says. “Fab is the deep thinker and Ronnen is the deep inquisitor, and that creates perfect alchemy. You have Ronnen asking all the right questions, allowing Fab to internalize it all, take it all in and then create the magic. They both add so much value without crossing over each other.”
Born to Italian migrants, Ongarato grew up in the working-class suburb of Oak Park, northwest of Melbourne. “I do fight back,” he says with Danny Zuko charm. A talented artist from an early age, his parents engaged a tutor to help develop his skill. “I always had creative tendencies, and I could paint all the paintings when I was five. I was pretty full on,” Ongarato says. His father hails from Venice, and his mother from farther north of Italy. “Mum’s very creative. Dad, no. But they were both surrounded by art and culture, so it’s something they tried to instill as much as they could,” he says. After discovering Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, featuring Peter Saville’s iconic album artwork of black-and-white radio waves, he knew he’d found his calling. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be an architect or a fashion designer or stick to fine art. It wasn’t until that moment where you pick up a record and go, ‘This is it; this is the nexus between communication and art.’ You become this pivotal person who communicates so many things, and music led me into that,” he says. Ongarato went on to study visual communication at RMIT University, where Goren also completed his degree in architecture. He’d grown up in the “Jewish ghetto” of upper-class Brighton East in the first and only pink house on the street. “My mum was a frustrated architect and always very creative,” Goren says. His dad migrated from Israel, and his mother’s background was European; together, his parents established fashion labels sold in stores on Chapel Street.
A friend would come to recommend Ongarato to Goren for an exhibition on postwar Jewish architecture he was working on, and before long, they decided to team up. Working from the stockroom of a contemporary art gallery amid paintings by upcoming artists, they immersed themselves in their environment and designed catalogs, books and publications. Work in fashion closely followed. It was during a recession that they carved out a niche for themselves, standing as an alternative to the big branding studios of the time. “We were a new generation that wanted a sense of independence. I think we had a slightly different view and approach to things that was much less graphic design and more culturally diverse,” Goren says. Along with contemporary art, music, fashion and photography, the pair shared a love for the Bauhaus movement as well as what Charles and Ray Eames stood for. “They designed everything from films to furniture and everything in between. They saw design as problem solving but also storytelling,” Goren says. For Ongarato, images by German Australian photographer Helmut Newton highlighted the art of tension in creating memorable works, while the 1970 film Il Conformista by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci became a reference point he would come back to again and again. “It taught me about art direction, light, cinematography, and it’s inspired me through nearly half the shoots I’ve done,” Ongarato says.
Alexie Glass-Kantor, executive director of Artspace, has worked with the studio for fifteen years on various curatorial projects. “When I’m doing big, risky projects that require different kinds of design, they’re my go-to people,” she says.
Robert Buckingham of MPavilion says the pair have created an extraordinary business by understanding the value of difference, the power of taste and the importance of beauty. “They design like architects and filmmakers; they manipulate space, create perfectly framed scenes and choreograph imagery. And, while naturally drawn to elegance, they are prepared to subvert their innate good taste to achieve more-unusual results,” Buckingham says. Far from parochial, the studio has always had an international sensibility. “They judge themselves in a global context and have always sought to work with the best photographers and illustrators from all over the world. Their incredible knowledge and interest in art and design make them much more sophisticated than most designers.”
Although they have no plans to leave anytime soon, Ongarato and Goren have made moves to ensure the longevity of the studio. Three staff members have been appointed to a new leadership team, prompting the name change. The story goes that Ongarato registered the original business name while Goren was still partying. “It never should’ve been just me,” Ongarato says. Anyone who says the old name now has to put money in the “F” jar as Studio Ongarato prepares for the next exciting chapter and embraces the unknown future of design. ca