There are so many reasons to admire Melbourne architect Rachel Nolan. Mainly, her work is amazing. ALSO, she’s super nice. And she’s a busy Mum to three young kids! The creative trifector! Not to mention a pretty sure way to end up on The Design Files! :)
Rachel partnered with Uni pal Patrick Kennedy in 1999 to found their firm Kennedy Nolan, whilst they were both still in their late twenties. Since then the company has won many accolades, and built a portfolio of such truly beautiful work – I am so so so in love with ALL of their residential projects. After scouring their website these last few days, I have to say I have officially earmarked Kennedy Nolan to design my dream house one day (They don’t know that yet). Fingers crossed!
In addition to learning about her creative process and influences, I was excited to learn a few fun things about Rachel Nolan in this interview..! For instance, she’s planning a parallel parking competition next month! True story. Also, she and the entire staff of Kennedy Nolan go out to lunch together once every single week! (And mostly all order the same thing!?). Got all the important details covered around here!
HUGE thanks to Rachel for her time and such thoughtful, generous answers! I hope I can be just as fun, inspiring and productive as this when I have three little kids and a business to run!
Do pop over to the Kennedy Nolan website for more examples of their beautiful work!
Tell us a little about your background – did you always want to be an architect? What path led you to setting up your own firm?
Since I can remember I was always taken with ‘making place’. I renovated many of my friends’ cubbies: once even directing my mate’s Dad to put up a wall in her cubby house & hinge a fold-down table from the rear wall. Lego had me mad for building houses when I was a kid too. I get to have fun with this stuff all over again now that I have made my own small people!
I met my business partner Patrick Kennedy when I left home to go to university. He & I had actually grown up in 2 towns about 10km from each other bridging the Murray River. It was during our studies that we discovered our shared enjoyment of particular buildings & types of environments.
Some of my earliest memories of innovative design, Patrick and I shared. The 1970’s work of the Albury Wodonga Development Corporation, Clyde Cameron College by Kevin Borland & Bernard Brown, & a variety of houses by the project housing company Merchant Builders were just some of the projects we would yack about in our early graduate days. I would often visit his house on the way back from work, drink many beers, smoke many cigarettes & chat about architecture.
At this time we were both working for small architectural firms in Carlton & Collingwood, & had both been given quite a lot of design responsibility early in our careers. My partner & I had just purchased a terrific stand alone warehouse in Fitzroy that had an entire top floor that was perfect for an office. Both Patrick & I had many friends who kept asking us to run their renovations as ‘private jobs’. We had confidence, space & potential clients! So we resigned & found ourselves at Officeworks with a fax machine in our trolley & a new credit card in our possession. What do you have to lose when you are in your late 20’s!
What have been some of your favourite projects in recent years?
Thinking back on it, I would have to say our very first project in James Street, Northcote which is still a special house after 11 years. This house really defied that typical ‘big open planned living space on the back’ that everyone seemed to want at the time. To this day our residential work still pursues this sense of domestic intimacy. We received our first award from the Institute of Architects for this project which was entirely surprising & delightful.
In 2001 we began work on a townhouse development in George Street, Fitzroy. This was for my partner & his brother. They were very trusting, easy clients, but said it must make them some money & win an award. Luckily it did. After having my first kid we ended up living in this building for a few years. It wasn’t designed for us but was a great joy to live in. I drive past this building often & still feel very proud of it.
I am recently very proud of the work our office did on Sacred Heart Primary School in Oakleigh. This one had to be pumped out quickly. We worked with an amazing school principal, our staff over-performed & the buildings are brave & exciting. Isn’t it good to hear something positive about the Building Education Revolution!
I have lots of favourite bits from our projects. Jealousy is a good measure of how much I like them. Coming away from a house & wishing I lived there is a good sign.
Kennedy Nolan is known for your beautiful residential work… what is it about residential projects that you love?
I feel like I understand how you inhabit domestic space. I remember what it is like to be a kid, what it is like to be a student, what it is like to share a house, be single, live with your partner. I know what it is to have a husband & run a family house. But to be able to use this & find some magic in how you might live is what I love about doing residential projects.
