Updated: Jan 19
This week we have the honour of introducing Mim Fanning to The Design Coach community. In our exclusive Thursday Masterclass, Mim is going to talk about her practice's holistic approach to design: why we design, how we communicate, what makes design stand the test of time and have meaning. This session also explores the benefit of integration and creation of projects with like-minded collaborators - something we are passionate about here at The Design Coach.
Like most designers in Australia, I have followed the superbly crafted interiors that Mim and her team have created since she launched her business in 2000. Next year her company is celebrating 20 years and I can genuinely say that I believe Mim has helped redefine the landscape of Australian design significantly within those two decades.
Mim is setting the standards for considered holistic design across multiple disciplines, from residential, retail, hospitality, multi-residential, workplace and (most recently added to the portfolio) exterior design. It is nearly impossible to travel through the major cities of our country without coming across one of the well-resolved and beautifully detailed projects that Mim Design have created. Moreover, Mim is herself a shining example that hard work and dedication really do pay off, as she has built her business from the ground up to become one of the most revered and lauded design firms in the country.
Celebrated as a successful business woman of the 21st Century, Mim is a positive role model to interior designers everywhere, especially to women who manage the often challenging balance of work and a family lives.
In our interview with Mim we find out more about the drivers that have contributed to her considerable success, and ask for some advice to budding designers keen to start their own practice.
TDC: Your design studio Mim Design is one of the best known and most respected interior businesses in Australia. Did you ever dream that you would be where you are today?
MF: When I had my first major job (with the Buchan Group), I didn’t envisage having my own business. I wanted to work on different sorts of projects, being inspired and excited about whatever I was working on. It wasn’t that I needed to be a senior designer, associate or director by a certain age, it was more about asking myself, “What can I do next that I haven’t done before? How can I expand my knowledge?”
When I did start my own business it was just me. I’m very authentic about what I do and who I am, and I thought it was always just going to be me. Hence the name, Mim Design. There was never really the intention to grow a firm and have a big team.
I loved where I was working (the Buchan Group) and to this day I’m grateful for the valuable lessons I learnt. I worked with some amazing people and had some incredible mentors. I thought I’d be there for good! At the same time, you have to roll with changes.
Having a child (who is now 18) helped me decide to go out on my own. At that time things were very different for a working mother. I really struggled to be both - a mum and an employee, so I decided to do my own thing.
When I started Mim Design I wanted the flexibility, but realistically, having your own business doesn’t necessarily give you that because you have to keep going and you have to be incredibly driven. You can’t stop and start at your own will because you’re the responsible person – responsible to your clients. As you grow, you’re responsible to your team as well.
TDC: What is the size of your team now? What are the biggest challenges operating a design business of this scale?
MF: Next year Mim Design will be 20 years old. I never would have envisaged, even 10 years ago (when we had an office of 8), that we would be a team of 26 today.
I’ve always been a hard worker, and always been incredibly driven but I’ve also been flexible in how I think. That’s why the business has grown to the size it is today. Sometimes you can’t control the outcome so it’s best to see where the business takes you. Of course, you still need to have a plan, especially when you get to a certain size.
With any business, one of the biggest challenges is to always keep the wheels moving whilst not losing who you are. I want to still have all the traits I did when I started - that is, to be inspired, working with people I like working with and with clients who enjoy my dialogue.
Clients’ perceptions of what you do and how quickly you can complete the work are always an issue. We have processes so that we’re very streamlined and it’s not until clients come into the studio and see how many projects we have that they realise why we work to programs. Some clients think that design is immediate, but I believe it’s important to have time to create. So that’s one of the most difficult things – to find that thinking time to ensure you can deliver the design outcome.
TDC: How did you learn about running an interior business before you started Mim Design?
MF: I was really lucky when I was with the Buchan Group. We were allowed to have our own interior design projects (which I wrote the fee letters for) and I understood all the costs and profits. That really helped a lot.
I’m also a very inquisitive person. I truly like to find out why we do what we do and, having a curious nature (even before I started Mim Design) really helped me out.
TDC: Who were your biggest influences throughout your early design career?
MF: Obviously, there are global designers, but there’s also local people who I worked with.
I had incredible mentors (specifically two mentors) throughout my period at the Buchan Group. To this day I still have a mentor and I really think that’s invaluable. I encourage all of my team to find a mentor, whether they’re within the firm or outside the firm.
I was really inspired from university days by all sorts of designers, not just interior designers. In Year 12 I completed an assessment on Ettore Sottsass as he was coming into the Memphis Group period. I loved the fact that he was an industrial designer – he did jewellery as well as textiles and ceramics. It was really inspirational to see something outside the box. I loved his famous Carlton Room Divider – it was like a sculpture in its own right; it didn’t look like a room divider or a bookcase. It made me think “Why does design always have to be so pragmatic and generalised.” Even his Desk Lamp is quite unique.
In my twenties I found 2 architects that really resonated with me; who’s work I really enjoyed and admired. The first was Richard Neutra (I’ve been lucky enough to go to 2 of his houses in the States). I love his ability to create sculptured form that was all about proportion and shape. I also love his floor plans. Behind everything he did there was an ease of living and an inter-connectedness, really making a difference in the way people live today.
The other was a Mexican architect called Ricardo Legorreta. He designed in a very block formatted style: large proportions, deep set windows with massive shapes and forms. What I loved the most was that all of his architecture played with shadow. His work was also extremely brightly pigmented or coloured. I did go and see some of his works in LA and Mexico when I was younger, and to take a photo was like taking a photo of artwork. I’m very driven by artwork so I can see how I resonated with his work.
