Award-winning designer Tony Burrows focuses on doing things differently as he rationalises the challenge of designing and manufacturing pendant lights in Wānaka. Marjorie Cook reports.

The first time many Wanaka people heard about Albert Town lighting designer Tony Burrows was in late November when he won an inaugural Xero Beautiful Business Fund competition and $70,000 to buy a new laser cutting machine for his home workshop.

His creative business, Buzz Burrows, is a one-man band, operating quietly with Mac-driven technology from a humble workshop next to his house.

During Covid, the former film-maker’s passion project was to fit out the former garage from which he now dispatches lighting art all over the world.

“It is a creative itch really. The business has to support the creativity. I don’t get motivated to create a little financial empire”, he said.

Winning Xero’s New Zealand “trailblazing with technology” category (worth $20,000) and the overall global award ($50,000) was a resounding success on a personal level, he said.

“I have a great track record of not winning competitions. It was a surprise.

“It is always a gamble. You invest two weeks of time getting it right and 99% of the time it goes nowhere.

“But it [entering competitions] is a very useful exercise. It is not often that you get an investment in your business that is relatively obligation free”, Mr Burrows said.

Mr Burrows is a follower of the Maker Movement that came out of the US, which uses new technology to create products from home.

However, he found out about the competition because his Wanaka accountant mentioned it in passing in a client newsletter.

The win was good timing. He’d invested a lot of money in his business and was doubting himself, he said.

His new laser cutter is an XTool manufactured in China and although he finds the technology really interesting — for example, the first software to drive a laser cutter from a Mac was written just four years ago — he admits his wife Tracey’s eyes glaze over when he starts banging on about it.

“My main drive is to be creative … That’s what I learned in the film industry. I never earned money. I learned to be creative. We never had any cash to fully dream. You know, there is always that line in New Zealand, about where you have to use No 8 wire. But it teaches you to mind your business because if you don’t mind your business you can’t do your next [thing].”

Being hundreds of kilometres from anywhere — 425km to Christchurch; 1490km to Auckland — made the cost of materials and reaching markets “a bit silly”.

“It would be a whole lot easier to do in Christchurch or Auckland. But it is an artistic endeavour. I am just not quite sure where I sit on the continuum of being a factory and being an artist. I don’t know and I will let that resolve itself .”

He concedes there is also plenty of competition from China.

“I rationalise the challenge by saying you have to come up with something very desirable … How do you make yours really desirable so people want to buy it?”

As a creative with dyslexia, it felt natural to gravitate towards the film industry and working with lights and pictures rather than words.

Dyslexia was not an advantage or a disability, he said.

“You just function slightly differently.”

Mr Burrows worked in lighting departments for about six years, moving from best boy to cameraman to film-maker.

“I spent a lot of time working with light. When you are a director of photography you are adding light or taking away light. Every day you go on a job and for 10 hours or 12 hours of that day you are thinking about light.”

When he had done his dash with films, he and his wife decided to leave their home of 15 years at Muriwai and give their children a taste of the South Island, where Mr Burrows grew up.

“In the 1860s, I had great-grandfathers land here, one in Christchurch and another one in Hokitika, and I wanted my kids to come back to their roots”, he said.

The family moved to Wellington and then Dunedin before choosing Wanaka, where their children went to Mount Aspiring College before moving on to university and the workforce.

But their parents are sticking around.

“We really didn’t know much about Wanaka, shamefully, but we thought this seems quite nice. We’ll give it a crack. And it has been nice … I am not going to worry about it. I am going to stay here and make it work”, Mr Burrows said.