I get a kick out of refining a floor plan. Like solving a riddle, the final floorplan should look easy, effortless… the job it is doing should not look like hard work.
How would you describe the Kennedy Nolan design aesthetic? Is this a good reflection of your personal sense of style in your own home?
This is such a tricky question for us. Eleven years of practice has produced many different projects. Different people. Different sites. Different existing conditions. This difference is what has kept things interesting for us.
A particular design aesthetic is not something we actively pursue in our practice, aside from the time when Patrick was in love with black grand pianos. However, people can often pick our projects, so there are obviously identifying characteristics. I guess our website speaks volumes with regard to this question.
Having said that, there have been some consistent approaches to design that we are committed to. The opportunity for the garden to play a key role in the enjoyment of domestic life is one in particular that resonates with the way I live in my own home.
My personal sense of style in my own home is a different thing. I renovated a derelict house 2 years ago, foolishly timing moving in with the overdue delivery of my third baby. The house is nothing near what I would design if we were to start from scratch. We recycled and renovated without extending. Making an energy efficient home was a high priority.
Recycled Oregon floorboards & joinery, natural sisal floor coverings, stained black timber ceilings and black& white hand-made marble wall tiles form a very relaxed & peaceful backdrop to our beautiful view over the Yarra river. We live on a magnificent, bushy block of land in Fairfield. My husband has spent the last 2 years clearing the neglected block & we are getting ready to tackle a 20 year plan for our garden. Looking beyond the house gives me the greatest joy at home.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
I work 3 days a week at the moment because I have little kids. After dropping the oldest 2 at school I get to work & generally cannot get started without doing a coffee run. Our office has 4 people working full-time & another 7 that work part-time. So each day presents with a different line up.
Typically I check my emails, make my phone calls & get on with work on individual projects or running of the business. Since having children my role as Architect has changed dramatically & I have been very blessed with Patrick as my business partner because he really is responsible for the running the show. In time, when all my kids are at school, I would like to be back full-time & give him an opportunity to have a bit of a break.
These days my role is more design based at the earlier parts of the project. I take an active role in presenting our ideas to our Clients: drawing & talking, old fashioned skills. We still find that the hand drawing is something that our Clients enjoy. The project is often worked up in a 3D computer program; hand sketches are then made over print-outs & then re-rendered in another program.
I have also been spending time recently getting finished projects photographed and published. This is a lovely time to reflect on our work. I am not involved with the documentation & administration of our projects like I once was, so to enjoy the finished product without the pain of the build is a huge privilege. For a presentation recently we went back & made a package of projects that included the initial Sketch Design drawings and photographs of the completed buildings. The realisation of each project was amazingly pure & something I feel very proud of.
Where do you turn for creative inspiration?
Life is stupidly busy at the moment, and it is unlikely to slow up in the next few years. We try to take a decent break once a year and we have fallen into a bit of a holiday pattern of one year on and one year off. So every second year we find ourselves on a break-neck, see everything, explore everything, overseas holiday. When I find myself in a foreign culture it always gets me thinking about how we live; what our choices are. I find this time can be very creatively inspiring. Maybe when you are on holidays you are just open to more, ready to see & hear new things. We always return from these holidays pretty exhausted… but kind of mentally recharged.
Landscapes also inspire me. Before we had kids our overseas holidays were about spending time in landscapes not cities so much. We did a couple of long walks that I found very inspiring. It is pretty easy to understand why a high altitude desert or glacial mountains would be considered inspiring but it was more the time I had to think that I found so special.
Gardens too. Try visiting ‘Fülling’, Gordon Ford’s own garden in Eltham and not be inspired by such a beautiful vision.
Re-arranging my furniture makes me feel creatively re-energised. I like change. There was a stage when the kids & I would move the house around every 2 or 3 weeks. It is great fun making new space with them.
