Our interview with Dylan Farrell of Dylan Farrell Design.
In the lead up to Dylan’s much-anticipated, sold out Masterclass on 1st May, we ask him some questions to find out a bit about his background, and specifically the experiences that have contributed to the incredible creative knowledge he possesses.
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TDC : Thanks for speaking to us today Dylan. Your Masterclass on the 1st May has generated a bit of a stir across the east coast of Australia! We have designers flying in from different states, eager to learn about your sources of inspiration and design process.
Having only started your own business in 2016, it may seem to many that you have had a meteoric rise to fame, though we know there have been many years of hard work to get you to where you are now. How have all the lessons from your past work lives come together to inform Dylan Farrell Design today?
DF: It’s a pleasure to be a part of TDC’c mission — glad to be useful.
I confess that I continue to be surprised that anyone notices what we do. Sincerely, when one is consumed by what they do, it is bizarre to look up and notice that people are actually taking note of the results. There is a point in this realization — one of the most important secrets to our success is to never depend too much on what others think. If we believe in what we are doing, visualize the goal, and unceasingly focus on the path, it will connect... and people will take notice of the momentum. Style is about self confidence, not self reassurance.
I do not think that our work is on trend — which sometimes worries me when I see other designers with 250k followers on IG. But I have learned that this is definitively not a popularity contest. We do not want the most fans; rather we want the right associates and collaborators — ones who are aligned with our philosophies and mission, and therefore are enthusiastic and trusting.
We are not selling Coca-Cola or boy-band singles... we are selling highly customized one-off experiences to discerning collaborators. So it would really worry me if the entire world agreed with our vision. I have to regularly remind myself of this, living in a world that is geared to convince anyone left-of-centre that anything which is not all-appreciated is somehow deficient.
TDC: The intriguing title for your class, “Fight for Fantasy”, has us asking lots of questions. How do you incorporate fantasy into your designs, and what’s the fight about?
DF: Anyone who has an opportunity to play a notable role in the type of design we practice — whether it be a client, designer, fabricator, or builder — I believe has a philosophical duty to go above and beyond the ‘usual’. This does not mean that we need to go crazy or be ‘over the top’, but there should be a striving for something more than just another typical fit-out with a coat of wacky paint. This type of creative innovation requires that we work from a perspective of “fantasy”, so that we might create something that is actually ‘fantastic’.
Look, even modestly budgeted design projects in Sydney and Melbourne are worlds more expensive than what most people in the world will ever have a chance to access — and for this we are tremendously blessed. With this blessing comes a duty — to work hard to create something that inspires the users... to be better... be happier... more excited. Otherwise those bricks, mortar, and resources are better utilized for public institutions, healthcare, education, or other more impactful social activities.
Simply, if we are going to spend millions of dollars on a private residence — great — let’s just do our very, very best to make sure those residences are never 'standard'.
This is where the “fight” comes in. It is so alluring to just ‘keep it simple’, make it fast, cash in, be done, and go to the beach. Especially after decades of training, sleepless nights, working at break-even or losses... it can be exhausting for a designer. And equally, after years of working under pressure, saving, planning, and purchasing... it can be exhausting for a client. And also a builder... and a cabinet maker. Sometimes we all want to just cut-and-paste a same-old-design into a new project — and sometimes my clients and collaborators also would prefer we do so for expediency. But at the end of the day, I know in my heart that cutting corners and being lazy or programmatic will leave the project and clients wanting. So we need to keep pushing to discover the best version of what is required.
Our time alive is so finite... and we have such fantastic access to resource... why shouldn’t we battle to create a more fantastic world?
TDC: Unbridled creativity seems to be something that drives the notion of the “Fight for Fantasy”. Were you a creative child from a creative family? Or did your creativity emerge as you matured?
DF: My father is an interior architect; my mother is a psychologist; my grandparents owned an art gallery. My aunt would take me on outings to the Met or Brooklyn museum when I was a toddler — I was doomed to be a creative thinker from day one.
What is perhaps interesting is that I am also a bit OCD. The combination makes for torturous creative relationships with my team (sorry guys!), and my poor wife and partner Nicolette somehow survives it also. However those Gemini-Taurus idiosyncrasy makes for good practice in the applied arts, as a striving for order and usefulness tempers the creativity, making the creativity more accessible.
“Unbridled” is an interesting observation to me, because I feel like I am constantly trying to shake the mental chains that I feel are limiting my creative progress.
