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Matthew Collins of Art & Interiors

Studio Visit

31st May, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Friday 31st May 2013

Matthew Collins in his Footscray studio.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.

Matthew shows us his handmade wallpaper samples. Photo - Sean Fennessy.

Matthew Collins' 'Sackcloth and Ash' wallpaper range in situ.  Photo - Sharyn Cairns, styling - Glen Proebstel.

Matthew Collins' 'Sackcloth and Ash' wallpaper range in situ.  Photo - Sharyn Cairns, styling - Glen Proebstel.

Matthew Collins' 'Sackcloth and Ash' wallpapers and materials.  Photo - Sharyn Cairns, styling - Glen Proebstel.

Matthew Collins of Art & Interiors.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.

Matthew Collins is so wonderfully British.  He looks British (very well dressed in a floppy, relaxed kind of way) he talks with the most charming, ever so slightly 'proper' British accent.. and as you will read below, he types British too.  Don't ask me to explain this amazing phenomenon.  You will see what I mean as you read his wonderfully witty and engaging interview below.  You can basically 'hear' his accent as you read.  It's quite brilliant.

Also unmistakably British is Matthew's quite unique creative profession. Matthew is a master craftsman who specialises in the age old tradition of decorative arts.  His Melbourne based business, Art and Interiors, has built a solid reputation Australia-wide for their unique decorative finishes - services include the creation of custom surfaces for interiors, antique mirrors, bespoke handmade wallpapers, polished plasters, and aged paint finishes such as wood-graining, marbling and glazing.   It's an unusual field, particularly in Australia, as the tradition for this  kind of decorative art really has its roots in Europe.  In Matthew's case, a fascination for old things, and for re-creating the patina of age in contemporary interiors really sprang from his childhood, which was spent in beautiful old manor houses, school houses and rural properties with his family in the UK and Europe.

Art & Interiors has been operating since Matthew launched the business in Melbourne in 2002. As you'll read below, prior to this, Matthew was a decorative artist in the UK for over ten years, working on the most jaw-droppingly extravagant projects across Europe and in the Middle East.  He has been in a private jet, people!  (Middle Eastern royalty take their paint surfaces very seriously).

These days, there is not quite so much high-flying glamour in the world of Matthew Collins (!!), though there is certainly no shortage of interesting projects in his calendar.  From his Footscray studio, Matthew works with a small team to create an incredible range of finishes and treatments for various interiors, often commissioned for specific homes or commercial projects by local interior designers and architects.  In addition to this custom work, Matthew also makes his own range of textured wallpapers under the label Sackcloth & Ashes.  Each length of this wallpaper is 100% hand made by Matthew and his team, through an involved process of layering plaster, pigment, shellac (and other top secret ingredients!), then cracking, waxing and rubbing the paper back to bring a unique texture and finish. Truly exquisite, stupendously labour intensive work!

Massive thanks to Matthew for sharing his incredible work and story with us today...!

Tell us a little bit about your background – what did you study, and what path led you to what you're doing now?

I grew up in the UK, and had a charmed childhood, if a little itinerant, living in eleven different houses before I turned eighteen, at which point I struck out on my own. My parents were serial renovators, and we lived in and restored many beautiful old manor houses, school houses and rural properties in the search for the perfect home. It is only recently that I have realised the insurmountable influence that those years of painting, sanding and waxing have had on my present work. My father was also an antique dealer for a period, and again, time spent lovingly restoring his finds now reads as an early apprenticeship. In those early years I was rarely found without a pencil and watercolours, and whiled away days creating a visual compendium of my butterfly and moth collections.

For the sake of comedy I normally like to say that I then went ‘off the rails’ and went to University to study International Business and modern languages – slightly incongruous with today’s pastime you might think, but I am working internationally (in Australia), have a business, and use my languages to reasonable effect when ordering product from some of my overseas suppliers!

