Our interview with Andrew Parr of SJB Interiors.
Ahead of our exciting full-day Masterclass with industry leader Andrew Parr, we sat down with him to ask about his path into the design industry, how he came to head up one of the country's most celebrated and awarded interior design companies, and a little about what guests to his class on the 17th July 2021 can expect.
Secure one of the last available tickets to our upcoming Masterclass with Andrew HERE.
Be the first to find out about our upcoming Masterclasses, sign up as a free member HERE.
TDC : Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to us today Andrew. We’re really excited about your upcoming Masterclass on Saturday 17th July 2021. “The house made me do it” is a really interesting, somewhat playful topic for the class. Can you tell us where the inspiration for this title came from and what it means to you?
AP: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to present this Masterclass to your members. I’m really looking forward to the day.
While renovating a house in Toorak, someone asked me: “Why did you do that to the house?” This was my reply. In a broader sense, “I believe a house will almost tell you what it needs, if you listen closely enough.”
By this I mean the relationship between space and a designer can be interactive—it lets you know if you need to dial up the contrast or go with the flow of an existing period style. Even looking at the plan can evoke a visual and emotive reaction—you get a feel for how the space will be and how it should evolve.
TDC: You’re one of the most respected designers in Australia, having been the recipient of many awards, (the judge at some) and have achieved a huge amount over the course of your career. When did you first notice your talent and passion for interior design?
AP: I had an avid interest in architecture as a young child. I always instinctively loved modernism and contemporary design in my local area, perhaps because my parents lived in contemporary homes.
From a very young age, I realised I had some skill putting rooms together. My mother and I used to redecorate our house all the time in the early 70s—think intense colours mixed with rustic textures, exposed brick walls and timber ceilings. Even though my family weren’t outrageous, we’d still feel comfortable using colours like apple green, purple and Marimekko fabrics to make everything pop.
When I was 16, my parents built a house from the ground up based on my floor plan. It was a very simple, contemporary house—all garage at the front, and then you’d walk through two courtyards in the middle. There was no lawn, just a Silver Birch jungle, and it was the 80s, so the exposed brick and primary colours of the 70s were gone. Everything was bagged and plastered, and the house had a soft colouration to it based on design magazines I was looking at during that time.
So, I’d already done my first real project before I got to university. And the house is still there, although it sold over 30 years ago. Whenever I’m featured in an editorial, the owners send me a note saying they still love living in it.
TDC: Prior to founding the Interior Design arm of SJB in 1994, what was your history with the company, and how did the evolution of the SJB Interiors come about?
AP: I worked as a part-time contractor for a couple of design firms as an undergraduate. But things really took off when a senior partner from Synman Justin Bialek offered me a job during my final year exhibition. So, I started with SJB straight from school in 1987.
In the heady 80s, there was a lot of work in Melbourne. But, when the recession hit in 1991, only half the office was left. I was only working two or three days a week for a year or two, so I started picking up private clients to make up the salary shortfall. And it was invaluable because I learned how to deal directly with clients.
Around 1994, we realised it was better to set up a separate business for SJB’s interiors arm because it was a little unusual to appoint a rival architecture firm as an interior designer for projects. Separating the businesses meant we could work with anyone. We were one of the first architectural firms to do this, but it’s now commonplace.
TDC: Widely recognised for your inventive, experimental approach to design, SJB is a leader in the Australian hospitality sector. No doubt, international travel would have provided a great amount of inspiration for your work previously. Since borders have closed, where do you personally draw your inspiration from?
AP: Not travelling means we can’t have those personal experiences anymore, so we’re reflecting on previous work. I’m actually looking at a lot of my own design books again.
When I started, there was no web or Pinterest with its reams of design images that all begin to look the same. You built up your design library, and every one of those books was sacred! Because I’m from that dinosaur era, I’ve got a great library, and COVID has given me the time to stop and flick through the work of some of my favourite designers again. I might have read some of those books 300 times, but I keep finding new takes on everything from 1930s deco to 50s Italian design, 60s American design, and 70s Australian architecture.
It’s been fascinating recognising how those movements still influence design today. I don’t think anyone comes up with a new style, per se. It’s about how you throw everything together now rather than creating a new form or colour. Everything from our design past becomes part of our current context.
TDC: Our Masterclass guests are going to be given the opportunity to explore two of your residential projects, one of which is your own home in St Kilda. Firstly, thank you for being so kind to welcome us into your personal space! Can you tell us a bit about the house, and what it’s like to be owner and designer in one.
AP: It’s almost easier dealing with client briefs! Being an owner and designer in one is both exciting and pressure-filled in a funny way. When you’re free to do anything you want, you tend to think more about it than you do a client’s project. You’re your own Guinea Pig.
I do tend to think twice about expensive items. “Am I really going to invest 50 grand on that orange marble I’ll probably hate in two years?” Historically I’ve stayed in my houses for about 10 years, so I want to know I’ll be okay with what I’ve chosen for an extended time. I’m not talking about paint because that’s easy to change. It’s the kitchen and bathrooms that are the dilemma because they’re a more significant commitment.
Perhaps it’s just because I’m older and I’ve been through a few design cycles. Styles in now—such as the red and green marbles we see everywhere—I probably ripped out of other people’s homes a decade ago. So, I see thinking twice about big-ticket items as being more responsible to myself financially.
TDC: The other residence we’re visiting is a recently completed home in Toorak. We’ll keep the details of the design a surprise for the guests on the day, but we were hoping you could tell us a bit about the project, and its significance to you personally.
