Studio Visit

Paul Owen, Stuart Vokes and Aaron Peters of Owen and Vokes and Peters

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
9th of August 2013
Bardon House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Toby Scott.
Bulimba House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Jon Linkins.
New Farm Arbour House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Cabinetry in New Farm Arbour House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Bathroom in New Farm Arbour House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Alicia Taylor.
New Farm Arbour House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Left to right - Stuart Vokes, Paul Owen, Aaron Peters of Owen and Vokes and Peters in their Brisbane office. Photo - Toby Scott.
OK I admit I have only personally met ONE of the trio that make up Owen and Vokes and Peters architecture studio in Brisbane, but I am a huge fan of their work, and have been eyeing them off as potential interview candidates for quite some time. Based in South Brisbane, Owen and Vokes and Peters (yes, there are two 'ands') are one of Queensland's most respected residential architecture firms.  That said, they're a relatively 'young' firm - aged 46, 41 and 30 respectively, the firm's partners have built a strong reputation and a seriously impressive body of work which belies the 10 years they've been in business.  Rather than making grandiose design statements, their work is characterised by a sense of understated 'appropriateness', and there's a quiet respect for the charms and flaws of those much loved timber 'Queenslanders' which form a starting point for many of their residential projects. I've often said talent + likability really is the main formula for inclusion on The Design Files, and these guys have both in bucket loads.  Their friendly, relaxed approach to work and life is evident both in person and by reputation.  And by email!  'Would it be rude to ask the respective ages of you three partners' I asked Paul as somewhat of an afterthought, last night by email.  'It would be EXTREMELY rude !!' he replied jovially - 'Just joking!' Owen and Vokes and Peters' houses have been widely published - most recently you might have spotted their work in Stuart Harrison's excellent book, 'Forty-Six Square Metres of Land' (published by Thames and Hudson).  The practice have also been the recipients of many high profile design awards, including the RAIA Robin Dods Award, AIA QLD Small Projects Award, AIA QLD State Heritage Award, AIA 2010 Sunshine Coast House of the Year, AIA 2011 Gold Coast House of the Year, and AIA 2012 Brisbane House of the Year. Aside from their impressive body of work, what it perhaps most engaging about OVP culturally is the collaborative spirit at the heart of their practice.  There are no egos here.  As is evident in their generous responses below, you really sense that above all else, the three partners are great mates, having originally met whilst studying at the Univeristy of Queensland.  They have the utmost respect for one another, and for the talents of their small team.  And, get this - the ENTIRE OFFICE shares ONE EMAIL ADDRESS.  I know.  MAD.  But kind of awesome.  I'm not sure how this works, but it sure goes to show how well they get along...! 'There are six of us all together and we co-author all the work with our staff' says Paul. 'The projects are the work of the practice itself, not of individuals – in fact at the end of projects we find it difficult to attribute ideas to individuals. That the practice has a shared, tacit design culture is one of the things I’m proudest of'. Another wonderful attribute of the OVP team which I hope comes across in the interview below is a distinct sense of optimism, and a genuine respect for other likeminded Australian architectural practices.  All three partners were keen to rattle off a long list of local architects whose work they love.  'We have so many archi-mates around the country that we admire greatly' says Stuart below (Great to see some of our own FAVES and previous TDF interviewees, Kennedy Nolan and Hannah Tribe in the mix!) Huge thanks to the talented team at OVP for their very generous interview responses, and for sharing their work with us today.  Epic work on the shots too, Toby! Oh nearly forgot to mention, you can follow each of the OVP partners on instagram too! Paul - @paulieowen, Stuart – @owenvokespeters, Aaron - @atpeters.  
Tell us a little bit about your background – what path initially led each of you to architecture and to each other, and to eventually launching Owen and Vokes and Peters?
Paul Owen: Stu and I knew each other from architecture school and from cycling with the UQ Cycling Club. As graduates we caught up regularly to scope one another’s freelance projects, and realised we had shared architectural sensibilities, and started Owen and Vokes in 2003. Aaron joined us in our first year as a cute little student, he became our Eliza Doolittle and blossomed into a co-director to form OVP. Stuart Vokes: Whilst we’re not design clones of each other, we do have shared architectural sensibilities and similar emotional responses to things, meaning that few outside the practice are able to detect the subtle hand of the individual director in a project. Aaron Peters: Stu tutored me as a third year architect student. He’d just started Owen and Vokes with Paul and I’d just started worrying about where I was going to get a job. He asked me to help him out with measuring a house and I thought that sounded great. When he told me the practice name it sounded like: ‘ewnnvoks’. I had no idea it would one day be ‘ewnvokenpetrs’!
Details from the office of Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Toby Scott.
What have been one or two of your favourite projects in recent years and why?
Paul Owen: The Red Hill House and the Newmarket Valley House, both because of the clients. Each of these buildings were enabled beyond what might have otherwise happened because of the optimism and trust of the owners. This doesn’t mean a client should accept a designer’s work without question. It takes wisdom and kindness to properly trust in a commissioning process, and the difference when a client does that is significant. Stuart Vokes: I have been preoccupied with completing our first significant non-residential project – a regional veterinary hospital for the University of Queensland. It is a house of sorts for sick small and large animals. Aaron Peters: Every project is important in a slightly different way. On one job we might just learn the best way to mount a tap. However, I think the project I’m most fond of is the Balmoral House. There’s almost no elaborate joinery or expensive finishes, just a really unexpected spatial diagram and a strong planning strategy that came out of a great relationship with a wonderful client.
Balmoral House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Jon Linkins.
Your role is to realise other people’s ‘dream homes’, but what about your own home? How would you describe your own personal aesthetic?
