Just before the summer holidays more space interviewed Mark and Damien from Design Office about their collaborative working life, design influences, materials, Brussels, books and music, and what they are most excited about in 2015.  Interview x Damien Mulvihill and Mark Simpson.

Can you please describe Design Office.

Damien Mulvihill: Design Office is an architecture and interior design practice based in Melbourne. We work across scales and sectors with passionate clients to create spaces and buildings tailored to individual briefs. Soon we will also be launching Platform; a strategy-led design service providing a framework for the projects we undertake with commercial clients and brands. For example, this may involve working with urban designers and developers to create a strategic integrated design language for tenants to ensure street-level activation. Or, it may be about working with a retailer to develop a unique design language across a number of scales and tiers.

Mark Simpson: Damien and I are the joint creative directors of the studio and we are supported by a team of six architects and designers.

When did you know you wanted to be designers?

MS: It’s a cliché but it really is one of those things that became obvious in childhood for me. I’m not sure whether it started with Lego, or the continued re-working of my bedroom, but design is the only vocation I ever thought about.

DM: I was drawing floor plans of my parents friends' houses before I was 10 years old. I can’t really remember ever wanting to do anything else. It’s a very fortunate position, to be so certain about your vocation and it’s something I appreciate even more with age.

You both worked with Barber Osgerby in the early 2000's, is that where you first met?

MS: We met in London in 2002 at Allies and Morrison and went on to become friends and then work together at Universal Design Studio. During this time we led the project for a luxury retail destination within Battersea Power Station that set the foundation of our creative partnership. Four years later we established the Australian office for Universal which subsequently evolved into DesignOffice. It's hard work, but it's an incredible privilege to get to go to work doing something you love with your best friend.

Could you describe your studio and how it is set up.

DM: We are located in Collingwood in Melbourne’s inner north. After the constraints of our tiny first studio we went a little too far the other way and have a somewhat over-generous 300 square metre warehouse now. It's a very laid-back, open plan studio-style environment. We all work around one large table in the middle and have a range of other spaces adjacent, for model-making, meetings, laying out materials, making mockups and research.

MS: We try to keep a certain ordered creativity with a simple white space animated by the less-structured movements of bikes and dogs and the inevitable accumulation of materials, mockups and models.

When you are not in the studio, where do you most like to work?

MS: I really love to work in a range of places and find this quite a necessary part of the design process. Although the studio is our creative hub I find that design challenges often resolve themselves when you change your perspective – in the pool, whilst cycling and in cafés and parks. Travel is my guilty excess and I get a huge amount of design clarity whilst travelling to various places in the world. Being able to combine travel and work is one of the great things about running our own studio. Damien and I also try to make sure we get time away from the studio together, within Australia and overseas, to focus on specific design briefs within a new context.

DM: We don't really ever fully stop working, it's the downside of your job being your passion. I think about design everywhere, but anywhere with sunshine works best for me. It also amazes me how much we can achieve on a flight from Melbourne to Sydney.

Is there someone who has had an important influence on you?

MS: So many people in so many ways! In terms of design, my time at Universal working with Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby was definitely pivotal. It was the first time I was in a studio that harnessed design as a holistic and tangible process – architecture, interiors, product and brand. This has undoubtedly shaped DesignOffice. Additionally, there is a range of people who influence my design approach in various ways. The first practice I worked in was DEGW, the London-based practice led by Frank Duffy that defined new ways of working in the 1990s. In hindsight, this time entrenched the importance of the brief; something we continue to focus on at DesignOffice. I also worked with Sue Carr before establishing Universal and was definitely influenced by the practice’s considered focus on detail and ergonomics. With DesignOffice, influence continues daily with Damien. Although we have a shared approach we have differing skills in some areas and that is great for making sure that we’re both learning and evolving as designers.

Often design partnerships are divided between the business brain and the creative brain but you both flow between both. Can you describe your work process, individually and collaboratively.

DM: Our approach to the creative process is definitely a shared one. We always start with the brief, understanding the parameters, asking questions and listening. We also tend to focus on materiality very early in the design process and will often fill the table with materials and define a palette early on. The creation of sketch models is also critical in our practice and we find there is something more fluid in the design process of physical modelling and hand sketching.

MS: We share the creative process in the early stages of every project and then typically one of us runs with it more as the design progresses, the other one taking an ongoing design review role. The aspect of discussion and review, with each other, and the rest of our team, is a really critical process of design refinement. We’re really interested in the process of where design solutions come from and work hard to ensure that they are direct responses to the brief and project parameters, as opposed to the clichéd idea of having a ‘light bulb’ moment.

DM: We also work a lot with creatives in other realms; graphic designers, art directors, craftspeople and branding consultants. The diversity in scale and sectors that we work in enables us to work with a range of other disciplines and this is something we really enjoy.

Your projects range in scale and genre, from a small bakery to a finely finessed centre-piece staircase, bespoke houses and the architectural blueprint for one of Australia's largest retailers. What is it about the design diversity in your studio that you enjoy so much?

MS: The constant challenge of every project being different is one of the most exciting things about the studio for us. Regardless of scale or typology, they all have a brief which calls for problem-solving through design. Aside from the diversity it gives us in our creative realm, I think it also helps keep us on our toes as each project needs to be looked at with a fresh pair of eyes. It's very important to us that our work is tailored specifically to our clients' requirements.