Summer holidays were spent in London, where I worked for a decorative arts company called Colchester Lister Associates on architectural restoration projects. On one occasion at ‘The Travellers Club’ on Pall Mall (a men’s only club for explorers and the like) I found myself restoring a cast of the Bassae Frieze from the 5th century Greek temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae. In the process of gently stripping back decades of paint from the delicate frieze, we managed to snap off about thirty miniature penises. All were returned to their rightful owners I should mention!

When I finished my degree I agreed to continue working for the firm for a few months before I got a ‘proper job’. Within two years I was managing a thirty strong team and working internationally as a decorative artist, completing projects for European and Middle Eastern royalty, and the British aristocracy. Being flown in private jets to beautiful houses just to mix a colour or advise on a wall finish, I felt like I was working at a dizzying height.

This is the point when love came knocking in the form of my beautiful wife Elizabeth, who is Australian. Her visa was expiring, and I fancied a year away from London so we headed for the shores of Australia. That was twelve years ago.

What motivated you to originally launch Art & Interiors, and can you briefly explain what types of services your business specialises in and offer to its clients?

After travelling around Australia for ten months our money finally ran out.  Elizabeth went to work, and I stayed at home painting, and as it turned out, some of these paintings were used in a photo shoot for an Australian interiors magazine and were pictured on the front cover. I sensed some sort of future and decided to hang around, setting up Art & Interiors in 2002 to subsidise my arts practice. The next part of the story is a common one… the business soon deprived me of all that studio time I thought I had set out to subsidise. The business was loosely based on the firm in London but I soon realised the need to customise my work to the Australian palette, light and architecture. Initial feelings of professional suicide gave way to a more contemporary approach to interior surfaces.

Today Art & Interiors specialises in a broad range of decorative products and services, antique mirrors, handmade wallpapers, custom surfaces, polished plasters, and paint finishes as well as more traditional wood-graining (faux bois), marbling and glazing, murals and other custom artworks. We liaise directly with our own private clients, as well as working with architects and interior designers

How would you describe your design aesthetic? Where do you draw reference from?

I cannot help being drawn to ancient surfaces, the distinct markings of the passage of time, the sophistication of patina and the warmth of surfaces created by the skilled hands of an artisan. All those years of renovation at my parents side, all those cathedrals, historic houses and castles visited at weekends have leached into my brain creating a vast visual reference library of paint, plaster, gold leaf and wax. I still dip into that library regularly, often subconsciously, working from an instinct for knowing when a surface is right.

What creative and production processes are employed in the creation of Art & Interiors decorative surfaces and products?

Products and finishes come about as a result of time specifically dedicated to research and development, I draw on surfaces I have seen, but also increasingly find myself influenced by works of art. Currently the works of Gerhard Richter are firing my senses. His use of colour, working wet into wet gives me goose bumps!

As almost all my products and services involve custom finishes, they are all commissions of one kind or another. I am lucky to have many wonderful clients who have the confidence to just let me do my thing. A brief consisting of photographs from a trip to a dilapidated French chateau, a few pebbles and shells gleaned from a Greek beach, a heavily patinated statuette from a flea market in Lisbon and the interior of a Manolo Blahnik stiletto are all par for the course. Samples can take up to three weeks to be honed and a lead time of six weeks will normally see most projects underway.

Studio details.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Art & Interiors – how is your business structured, how many people do you employ, and do you outsource any significant tasks?

Art & Interiors is super small and determinedly so, I have two almost full-timers and another six at standby, they are an amazing team, all artists in their own right. We do all the work ourselves, born out of a desire for total creative and quality control. We do outsource all our mirror installations though to Leigh Jacobs at Frameless Impressions – you have to know your limits.

Matthew's Sackcloth & Ashes wallpaper details - Photo - Sharyn Cairns, styling - Glen Proebstel.
What has been one of your favourite projects that your decorative wall paper and surfaces have been featured in?

