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Sue Carr of Carr Design Group

Studio Visit

7th June, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Friday 7th June 2013

South Yarra residence by Carr Design Group. Photo – Derek Swalwell.

South Yarra residence by Carr Design Group. Photo – Derek Swalwell.

The Herald and Weekly Times Loft by Carr Design Group. Photo – Earl Carter.

The Herald and Weekly Times Loft by Carr Design Group. Photo – Earl Carter.

Architectural models on display in the Melbourne studio of Carr Design Group. Photo – Sean Fennessy.

Inside Carr Design Group's Melbourne studio on Flinders Lane, which Sue describes as 'a large open, non hierarchal space that encourages interaction and collaboration!'. Photo – Sean Fennessy.

Sue Carr in her Melbourne studio. Photo – Sean Fennessy.

We have serious interior design royalty on TDF today - I'm honoured to have had the opportunity recently to meet and learn a little more about the very talented Sue Carr of Carr Design Group, and to share a selection of their work with you today. It's so impressive to think that Sue's career spans over 40 years in this industry, having established her first interior design firm, formerly known as Inarc, in 1971.

Having a mother with an artistic background, and father involved in science, Sue had always struggled with the age old conflict of science vs art. Originally envisioning that she would pursue a career in science, Sue journeyed off to study applied chemistry at RMIT, but it wasn't long before she realised her creative calling.

'It only took three months before I realised I wasn’t meant to spend my life wearing a lab coat, and that there was a logical connection between my maths/science background and the art' says Sue in her interview below. 'Upon my visit to the faculty I walked straight past the architecture school and ended up in interior design. It was a spur of the moment decision, but one that I have never regretted.'

After realising that her passion for both the sciences and the arts could co-exist, Sue commenced working at an architecture firm upon graduating, as interior design jobs were virtually non existent in Australia in the 1960's. It's amazing how things have since changed!  It would be a few years down the track in 1971 when Sue finally decided to launch her own design firm, in order to have full creative control over her projects.  As she explains below - 'if I wanted interior design to advance in Australia, I needed to go out on my own.'

Today Sue's drive and commitment to excellence in interior design shows no signs of abating.  She now heads a team of 25 architects and interior designers at Carr Design Group, one of Australia's most celebrated design firms. Carr's understated, timeless approach to design is evident through their many commercial and residential projects, which have been celebrated with countless awards and media recognition over the past 20 years. You may also have seen Carr’s incredible modular home concept Intermode on Grand Designs. Truly elegant work that doesn't get caught up in the theatrics of design, allowing the integrity of a space to speak for itself.

In person, Sue is such a treasure.  I'm not sure what I expected, but was surprised to find Sue so softly spoken, calm and measured, and of course incredibly generous with her time and immense wisdom.  She must be the most amazing mentor for the young designers in her office!  I was struck most by her parting words, as she explained that in essence, interior design really can be thought of as 'the science of living'.  I love that sentiment!

Thanks so much Sue for sharing your story with us today!

Tell us a little bit about your background – what path initially led you to interior design and to eventually launching your first firm in 1971?

As a young girl, I always struggled with the age-old conflict between science and art. My mother had an artistic background, but my father was very involved in the scientific world and I remember sitting with him at night, playing with chemistry sets. Throughout school, I only ever imagined that I would be pursuing a life in science, so I reluctantly dropped arts and went off to study applied chemistry at RMIT University.

It only took three months before I realised I wasn’t meant to spend my life wearing a lab coat, and that there was a logical connection between my maths/science background and the arts. Upon my visit to the faculty I walked straight past the architecture school and ended up in interior design. It was a spur of the moment decision but one that I have never regretted.

In the late ’60s interior design was a fledging faculty in a temporary classroom at the top of the RMIT building. It was all about the science of how we live. It was so new and interesting and full of endless possibilities and opportunities.

After finishing the course, I joined an architecture business with my building construction lecturer where I worked in architecture as jobs for interior designers were scarce. My first project was a residential extension. It was literally sink or swim and fortunately the project was a success.

A couple of years later, I joined a colleague at a much larger firm in Collins Street and began working as an interior designer. But as so often the case, the firm put political and commercial agenda well ahead of design merit. But what it made me realise was that I think differently, and if I wanted interior design to advance in Australia, I needed to go out on my own. Although I learnt so much from the experience, it was ultimately my swan song because it inspired me to start my own practice. It was about trusting myself and knowing I could achieve a successful balance between commercial reality and creative excellence.

Country Victoria House, a modular design by Carr Design Group / Intermode. Photo – Derek Swalwell.