Which other designers, artists or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
I have a design crush on Patricia Urquiola. A Spanish architect turned furniture designer. She runs her studio from Milan. I don’t seem to come across a lot of design I really love, in particular furniture, but she is the exception. She approaches her work with a relaxed vigour and her ability to incorporate traditional artisan techniques into her pieces is almost always delightful. I think I should invest in something of hers right now! In 20 years I will be sorry if I haven’t. You look at some of the beautiful design classics & think how wonderful it would have been to have collected one when it was hot off the press.
We have David Band currently redesigning our office graphics & website. When we were looking at graphic designers for this job (previously having done this all in-house) we were very taken with David’s recent paintings and liked the idea of using an artist who was more at home with pencils & paint rather than a computer screen. To date our graphics have been very monochrome. David has such a beautiful way with colour & we are looking forward to seeing what he comes up with for us.
Recently we had to ‘pitch’ for a project, which is not how we typically procure our work. We were exploring some case-study houses for this particular project, looking at how we might approach a particular design without actually designing it. Revisiting the work of Hungarian born Modernist, Marcel Breuer, was a joy. Casa Hooper II & Casa Pack are houses he designed in America in the 50’s & are still so inspirational today.
What are you most proud of professionally?
Aside from the actual work, our workplace is a proud achievement of ours. We have been in practice since 1999 and our staff has now grown to 11. We are all architects & have a workplace that has evolved to accommodate our staff when they return to us after having their babies. There has been a baby-explosion that has occurred at Kennedy Nolan: there have been 9 babies grown in our office, with another on the way. It is an open plan design studio in a friendly neighbourhood that is also a happy place to work. Both Patrick & I are very proud of this & grateful for our staff.
What would be your dream project?
Designing a new office for Kennedy Nolan would be a dream project & timely too. In the next bit we are going to start to burst at the seams for space. It would also be a great opportunity to use our skills to make space for ourselves; no client….should be a breeze!
What are you looking forward to?
Longer, warmer days. Winter in Melbourne has really dragged its feet. Getting home when it is dark is grim.
I have a group of old mates who I studied architecture with. They are a very professionally accomplished gang & are split between Melbourne & Sydney. Recently when we all got together at Saturday in Design we discovered that each of us thought ourselves to be highly skilled parallel parkers. The competence levels escalated after many wines & there is a pending parking competition that is scheduled for October, just to shut down the bragging. Put your parking skills where you mouth is I say. The choice of car and venue is still to be decided.
Your fave Melbourne neighbourhood & why?
I am split on this one. Our office is just off Brunswick Street in Fitzroy & we have a very established community of folks around this area that tend to all catch up at the counter of our local coffee shop Sila, run by Dom & his sisters Mary & Cathy. There is something very village about this part of my life. It reminds me of growing up in the country. It is refreshingly uncool in Brunswick Street.
Living on the river is another remarkable neighbourhood. We live in the bush 10 minutes from the city. We can make our way down to the Collingwood Children’s Farm from Fairfield entirely on bike tracks along the creek & river. The Convent & Children’s farm are prime destinations when you have 3 young kids.
Your most admired architectural icon in Melbourne?
The National Art Gallery of Victoria by Sir Roy Grounds is my choice of Melbourne architectural icon. Exciting to walk by, drive past & visit. The day of the Black Saturday fires, when it was an evil 47 degrees outside, the Great Hall was full of families that clearly did not have air-conditioning in their own homes (we were one such family). It is such a magnificent interior in which to sit on the floor & hang-out.
Your favourite bookstore in Melbourne for design reference books?
To be truthful, I really don’t have any time when I can enjoy hanging out in bookshops. Luckily I get to read books that others have picked up whilst casually hanging out at well stocked bookshops.
Where/what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
Every week our office has lunch together at Akari, a Japanese restaurant around the corner from our office in Brunswick Street. Virtually all of us order tempura udon, a winter soup that we all crave when the week comes around. Delicious & a cheap eat.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Try being the first to arrive through he doors at the Melbourne Museum on a Monday morning (NOT on school holidays). You get the whole place to yourself.