How have you managed so successfully to avoid being pigeonholed?

MS: We would hope that there is lucid diversity in our folio which demonstrates an approach above and beyond an aesthetic. Although there are inevitably themes and some level of visual narrative which runs through our work, we approach each project as a new challenge. We also seem to find that we are lucky to work with passionate clients with genuine ambition regardless of sector or typology, and they push us to make sure that our responses are as good as they can be.

Like an artist has their medium, are there certain materials you most like working with?

MS: Materials are really important in our work and we try not to treat them as an applied element but rather as an integral part of the response. Within our projects it's fair to observe that we do love to work with wood and with the people who craft it. The warmth and texture it brings always delights. One of the things we love about our profession is that there is constantly so much more to learn, particularly with materials and their properties and potential. Colour is another realm that constantly fascinates us. Subtlety, nuance, and sometimes just the delight in weirdness of a chromatic combination.

What is the story behind the Pop Down Bar in Melbourne?

MS: The Pop Down Bar came about as a joint commission for Space Furniture, Architecture Media and Britton Timbers. The design was a direct response to the brief which called for the creation of temporary venue that would showcase the qualities of American hardwood, be demountable and re-useable and constructed quickly and cost effectively. It also needed to accommodate a bar and the unveiling of the shortlist for the Eat Drink Design Awards.

DM: We devised a suite of American Ash screens which would slot together to form a chamber and create a sense of intimate enclosure within the basement of Space Furniture in Richmond. This was entered by ducking under the roller shutter and passing through a threshold of stacked Kambia Ash. We then added a skin of gold metallic fabric behind the screens to create depth and illumination, removed from the lane way beyond.

Could you describe three more projects that have been important for your design development this year.

DM: We are currently designing the house for our clients from Mud Australia which is really rewarding. As we have been working with them on the retail spaces for the last four years, we have a strong understanding of their values and lifestyle and that's a rare and valuable perspective to have when designing someone’s home.

MS: We’ve also been developing a relationship with niche developer Milieu which we are really enjoying. We are currently designing a new 5-storey building for them and working on the interiors of a nearby apartment building. They are really engaged in the discussion about creating a brand which is underpinned by really high quality spaces and buildings designed specifically to people’s lifestyle.

DM: Also Filter, a new temporary café by Small Batch was a particularly enjoyable project this year. Andrew Kelly approached us as part of The Keys, a program initiated by Broadsheet magazine, with a brief to create a destination for filter coffee and smørrebrød in Melbourne's CBD. We worked with some skilled local craftspeople to create a timber-lined sanctuary at the bottom of a disused office building.

What books are you reading and what music you are listening to right now?

MS: Books... I’ve never really been much of a reader, especially not fiction. A few recent additions to the bookshelf include Open House Magazine; Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford's Architecture of Seduction; Falls the Shadow, about the history of the NGA; and a 1970s architectural book from an op shop called Community Centres & Student Unions. Music... so much and so varying depending on the time of day. From the vault I’m loving David Bowie’s Young Americans, Womack & Womack’s Love Wars. For a little more focus, there’s a bit of Little Dragon, Beth Orton and John Grant.

DM: I’m not much of a reader either and I’m really not inspired by music (unless it's The Smiths) but please don’t print this part… it's far too embarrassing.

Where have you travelled to recently and how have the experiences influenced and inspired you?

MS: I was just over in Europe for a wedding and also checking out the site for the new Mud Australia store we're designing in London. Highlights were the Brandhorst Museum in Munich, the architectural photography exhibition at the Barbican and a Richard Serra installation at the Gagosian Gallery I also spent a few days in Auckland on the way back and that was really wonderful. We went out to see the amazing sculpture collection at Gibbs Farm which was an absolute treat but I also got an enormous amount from just hanging out in Auckland and having the time to wander and absorb. It's often those times that I find the most rewarding.

DM: I was also in Europe in August for a friend's wedding. The highlight was Berlin which has changed so much since I was there ten years ago, not all for the better. But The Neues Museum by David Chipperfield was the stand-out piece of architecture. The sensitivity in approach between the old and the new fabric was very inspiring. I also loved the Riverbed installation by Olafur Eliasson at The Louisianna Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen. He has filled several adjoining galleries with riverbed rocks, up to 2 or 3-metres high, and there is a working stream. The big surprise was Brussels. I loved the layers of urban planning, from the original rambling old town with its stunning central square and the subsequent overlay of Roman roads and modern boulevards and parks. I loved that its history is so obviously reflected in the town planning and then how that effects the speed in which you experience the city.

What are you looking forward to next?

DM: Swimming in the ocean. I’m looking forward to my annual pilgrimage to Bondi Beach over summer for days and days of sunshine, swimming and Aperol and soda.

MS: A little bit of time out to digest. We’ve got some really great projects in the studio at the moment, including a new concept for the team behind Top Paddock and Kettle Black, a series of Fitzroy townhouses for boutique developer Milieu and we head to Shanghai to start work on a coffee roastery project in the new year. They are all in the early creative stages and we find a bit of distance is critical to the design process. When things evolve at a slower pace, it tends to be the time when a richness evolves too. I’m also heading back to Tokyo in February which never fails to amaze and inspire me.

Thank you.

Interview_Mark and Damien were interviewed by Heidi Dokulil at Reuben Hills, Sydney.
Photography_© Design Office