One of my favourite projects is one which is just drawing to a close now. We have been working with interior designer Tammie Zarro and March Studio refurbishing The City Tiler building in South Melbourne, turning it into a private residence for some of the most charming clients one could hope for. The entire interior is a custom burnished plaster finish, with one of my Sackcloth & Ashes wallpapers in the master bedroom. Combined with its pared back industrial chic our finishes have delivered our client an international standard interior that retains the character of the building, while furthering its capacity to act as a home and refuge from the ravages of work.

What does a typical day in the life of Matthew Collins involve?

I am and always have been an early riser, the alarm goes off five minutes after I get up at 5.40am. A champions breakfast, British style, is cooked and eaten at breakneck speed and fortified with two cups of black tea. Then to the studio and the checking and refining of samples and the adjustment of patinating fluids which have been faithfully working their magic through the night.

I then drink some more tea while checking emails and carefully planning my day, to include as much variety as can be afforded. At any one time there can be twenty mirrors, tens of metres of wallpaper, furniture to be painted and samples to be made in the studio. My sister-in-law has taught me to focus on one job at a time otherwise I would be in a constant spin! Then there are site visits and appointments all over town and sometimes interstate. I try to finish by five and be home to play with my girls.

Details from Matthew's studio.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Which Australian creative people are you loving at the moment?

Glen Proebstel – Stylist extraordinaire, superb friend and faithful critic.

Jess Wootten – Master cordwainer at Wootten. He makes the leather aprons we use at the studio.

Roger Ward – Roger's larger than life interiors are a good fit with Art & Interiors, he never ceases to infuse me with his energy and passion for beauty.

Lou Weis – Director of Broached Commissions, his narrative led design commissions are a delight to the mind as well as the eye.

Megan Morton – How does she manage to be both incredibly charming and talented?

Can you list for us any favourite resources, across any media, that you turn to regularly when in a need of a bolt of creative inspiration?

The World of Interiors and Elle Decoration – They are my British lifeline.

The Iconic Interior – I just bought this tome, it’s a high speed world tour of some enviable projects and the machinations of svengalis of the design world.

Triple RRR – No day would be complete without Melbourne's best independent radio station providing the soundtrack.

What would be your dream creative project?

I have to say that seeing the ceilings of the Danish palace which are lovingly and painstakingly covered in green iridescent beetles carapaces makes me a little weak at the knees. Any project that combines the decoration of beautiful architecture with entomological body parts gets my vote. To be honest though the quality of the client is normally what gives any project a dreamlike quality.

What are you looking forward to?

Collaborating with my best friend Mathew Bray in London, his company Mathew Bray Decorative Arts is a mirror of Art & Interiors, though his clients have deeper pockets! In 2014 we have sworn to work together, it's part of a dream we have had since we were 16.

Matthew shows us his wallpaper samples.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.


Your favourite neighbourhood and why?

Seddon, my home suburb is hard to beat, we know all the shop keepers and the streets are abuzz with new boutiques and foodstores.

Your favourite fossicking spots in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

It would be a sad day that I walked into St. Luke Artist Colourmen on Smith Street without finding some brush or tool that I instantly fall in love with, and which in turn pushes my decorative practice forward or inspires some new finish. Process and the tools which guide that process are often the drivers I need to create a new look or finish.

What and where was the last great meal you had in Melbourne?

Izakaya Den. We like to sneak an early table with the girls, the place really gets me buzzing especially after a few bottles of Prosecco and the kurobuta pork or the baked barramundi in coconut milk.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Normally in my kitchen cooking a special breakfast for my wife and lovely daughters. I like to rise early (quelle surprise) and go foraging around the local shops. Think chorizo, hummus, coriander, chilli, fried eggs and spelt toast. Oh and lots of tea!

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

The mushroom and feta parcels at Cedars Lebanese bakery in Preston, get there early, ask for a sprinkle of chili powder – start swearing that you will get there earlier next time and buy all they have.

Matthew's Footscray studio. Photo - Sean Fennessy.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email