Paul Owen: I have no bloody idea, ha! I often wonder if my stuff really is representative of me and what I’d do if I could afford to start all over. I do value the right combination of order and chaos, a curated mess. I love older objects and things with evidence of hand-making, and also try to attain both lightness and darkness at once. Personal comfort can’t be ignored. Stuart Vokes: If one wishes to be true in their work, to offer something genuine to their clients, then all one can do is to be themselves and make what they know intimately. Invariably this means making a work which one judges by their own standards and aesthetics. My personal style finds its way into all of our clients' projects. Aaron Peters: I’m still figuring that out, probably will be for a while!
Alderely House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - John Linkins.
For us in the Southern states we think of a Brisbane home as an airy Queenslander perched up high, with interiors lined with VJ boards. As architects what do you feel makes a distinctive Brisbane home, and how do you contemporise this notion within in your work?
Paul Owen: The opportunity to edit / intervene / preserve these houses is a real privilege and in our practice we’ve always thought this. The charm of timber and tin Queensland houses is undeniable, and they come with no shortage of shortcomings and myths. They are a product of frontier economy and construction methods, not of design,  and we’ve always had this in mind when working with such buildings. We’ve often referred to these houses as quite modern – they’re systematic / have structural order / and often have a modernist austerity – for us design ideas generate naturally from such buildings. Stuart Vokes: There is a unique narrative which belongs to each city that can be discovered in the way we occupy its earliest buildings and remnants of its earliest settings. The profound thing about the Queenslander is that it is one of the building types which connects us to the narrative of Brisbane. We attempt to observe and preserve this in all of our intervention projects, with the simple ambition that the works might reveal themselves to be appropriate, consciously or subconsciously. Aaron Peters: I think this subject has been a constant preoccupation for our practice. Queenslanders are beautifully flawed houses. We try to work with the patterns and manner that we find in them, but to also recognise that they have their limitations. Finding the right balance between conservation and alteration is a fairly blurred line, and a question that requires a site specific response. One observation that we have made is that we (Brisbane folk) tend to overlook the importance of the setting of the house. The garden and relatively large amounts of open space are critically important to sustaining the character and lifestyle of the Queensland house, as much as the house itself.
Holland Park Sleepouts designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Toby Scott.
Holland Park Sleepouts designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Toby Scott.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Owen and Vokes and Peters? 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?
Paul Owen: There are six of us all together and we co-author all the work with our staff. For logistical clarity, projects are allocated to either Stu, Aaron or myself, the projects are the work of the practice itself, not of individuals – in fact at the end of projects we find it difficult to attribute ideas to individuals. That the practice has a shared, tacit design culture / knowledge is one of the things I’m proudest of. Stuart Vokes: We have always worked in pairs, an act of co-piloting the work with another staff member to form the project team. This ensures continuity and conviction on a project, so vital for the lengthy lifespan of most architectural projects. Partnering also engenders a collective dialogue about each project, which is opened up to the broader studio. No architectural work is the work of one individual. Aaron Peters: I think one of the critical things about our practice culture is that we’re all in one room and share a single email. It has meant that there is a great level of transparency about the workings of the office and a casual dissemination of information that’s unlike any other practice I’ve experienced.
The busy Brisbane office of Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Toby Scott.
The busy Brisbane office of Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Toby Scott.
Details from the Brisbane office of Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Toby Scott.
Which Australian architects, designers or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Paul Owen: Kennedy Nolan, Durbach Block Jaggers, NMBW. Stuart Vokes: We have so many archi-mates around the country that we admire greatly, so the list would be very long! Recently we have been taken by nimble hands of Hannah Tribe, NMBW, Room 11 and Kennedy Nolan. Aaron Peters: There’s a lot of young(er) architectural practices who have been emerging during the time we have been in practice.  We like Richards and Spence, Kennedy Nolan, Neeson Murcutt, CO-AP, O’Connor and Houle, NMBW, Officer Woods. It’s been a great privilege to have met a few of them in that time and visited some of their amazing work.
Can you list for us your top 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?
Paul Owen: Oh boy, I feel so surrounded by design information and imagery I have to say I have no specific go-to place for inspiration. These websites are ones I often scope for design eye candy: Studio MumbaiSmall Projects, IFJ Holdings Japan, and Truck Furniture. Stuart Vokes: I consume a lot of material but I can’t tell if it has an immediate direct impact on the work. It is years later that I can see the overt influences in each project. I often turn to evocative writers like Italo Calvino, trashy crime fiction (because they are always so heavily preoccupied with describing settings), and visually beautiful mags like Smith Journal. More directly, we work with client narratives as a form of evocative design brief. I am a consummate voyeur, I love hearing the stories of my clients, it’s a way of exploring the world. Aaron Peters: There’s an interesting discussion going on at Design Online, we’ve attempted to contribute a couple of times.
Details from the Brisbane office of Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Toby Scott.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Paul Owen: Floundering! Stuart Vokes: Conversations, talking, emails, drawing, decisions, decisions – in that order, then repeat order. Aaron Peters: Mad panic!
What would be your dream creative project?
Paul Owen: A boutique hotel, which is actually happening! We’re in the early stages of a small hotel that hopefully will be built one day soon. Stuart Vokes: We find a way to be creative on every project, that’s living the dream wouldn’t you say?! Aaron Peters: Anything that involves making and the time and money to do it well!
New Farm Arbour House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo - Alicia Taylor.
What are you looking forward to?
Paul Owen: This sounds obvious / too simple, but I really am looking forward to the future. Making architecture is very much about optimism and looking forward to something being realised, but funnily enough it’s been only recently that I’ve actually started being excited about my own future. Stuart Vokes: I am looking forward to making something again for myself and my family. Aaron Peters: Next year’s AIA conference in Perth should be great. It’s being put together by some friends of the practice and the little glimpses we’ve been given are pretty exciting.
Chelmer House designed by Owen and Vokes and Peters. Photo -  Jon Linkins.