Up to today, I really love Patricia Urquiola – she’s a superstar! I love that she’s not just an interior designer; she’s an industrial designer and a textile designer. She can pretty much do anything. She layers her design and gets into the micro details. One of my favourite chairs is a design by her from 2005 called the Smock Chair.
It’s really funny, I’ve got designers that I love and follow that are really diverse in their styles, from the follies of Ettore to the blockiness of Legorreta, and then the pragmatism of Neutra to the micro detail of Urquiola. You can see how they might not all work together, but they actually do. It says a lot about me - in business today that translates into diversification and we definitely are diverse in the nature of the projects that we take on: from a piece of furniture to a masterplan. It couldn’t be more diverse in scale, form and shape.
TDC: Yours is a truly multi-disciplinary firm, covering interior design and exterior design across all sectors. What drives you to keep expanding the breadth of your portfolio?
MF: If you had told me 6 years ago that we would be working on building design projects I wouldn’t have thought it was on our path, but so many clients were coming to us first and asking us to consult on the exterior. I guess that expanding the business really came from listening to the needs of our clients.
Most importantly, it’s made us a really integrated office. I’ve got an amazing team with an associate that heads up the building architectural design division. At the start of an architectural project the interiors team are working with the architects, so the planning is incredibly efficient. It’s an approach that straddles both aspects of the design process, and a philosophy I’ve seen on my travels that I believe is very successful.
I also want my clients to enjoy the process of delivering a design. You hear so many stories of frustration. Good design takes time (especially if you have to consider planning and permits), but we still want our clients to enjoy the process and the communication method.
Having said that, we still collaborate with some incredible architects and designers. I love that aspect of our work too. I’ve been collaborating with talented people all of my professional life. Collaboration is an important part of what we do, on a day to day basis.
TDC: Operating such a broad spectrum of projects must mean lots of moving parts that don’t necessarily always naturally align. How do you maintain control over such a machine?
MF: If you have processes and structures in place it helps the team work together. It’s so important to ensure that you have that structure, particularly if you’re working on diverse range of projects with different team players.
Having stages allows team members to feel comfortable, that they are in control of what they are doing at any particular time.
Being able to delegate comes from confidence in the processes you have in place and confidence in your team – being able to know where a project sits at any time.
TDC: You have a distinct signature style that is setting standards for Australian design. Do you feel a responsibility to push Australian design and represent our country to the world? How could we be doing this better as an industry?
MF: I don’t particularly feel that we have a signature style, although we do like to keep the elements of quality and timelessness featured from project to project. I say to my team that every time we do a new project it needs to be different. It’s a hard thing to do, but we do always try to approach every new client uniquely.
With Australian design I would love there to be more knowledge about what we do; I think that Australians see what we do as disposable. When you visit cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm and Milan - design is revered. I think that good design, and good designers, should be revered. I’m not talking about myself – we have incredible designers from the past and we should make sure that we celebrate them.
The future of Australian design is about collaborating and sharing. Even though I love to collaborate, I think that as an industry we don’t do this as much as they do internationally. It will make us a stronger community.
Importantly, it would be good to see that Australian interior designers are able to be registered. For Australians to properly respect and revere design we need our industry to be legislated.
Australian designers are very clever and all the designers I love and follow do something different. We also design with form, function and reason – it’s very prevalent in what you see whether it be interior design or architecture. We follow the light as a country – our designs are open and airy and they follow the aspect of the sun – which is lovely to see. Also, as a country we love the use of authentic materials and we design for the surrounding environment. Even though we have design that can sometimes be folly, it always has meaning and reason.
No more fakes! Get rid of the fakes and let’s start celebrating good design and good designers. Our people put their heart and soul into design, whether it’s a product or a space, and it shouldn’t be something that we dispose of. Supporting people who are at the forefront of encouraging authentic design is really important.
TDC: How do you maintain balance in your life, ensuring you get enough rest to stay inspired, and time with friends and family?
MF: Next question!
It’s really hard. We’re in the middle of a really busy period at the moment…
I do try to go away in the middle of the year just with family. Aside from a Dulux trip about 2 years ago, I haven’t done a work trip for more than 4 years because I’m at that point with my family where I want to spend every minute possible with them, including holidays. That might be detrimental to the business in terms of visiting important shows like Milan, but at the same time I’ve got a family and I work hard, so I want to make time for them.
I get invited to a lot of industry functions and I do try hard to go to the ones where the company has been a big supporter of ours. I’m a big believer in supporting our amazing reps and the office has the same mentality.
I do like to have a life outside of work, so I refuse to take work home. When I leave the office, I do leave the office.
TDC: What advice would you give to designers who are looking to start a design practice?
MF: You must be driven, you must expect the good times with the bad and you should be flexible with your thought process.
We all have egos, but at the end of the day, it’s not always about you! Having a level of empathy and being humble are very important parts of who we are as designers.
TDC: What are you working on at the moment that really excites you?
MF: 2020 is going to be an exciting year. 20 years of practice in 2020. They’re great numbers!
At the moment we are looking at doing a case study book – 20 projects that I’ve loved over the 20 years.
It’s also about considering where the market is going – even though we’re on a downturn economically, sometimes that’s where other opportunities in the design industry appear. Sometimes a negative turns into a positive.
We’ve had a busy year already where we’ve photographed 20 projects, so watch this space!
Tickets are sold out for the Mim Masterclass but to find out more about upcoming events (including a Masterclass by the team at Flack Studio!) head to our website.
Time & Location
MIM DESIGN MASTERCLASS
DATE: Thursday 2nd May
TIME: 6.30pm - 8.30pm
LOCATION: Mim Design, South Yarra