AP: The most significant thing about this house is that I played architect and designed the house from the ground up. It was my first big architectural commission at this scale, so it’s pretty special.
The client lives in Hong Kong but went to school in Boston, so she loves mid-century modern architecture. She loved my beach house, which is very much 60s mid-century modern with exposed beams, lots of cedar and great energy, so I’ve recreated that for her on a Toorak scale.
Obviously, the house has a totally different context because it’s in Toorak, so you need to create a view. But the materiality is similar and, while it’s a large house, it has a nice human scale to it.
There was far less contact than I’d typically have with a client in a project of this size because we did everything remotely. Originally the house was a place for the family to stay while the kids go to school, but it’s now their primary residence. We did everything—from the bed linen to the cutlery and all the furniture. The only thing we didn’t do is pot the plants. I kept the materiality simple because I knew the client had a fabulous international art collection and didn’t want to crowd it. And thankfully, she loves all of it!
TDC: Photography of our projects plays an important role in communicating our design capabilities, and for the purpose of attracting the right clients through marketing and awards. We see that you work mainly with one of our favourite photographers, Nicole England (your Mornington home has featured in her book Resident Dog). How important is choosing the right photographer?
AP: It’s everything. I’ve known Nicole for a long time, and she can capture a property’s essence. I’ve tried other photographers, and many can’t do that, or they’ve changed the tones in the picture, so it ends up looking like a completely different project. And once that goes to publication, that’s what people think you do. So, I believe that the photographer is vital to getting the tone and energy of the house right.
TDC: As part of the learning section of the day, you’ll be talking about the “Golden Rules of Design,” and we can’t wait to hear more about these! Without divulging them before the class, can you tell us how you came to develop these rules? Are they non-negotiable?
AP: From my experience, the only non-negotiable golden rules are about industry survival, how to sell a vision and not get sued at the end! Dealing with clients is really about psychology—you’ve got to bring them on board straight away by being quite clear and transparent about what they’re getting.
You need to brief clients properly. Take them on the journey with you, so they don’t get shocked at the end. To do that, you’ll need to get into their brain and get their vision of the project sorted really quickly. It doesn’t have to be every element—let’s just talk about the big vision. Let’s talk about how you want to live in what is essentially a big white box. What does this house represent to you? Why are you doing this project? What makes you feel comfortable?
Also, don’t rush the brief. Make sure everyone who’s going to live there is fully invested in the project and taking responsibility for what you’re designing for them. That might mean giving them endless renders. It might mean endless materials lists or whatever, but make sure they sign off each element so they commit to the plan entirely.
I have another golden rule: you don’t have to be the client’s friend. At least not until they’ve been in the house for quite a while. Because the design process is sort of like a honeymoon. Clients want to invite you everywhere at first. Then things can get a bit messy in the middle when you need to talk money or construction is delayed.
TDC: Your company notes “We are leaders who believe in collaborative opportunities, we thrive on enjoyable, effective working relationships.” (SJB Interiors) How important is it to nurture relationships in the design industry, and how would you recommend designers go about doing this?
AP: I love the collaborative component with other designers, architects and landscape designers. I also like collaborating on custom decoration such as lighting, furnishings, commissioned artworks, rugs and so forth. We can all learn from someone else, and as long as everyone knows their boundaries, it can work really well. No matter how similar you think someone is in their design approach, it’s great when they do something, and you think, “I wouldn’t have done that, but it’s good.”
As designers, we’re meant to be open to other ideas and ways of seeing things. Everyone’s brain is a little different, and that makes it exciting. And it’s pretty interesting to see how many different takes you can have on one project. Even as an old dog, I can still learn new tricks!
TDC: What exciting projects are you and your team working on at the moment?
AP: One fascinating project we’re doing at the moment is a fashion-led hotel project in Surry Hills, Sydney. Alex Tzannes designed the building, so it’s quite architectural on the outside. But we decided not to go that way on the inside.
The owner-developer loves colour, so I started looking at fashion designers, fabrics, etc. and ended up delving into 50s Italian fashion, particularly Pucci. I don’t know why no one has done Pucci in commercial interiors before!
So, the carpets are all in a Pucci pattern with aqua electric, blue, white, yellow and lemon, and there’s a lilac, electric blue, purple-pink pattern run as well. That set me off, and I thought, “God, I’ll keep going.” I pulled out my old Milan Furniture Fair Exhibition photos and found some fabulous Pierre Cardin furniture from the 70s—it’s all strong, geometric shapes lacquered in electric blue, deep burgundy and red.
The great thing about hospitality design is that the interiors get cycled every 5-7 years. So, you can do something that’s left of field. And I wanted to really commit to colour in this project. It’s loud, but it's a legitimate fashion moment and great tongue-in-cheek fun.
We'll be keeping an eye out for news of these projects in the media, as they are sure to be an amazing source of inspiration to designers around the country. We certainly can't wait to share Andrew's immense talent with guests to the Masterclass, and are incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to create the experience of connecting Andrew with our community.
Secure one of the last available tickets to our upcoming Masterclass with Andrew HERE.
To be the first to find out about our upcoming classes, retreats and events, sign up as a free member HERE.
If you have a favourite designer that you would like us to include in our series, we’d love to hear from you at email@example.com.
Time & Location
Masterclass: Andrew Parr of SJB
"The House Made Me Do It"
Saturday 17 July 2021
9am - 4pm
SJB Melbourne Office
Please note that due to COVID-19, event details may change.
(All images have been provided by SJB.)