Country Victoria House, a modular design by Carr Design Group / Intermode. Photo – Derek Swalwell.
How would you describe the Australian interior design landscape in the 1970’s compared to today, and the rise of the interiors culture?  Over your long career have you noticed any specific trends in home design repeat themselves?

In the beginning I had so much trouble, partly because no one understood what an interior designer does. Many thought we were just stylists who decide on the curtain fabrics, rugs, cushions and other adornments. Thankfully Australian design culture has come a long way since then.

In those days, the architects were the godfathers and interior designers were just thrown the crumbs. This frustrated me enormously, but it engrained a life-long endeavour to raise the profile of interior design as a worthwhile and recognised profession.

Equally challenging was imparting an aesthetic that was totally out of sync with the time. The ’70s was all shag pile flooring and laminated bench tops and I was interested in textural qualities and the interplay and effect of natural light. At university I discovered the Scandinavian aesthetic, and learnt about the great works of Tadao Ando and Luis Barragán, which influenced my design thinking and spatial understanding.

Our work is perceived to be essentially timeless and I guess it’s because we don’t use styles, finishes, materials, concepts that are particularly fashionable. We always strive for innovation and experimentation – through our research, travel, reading, forums, group discussions and workshops. This underpins the direction of Carr. Environmental sustainability is of the utmost importance and we continue to educate our clients that the use of such materials and initiatives is becoming comparable in price to more common built forms.

The Melburnian Apartment by Carr Design Group. Photo – Derek Swalwell.
Since first opening Carr Design (then Inarc) in 1971, how has your practice grown and changed over the years?

In the beginning there were only two of us running Inarc, and we just managed to get by. But like most new businesses, we were doing all the work ourselves – from cleaning the bins to the bookkeeping. I learnt how to become an accountant almost overnight. On our 5th birthday, we had grown to a firm of 10 people, and by our 10th we had grown to 50. At that stage it was the booming ’80s and we were designing many large-scale commercial projects. The recession 'we had to have' dramatically diminished the size of the company in the early '90s and at that point I decided to team up with Denton Corker Marshall. Together we slowly got on our feet and by 1994 we officially launched Carr Design Group – a dedicated, talented and innovative team of interior designers, architects and support.

What have been one or two of your favourite projects in recent years and why?

Winning the tender to complete Norton Rose Fullbright’s (previously Deacons) law firm national roll out has certainly turned the tables on what a traditional firm represents. Since we have designed their first fitout for Melbourne office in 2002, we have completed offices in Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and Jakarta.

The Transurban fitouts showcase an exhilarating place in which to work: the office’s successfully aligning with the organisation’s mission statement of the dynamic roll out of tollways globally.

Equally I love all the residential development projects and maintain a strong passion for bespoke residential work. I’m often asked why we continue to be involved in bespoke housing, as more often than not, as a practice grows in size, the smaller projects are the first to go. Ultimately I maintain a strong passion for houses as they are challenging and often the most difficult. They educate us not only in client management but also in our design thinking and the knowledge spreads into all other disciplines particularly hospitality and medium density residential.

Norton Rose Fulbright Brisbane by Carr Design Group. Photo – Derek Swalwell.

Norton Rose National Branding by Carr Design Group. Photo – Ian Ten Saldam.
Your role is to realise other people’s dream homes, but what about you own home? How would you describe your own personal aesthetic?

My house was built in the ‘60s by architect Harry Ernest, and although I bought the property in 2006, I have always admired and loved its sculptural form and its rich architectural history.

Situated at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, on the cusp of the Yarra River, the design intention was to pare back the house to its original form. Uncomplicated and linear in form, the house represents a square box with an upper level, rectangular form that appears to sit lightly to the rear edge. The second level houses the bedroom, dressing room and en suite, and its elevated position provides beautiful views of the city and the internal courtyard below.

The interior spaces are punctuated with my collection of classic 20th century furniture pieces. The deliberate lack of art work beyond a few special works allows the house to speak for itself. Windows are sized and positioned within each room to act as a frame to the internal courtyard, and externally across the street to the river; the proportion and locations of the windows are determined by these internal considerations.

Ultimately the house is a reflection of my design principals and integrity – timeless, light filled spaces, meticulous detailing, pure clean lines and a strong design concept is executed to perfection. I love the simplicity and the way it appears to have been built with air and light as opposed to bricks and mortar.

Courtyard House by Carr Design Group. Photo – John Gollings.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Carr? Where are you based, how is your office structured, how many people do you employ, are you still very involved in the design process day to day, and what significant tasks do you outsource?

We are located on Flinders Lane in the same building that houses Craft Victoria, just next door from Cumulus Inc. Our single level studio is a large open, non-hierarchal space that encourages interaction and collaboration. There are no prestigious corner offices and everyone has access to the windows inherited from the four sided facade.