TDC: You met your wife and business partner Nicolette at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, which has been ranked as one of the top ten colleges for art and design. How did this education shape both of your careers? (And what’s it like working and living together?)
DF: Pratt was an amazing experience, and the Industrial Design program where I studied was highly innovative, both conceptually and technically. I met Nicolette there when I was a young professor in the Interior Design program after I graduated, and she was an older transfer student (we are about 5 years apart). We were collaborators from the very start; we literally first spent personal time together when she offered to teach me a CAD program, and in return I offered to teach her anatomy casting techniques..... seriously..... at the time I was making prosthetic make-up designs in a Brooklyn art studio. Good stuff. From there we never stopped working together.
Pratt is a highly technical design school, and that training continues to play a major role in what I believe is the exactitude of our styling and execution. Nicolette and I are both consistently on the tools with our design team, and we enjoy that about our practice.
Nicolette is equally a driver in the business, and in a lot of ways, she is far more essential than me. My name is on the front door because when we launched the business almost 5 years ago, she was pregnant with our daughter, and our 3 year old son had just been diagnosed with autism. We have no family here in Australia; we had to navigate it on our own. So we made a difficult but practical decision — rather than us sharing the burden of the social/political aspects of our business and family, we instead divided and conquered. I would oversee the most difficult aspects of the business, and that would leave her more flexibility to comfortably detach from the business when need be... without her phone ringing at 9pm. Those late night calls from clients are mine; midday teacher conferences are hers.
However, now that we are finding more stride with both the family and business, she is beginning to cautiously play a more public role in he business, and I am taking more time to step away and spend time with my kids.
TDC: You have designed an incredible range of furniture and lighting (available via the Dylan Farrell Design website). The cross over between interior design an industrial design is not as prevalent in Australia as in the USA and Europe. Did you start designing because you couldn’t find the right pieces for your projects, or was this always part of your grand plan?
DF: Thanks for the kind observations.
Both — necessity and a master plan. It started because we wanted certain results for our interiors that could not be achieved through market purchases. I had a background in furniture, having majored in industrial design and also practicing for years as an antique restorer — so I always wanted to make furniture. However making a physical commercial item is a big leap from conceptualizing designs or repairing existing pieces.
The first was a sideboard for a 5th Avenue apartment in NYC. The client wanted a one-of-a-kind 1940’s Jules Leleu case piece — it was 75,000 USD (15 years ago). They (understandably) didn’t want to pay that sort of money; so I said ‘give me a shot at making you a customized piece for that position, and I will use Leleu as a departure point”. They agreed. So I conceived a piece in brass, mother of Pearl, and fiddleback maple — I oversaw all aspects of the pricing, approval, integration, construction, and delivery. I made a great margin, the client saved a lot of money, and project was featured on the cover of Interiors magazine. Everyone won. Once I realized the possibilities, I never looked back.
Further, I love being in the studio and getting on the tools. Furniture is a great excuse to get away from the drawing board and get my hands dirtier... make believe I am a fabricator for an afternoon or so. I think our (real) fabricators get a kick out of it when they see me fumbling around with the tools.
TDC: The MCA in Sydney is an important platform for contemporary artists in Australia. You’ve nominated the MCA to be the recipient of 30% of profits from the tickets sales from our upcoming Masterclass. Art seems to be an integral part of all of your projects. How has your history as an art consultant fostered your passion for contemporary art?
DF: Nicolette and I are financial and moral supporters of the MCA; I think we are foundation members, if that title is right. Even though our income is modest compared to the heavy donors, we believe in socialized impact. If everyone who could afford it gave modest donations to these types of important institutions, the world would be a much more interesting place. So we want to play our part.
Art is the essential pivoting element in everything we do at my firm. Literally pieces of art will inspire our colour work for a project; sculptural references will birth ideas for furniture; curation gives the volume of architecture reason. Art is both the initial building block as well as the finishing touch in all our designs, no matter the budget or style.
Having been a fanatically devoted fine artist and musician for the decade of my 20s (I didn’t practice interior designer regularly until I was about 30), the more ethereal aspects of the applied arts still today drive the soul of our business. This is literally realized in our support of the arts and regular assurance that we are employing artists, both literally and figuratively, inside our designs.
TDC: Your projects involve custom fabrication of interesting materials, often used in unconventional ways. You’ve spoken to us about your incredible network of talented artisans who help to make your ideas into reality. Explain to us how you find these people, and perhaps talk a bit about the importance of nurturing these relationships.
