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Introducing the 2023 TDC Scholarship Winner : Olivia Macfarlane (Undercurrent Studio)

"It's just come at such an essential time in my business. And I'm doubly thrilled about being part of a design community with real accountability and the opportunity to learn from the group that goes with it."

Our interview with Olivia Macfarlane

Olivia Macfarlane, Photography by Tim Pierce

Freshly crowned as the 2023 Scholar, Olivia sat down with the team to talk about her design journey up to now, and what she is most excited about with our upcoming year of classes, courses and programs at TDC.

TDC: Congratulations on winning the 2023 TDC Scholarship, Olivia! We are so excited to commence working with you this month. The field of applications this year was outstanding. How does it feel to be the recipient of the scholarship?

OM: It’s brilliant! I feel truly honoured to be the first Kiwi to have won this scholarship. So many Australian designers inspire me, it’s neat to be bridging that gap across the ditch. I’m also excited about meeting everyone at the retreat in Queenstown, which is near to where I live in Wãnaka. Thank you so much for this incredible opportunity.

Scroggin Cafe by Undercurrent Studio, Photography Mickey Ross

TDC: What prompted you to apply for the Scholarship Program?

OM: I’ve been the solo director, designer, owner, operator—the full works—of my commercial interior design agency, Undercurrent. But when I recently gave birth to my son, Harry, I couldn’t keep up with the immense demand for work in this rapidly growing region. I realised I needed to pivot and adjust my business to make it more sustainable. So, I jumped online for coaches who could help me navigate this change.

I’ve had coaches in the past, but not in the design or architecture industries, and I felt a disconnect with them as a result. I wanted a mentor who specialised in design or architecture, then I found this fantastic Design Retreat in Queenstown with a scholarship on offer, and I thought, “I’ve got nothing to lose. I may as well give it a shot!” And here we are…

It’s just come at such an essential time in my business. And I’m doubly thrilled about being part of a design community with real accountability and the opportunity to learn from the group that goes with it. Living in rural New Zealand, this is what I’ve been missing. To do this remotely and still feel connected to some sort of community will be amazing.

Central Hotel by Undercurrent Studio, Photography by Tim Pierce

TDC: Despite only being in business for a little over 3 years, you’ve already created an impressive portfolio of work. Can you tell us a bit about your story up to this point and why you chose to start your own business?

OM: I grew up on a farm in New Zealand, and both my parents are business owners, so I’ve seen their work ethic and how they juggled family and business life first hand.

You’re never sensory-deprived in a rural community—the natural environment constantly inspires you. And I brought that sensibility into my architecture studies, right through to working in fashion and set design in London and Europe. On returning home, there wasn’t much call for this kind of design work, so I found myself a middle ground in commercial interiors.

I’m one of the lucky ones—I’ve had amazing, encouraging bosses who built my confidence, gave me many opportunities to grow, and helped guide me to my current path. I immediately saw a market gap when I moved from Auckland to Wãnaka—there are many residential designers here but few commercial designers, so I thought there was a wonderful opportunity and decided to give it a go.

Flash Studios by Undercurrent Studio, Photography by Layla Kaisi

TDC: This month, you’re participating in the Business Bootcamp Program. What do you think has been missing from your business to date, and what are you most hoping to achieve from your participation in the courses, classes and coaching programs at TDC this year?

OM: Since becoming a new mother, I’ve struggled with being in relatively high demand. My stress levels are high, the overwhelm is real, and I’m constantly working to juggle everything. I wish there were a more efficient, sustainable way to relieve some of that pressure because I know it’s possible to be a business owner and a mom, and both roles are so important to me. I’m so lucky to be inspired by the natural environment around me—now what I’m looking forward to is being inspired by other designers, seeing how their businesses work, and sharing knowledge as part of a community.

TDC: What are you the proudest of so far in your career?

OM: I’d put motherhood at the top, closely followed by having a business that allows me to show up as a parent. In terms of career highs, I recently won the New Zealand Grand Prix Dulux Colour Award - that was a thrill because I think I was the first New Zealand Grand Prix winner for the category. It was for the first hotel project I did when I launched the business. And it was a very bold, colourful, brave design for this region.

Central Hotel by Undercurrent Studio, Photography by Tim Pierce

TDC: What’s the toughest business lesson you’ve had to learn so far?

OM: Keeping up with demand, finding the balance, streamlining efficiencies, and seeing Undercurrent’s potential, understanding where it can go or what it could look like if I made different decisions. The past year has just been my biggest challenge yet, and my biggest year financially. I’m at a crossroads—I can see the potential for the business to grow, but I just don’t know if it’s the right time. And I would love guidance around if Undercurrent should be small, boutique, and expandable with contractors or whether I should invest in full-time employees to grow it bigger.

TDC: Our sponsors, Est Lighting and Arthur G Furniture are thrilled with our final decision to award you as the 2023 Scholar. Is there anything you wanted to say to the sponsors?

OM: Firstly, a huge thank you because it’s a fantastic opportunity for me. I’m eternally grateful for the chance to give Undercurrent the boost it needs. And I’m looking forward to helping create greater awareness of these exciting brands in New Zealand.

Central Hotel by Undercurrent Studio, Photography by Tim Pierce

TDC: This will be an action-packed year, full of new experiences, and focused on personal and professional growth. What big plans do you have for the future, in both your business and personally?

OM: Well, professionally speaking, I always lean back on what I initially set out to do with Undercurrent. I’m inspired by nature’s force and the potential to forge change in the built environment. Currents are universally present in the earth, sea, rivers, and sky. They’re flows of energy that vary spatially as they move and adapt. And I believe you can use that as a design tool to impact people’s lives.

I want to build this sensibility into my business and its surrounding systems, so I can do what I do best. I’m looking forward to fine-tuning my plans for the next year. But, right now, I can see I’ve built something very special—I want to hold on to that excitement and nurture the business with the right support. I’m keen to tap into TDC’s wonderful design community and learn all I can about how to make that happen. Ultimately, it’d be a dream to have a team around me who can bring new ideas and proficiencies to the table and meet Undercurrent’s demand. That would be truly amazing.

Olivia Macfarlane from Undercurrent Studio, Photography by Tim Pierce

Personally, I want to live a well-balanced life to creatively do my thing. It’s what I feel I’m put on this planet to do.

We're so excited to work with Olivia, and look forward to watching her progress throughout the year. Once again, we thank our amazing 2023 sponsors Est Lighting and Arthur G Furniture for helping to make the scholarship program possible.

Stay well, and believe in you!

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