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  • Jen Nurick

Shape shifter

Sarah Ellen is best known as a fashion influencer, but that’s about to change with her creative pivot to painting and furniture design. Words Jen Nurick
Sarah Ellen on Mod Form’s “Lazy Boy” chair.
Sarah Ellen on Mod Form’s “Lazy Boy” chair.

Of all the peculiar paradises where artists seek out inspiration, Sarah Ellen says her grandmother’s garage, tucked away in Hillston, New South Wales, served as a font of creativity. “I remember thinking that her garage was heaven,” says Ellen, recalling the feeling of “sneaking into her studio and being mesmerised by all the colours”.


Her grandmother Beryl Robertson’s artistic practice focused on native birds and landscapes — in contrast to Ellen’s abstracted approach, identifiable for its recurring circles hugged by swaths of juxtaposing hues. But her artworks are redolent of her grandmother’s playful palette, which instilled an affection for the craft and, specifically, vivid colours, early on.


Without peering into Ellen’s childhood and conjuring her image of heaven, one may wonder why the burgeoning artist has pivoted into painting and, more recently, design with the launch of Mod Form (modform.co), a furniture company she co-founded with Jonathan Friend in 2020. After all, she has been captivating audiences online for more than a decade, amassing a community of 793,000 Instagram followers. At 24, Ellen has conquered the fashion world, traversing the well-heeled paths from New York to London, Paris and Milan to attend fashion weeks.


She has worked with blue-chip fashion houses, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Tiffany & Co., while championing nascent Australian designers. For outsiders, it may seem tempting to slip into that luxurious milieu and become mired in someone else’s grandiose visions of how we might dress in the future.


But not so for Ellen, who has been patiently and steadily unfurling her own ideas behind the scenes. “I always felt like a spectator working in the fashion industry,” she says, explaining that it was self-expression that piqued her interest in the space. “Watching shows, wearing other people’s designs and, don’t get me wrong, I admire the work of the creative directors of these fashion houses — I’m constantly being blown away by their genius — but being a creative myself, I always knew I was destined to give birth to my own creative endeavour.”


Ellen traces that instinct in part back to the classroom. “I was the only kid who wasn’t shy with the amount of paint I’d move around my canvas,” she remembers of school art classes. “Other kids would have these tiny blots of paint on their palettes and I would have these mega-blobs of paint to mix colours,” she says.


“Mixing colours was my favourite thing to do as a child and still is to this day.” At 18, she moved into her first apartment, in the Sydney beachside neighbourhood of Tamarama. She co-opted the living room for sleep and socialising and converted the bedroom into a studio. “It was in that apartment that I would experiment with different mediums and dream about [staging] my very own exhibition one day,” she says.


Now, Ellen works out of a dedicated studio in Alexandria and will showcase her work to the public later this year — though, of course, she has already teased some pieces online. “Every day I am mesmerised by the opportunities of merging technology with art,” she says. “For example, sharing the artwork I made in my studio, that is now on the cover of this magazine, with thousands of people. That would not have been possible without technology — it truly is magic.”


The exhibit will immerse viewers in Ellen’s world, “taking the audience on a journey through colour, chosen by very carefully curated palettes”. All artworks are large-scale, but each piece varies in its execution: depending on Ellen’s mood, some artworks were soundtracked by Billie Holiday, others by drum’n’bass. Ellen alternates between oil and acrylic paint, though she’s especially fond of the former. “It’s almost sculptural working with oil,” she says.


“Not only do you have to think about the colours, but you have to think about the texture from each brushstroke that’s laid on to the canvas. A lot of attention to detail comes into play when you’re working with oil and I’m fascinated by that.” Ellen channels that intrigue into Mod Form. “Designing furniture is a sculptural extension of my art,” she explains. “I get to mix form and function, which is the most exciting part.”


Sarah Ellen & Modform Co-founder, Jonathan Friend
Sarah Ellen & Modform Co-founder, Jonathan Friend

Her preoccupation with geometry is reified off-canvas in asymmetric coffee and dining tables and benches, where organic, beanlike shapes and circles take on new meaning in solid oak. “The circles represent life, birth, growth, decline, death. They also represent perfection and totality,” she says of the symbolism contained in her paintings, but it may be carried over to her furniture-making. Her biggest lesson so far? “Good things take time.” After two years in the making, Mod Form launched in August this year.


“Together, we saw sketches turn into prototypes and then those prototypes turn into pieces of furniture sitting in people’s living rooms, so that has been extremely creatively satisfying,” says Ellen. While she nurtures her new business and prepares for her exhibition, she’s excited by the potential of what comes next. “The opportunities are endless working across the three industries I work in,” she says. “I feel truly blessed to have my fingers dipped in all of them.”



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