DF: Without our fabricators and artisans, a designer’s work is nothing. The designs simply become conceptualists, and no one would (nor should) care about what we do. I think it is an unfortunate reality that tradespeople do not get put on pedestals more often. How often do you hear about a ‘celebrity carpenter’? Acknowledging this deficiency is important — translating the importance of these tradespeople to my clients is critical — repaying the expertise of these professionals with proper funding as well as the currency of respect is essential. Without this, great works do not get built, and relationships are fleeting at best.
We find our collaborators by staying curious; we then nurture those relationships by being loyal. We attempt to weave our preferred trades into our projects, so that their say carries . For this reason, we select our collaborators very carefully, and we nurture those relationships even more carefully. I make time to work closely with them so that they understand all the nuances of our process — including the pressures of timing, finance, and expectation. The more they understand what we deal with as designers, the more they respect our perspectives. Equally, the more I learn about the difficulty of their own processes, the more I respect and sympathize with their own requirements. Like any relationship, mutual respect is usually the most important indicator of lasting success.
It is also important that our specifications are as exact as possible. When we leave holes in specifications and instructions, it usually translated to losses for the fabricator. It is a sign of respect to deliver diligent drawings and exacting specs — trades will take you much more seriously if your data is well organized and intentions are clear.
TDC: One of the principles that you will talk about in our upcoming Masterclass is “Ignoring trends”. What part do you see that magazines and awards play in perpetuating the notion of “disposable design” that is driven by seasonal trends and fads?
DF: The key to both a stylish and green future is to create well, buy well and buy once. Therefore, I never buy or create what is on trend — instead we buy or create what is called for and will continue to be the right solution for many years to come.
I believe that the influence of media is a double-edged sword. On one hand, magazines and competitions inspire us, exhibiting the best works in the world. On the other hand, they need to sell advertising, and advertisers want to manipulate our opinions to sell volume. It is self-defeating and constructing at the same time -- and ouroboros. I think the jury is still out on the role of contemporary media in society; especially as related to the arts.
There is a fascinating documentary called “Century of the Self”, and it focuses on the very intentional commercial propaganda developed in the 1920s that now permeates our society and regularly lures people into buying mass manufactured personality. Really, how special is it to own a lamp that a million other people own also? There is nothing wrong with that if the lamp is simply for utility — but let’s please not call that couture design or define it as luxury. Let’s instead call it what it is — stuff.
TDC: You’re operating from a beautiful studio in Paddington, Sydney, which our Masterclass guests will get to explore on the 1st May, but you also do a lot of work in Melbourne. What does the team look like now, and what plans do you have for the near future? Should we be working on something together in Melbourne?
DF: About half of our work is in Melbourne, so doing something there is a very sane idea.
The future is bright, and what feels unique about our current position is that we have achieved access without compromising our philosophy. I believe that our somewhat frenetic style is slowly starting to merge into an identifiable, if also still ambiguous, concept. Because there is a graspable concept developing, it is likely time to begin expanding beyond our intimate team of nine.
For the same reason, we are starting to dive deeper into our relationships with our clients. Now that I have tested our methods and seen that the results deliver, both in terms of capitol and spiritual return, I am approaching the start of jobs with additional, but still modest, confidence. I now can believe myself when I say to a client "this is going to work", whereas in the past, not having the same independent portfolio behind me, I felt obliged to instead say "I am pretty sure this will work". It is an interesting shift, and it makes for stronger relationships with my clients and collaborators.
There is also likely a gallery space in our future — we are currently testing those waters with a pop-up gallery in Woollahra, which I just collected the keys for yesterday. I have always had a huge admiration for practitioners like Blackman Cruz and Ralph Pucci, so we may be taking that type of leap as we discuss the possibilities of a broader atelier with all types of collaborators, local and international alike.
Last, I will finally work on my own house in Paddington.... more to come on that one. Ask me again in a year... eeeeek!
We are incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to create the experience of connecting Dylan with our TDC members and look forward to what is sure to be a day full of insights and inspiration.
To find out more about our past and future Masterclasses, have a look at our website.
If you have a favourite designer that you would like us to include in our series, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time & Location
Masterclass: Dylan Farrell of Dylan Farrell Design
Fight for Fantasy
Saturday 1 May 2021
9am - 4pm
Dylan Farrell Studio, Paddington, Sydney
Please note that due to COVID-19, event details may change.
(All images have been provided by Dylan Farrell Design)