Brisbane Questions

Your favourite Brisbane neighbourhood and why?
Paul Owen: I’m currently living in Paddington and really love it. The area has developed into a collection of little villages. It can be both relaxed and a little bit elegant too. Stuart Vokes: Holland Park, it’s where I return to every day to be with my wife and three boys. We live in a true neighbourhood, every afternoon there are up to four families gathered on the street, kids racing bikes and scooters, parents cracking bottles of wine...
What are your top spots in Brisbane for sourcing furniture and furnishings for your clients?
Paul Owen: AP Design House, Living Edge, Stylecraft, and Space. Stuart Vokes: I love exploring the Paddington and Woolloongabba Antique Centres.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Brisbane?
Paul Owen: Osso bucco cooked with friends on the fire at my house, while Toby Scott and Lynda Evans photographed some of my Proto-type furniture. Aaron Peters: One of the things I missed most about Brisbane while living abroad was having dinner at people’s houses. Listening to possums fighting on the verandah roof while you drunkenly spill red wine down the front of your shirt is a particular privilege that comes with living in a low density city; so I’ll nominate the sausages Paul roasted in his backyard a few months back.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Paul Owen: In bed! Stuart Vokes: Living the dream at my seven year old's soccer game. Aaron Peters: Wandering around the West End markets checking out the fat labradors with my wife.
Brisbane’s best kept secret?
Paul Owen: My little venture called Proto-type. It’s a small run furniture and publishing company – a little thing started by me and Dan Pike from The Letter D. We had an exhibition / selling event in July and are planning the next one in October. Stuart Vokes: The wilderness in the city is profound. There are amazing nature reserves dotted through the suburbs. At JC Slaughter Falls at the base of Mt Coot-tha one can still explore beautiful running creeks teaming with freshwater yabby – this is straight out of my childhood! Aaron Peters: Pear on Gladstone Road.
Details from the desk of Paul Owen of Owen and Vokes and Peters, featuring small timber 'cloud' - a miniature prototype for a larger piece designed by Paul.  Photo - Toby Scott.

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