The success of the business is in our workshop approach to every project. The interior designers and architects all work collaboratively on a broad range of projects: this can be anything from a commercial fitout, to a multi-residential apartment building, to a modular design for Intermode – an innovative boutique housing provider managed by Nick Carr.

Carr is a team of 25 designers and architects who are led by myself, Chris McCue, Director of Architecture and Dan Cox, Director of Commercial Interiors.

I sit in the studio with everyone else and I am still hands on with all projects – from the initial client meetings, to the design concept, development, documentation, right through to the very end with the finishing touches and photography. The team is fantastic at maintaining this incredible energy, enthusiasm, optimism and sense of excitement with every project. Everyone is very open and generous with sharing ideas and experience.

We don’t outsource but we collaborate with local manufacturers, designers and architects.

Some of Sue's team hard at work! LOVING the Carr office stationery, just look at those folder spines, it's true every detail REALLY does count in the interior design / architecture world! Photo – Sean Fennessy.
Which Australian architects, designers or creative people do you think are doing really admirable work at the moment?

I am currently admiring the work of local architects Sean GodsellIan Moore, and Neometro.

What would be your dream creative project?

Every project is unique because it’s always a new client, a new opportunity, a new location. We're always challenged and we’re always learning things that are different, new and exciting. A pipe dream however would be to work with Sir Richard Branson on one of his boutique hotels!

The entrance of Willow Creek Winery by Carr Design Group.

The Willow Creek Winery Tasting Room by Carr Design Group.
Can you list 5 resources across any media that you turn to when you in need of a bolt of creative inspiration for a new brief or new project?

I never stop reading. At the moment Tom Kundig’s book, Houses 2, is an absolute favourite. Looking at the wonderful photography, you can almost grasp a project’s geometry, its weight and its clever use of light. Tadao Ando’s The Colours of Light, is considered a landmark for architectural publishing. It is an exquisite work of art and although it was first published over 20 years ago, I still turn to it for inspiration. I also love reading any books on Vincent Van Duysen, Peter Zumthor and David Chipperfield. I usually buy my books from Architext and My Bookshop in Hawksburn Village.

I love C+A for its interesting graphic design and its rich catalogue of images, which are collated together by Garry Emery. Online, I regularly visit Dezeen and The Cool Hunter to see what’s happening internationally.

But my biggest inspiration comes from my team: their clothes, their style, their travel choices, what they like, what they listen to, what they read, what motivates them, and what they are passionate about. We hold a monthly forum where they bring to the table something that has excited them – whether that be a graphic, a product, a piece of advertising or an interior.

What does a typical day in the life of Sue Carr Involve?

Every morning I wake up at 5.45am and read the printed versions of The Age and Australian Financial Review. When I arrive into the studio my day is punctuated by client and team meetings, workshops, design, sketching, emails and more emails. When I get home, I unwind with a glass of wine. If I’m not too busy, I love the opportunity to cook for my family and friends.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to continuing to pursue the standard of excellence that continues to be my commitment to the design industry and community both currently and in the future. The future will see designers called upon to have more technical knowledge in specialised areas, possess strong skills to work as a team, work more closely with related professions and accept greater responsibility and accountability of the environments they shape. I’m looking forward to maintaining a clear focus on ESD and to continuing to empower and develop the Carr team who show no end to their enthusiasm and passion. I’m also relishing the opportunity at exposing clients to the value of good design, not from a commercial perspective, but to the way we live our lives and to ensuring the environments we shape make a difference.

Sue's work in progress sketches / designs for a recent project. Photo – Sean Fennessy.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I love the rich vibrancy of Collingwood. Smith Street has a fantastic collection of restaurants and wine bars and there are some great bakeries and breakfast spots. I also love all the interesting warehouse conversions, and the way it’s an architectural melting pod.

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

The last great meal I had was fresh linguine and prawns at Café Di Stasio in St Kilda. Traditional Italian-style pasta, superb wine list, bow-tied waiters, gorgeous interiors, and staggeringly beautiful Bill Henson artworks – it doesn’t get better.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Saturday mornings are a time to relax and unwind. If I’m not at home reading the weekend papers, I’m usually at my local shopping strip, Hawksburn Village. Hawksburn is full of lots of cafes and boutiques and has a wonderful community feel. I usually have a coffee and stock up on fresh delicious produce from Toscano’s, Peter Bouchier, Stocked and Donnini’s.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Melbourne’s grid disguises an underground network of destinations. The city is full of nooks and crannies, encouraging us to get out and explore. As you discover its many layers you get a true understanding of its character and identity. Only then are you able to feel the city deeper than its face value.

Studio details in Carr Design Group's Flinders Lane office. Photo – Sean Fennessy.

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