Over the past three years Melbourne studio We Are Huntly has built their practice on projects of layered materiality and rigorous design process that carefully resolve beauty with practicality.
Recipients of the 2016 Australian Interior Design Emerging Interior Design Practice Award, We Are Huntly co-founders, Kylie Dorotic and Alicia McKimm, met while studying at Swinburne University in Melbourne and worked together for design practices including SJB before opening their own studio in 2013.
In a lively conversation punctuated by laughter and an astute ability to finish one another’s sentences, Kylie and Alicia discuss the thinking behind We Are Huntly, the impact of awards and instagram, and the balancing act between business and creativity which for them has been supported by friends and colleagues within the Melbourne design community.
more space: How would you describe We Are Huntly?
Alicia McKimm: We Are Huntly is a bit of a creative play of words because we are always looking, searching, hunting and gathering together new ideas and inspiration.
What did you both study and where did you begin your careers?
Kylie Dorotic. I studied visual arts and decoration and design at RMIT, before transferring to Swinburne to study interior design. SJB was my first job as a graduate, I was actually working while I was studying and that turned into a full-time position. I was there for five years before moving to Mim Design and then starting We Are Huntly with Alicia.
AM: I was also studying interior design at Swinburne and Kylie came in my third year so that’s where we first met. I then worked at the boutique residential architecture practice Pleysier Perkins, whose office is actually next door to us at the moment. I worked there for a few years and then at SJB briefly, and then Mim Design. We followed each other around and developed a mutual respect.
You have described your work as bridging the gap between architecture and the visual arts – how does that take shape in your work?
AM: For us it’s about finding the balance between function and beauty. That's the core of what we do.
KD: Every design decision we make, whilst we want it to be beautiful, always questions the facts – does it work? What is its purpose? We start with one big conceptual idea and then look at how to translate that into built form. So while we think about objects within a space, in the end the idea has to be practical and it has to answer the brief.
When did the studio open its doors and what was your first project?
AM: In November, 2013.
KD: We were lucky because our first job was the local Prahran Grocer. We work in Prahran and shop in the area, and we were able to get involved at an early stage while they were developing the brand identity.
AM: It was about meeting the right person at the right time and since then it has been a snowball effect.
How involved do you like to get in each project?
AM: We like to be involved in everything.
KD: If we have the opportunity to get on board early we like to take a job through from the initial concept and planning stage, to construction and project hand over. In some of the hospitality projects, when the brand is being developed, we sit in at the very beginning and get involved through to the detailed accessories selection, including cutlery and napkins for the tables. We really like to finish a space.
AM: If you can establish that holistic approach from the beginning, the rationale and the decision-making process will always go back to one idea and result in a much stronger project.
What projects best demonstrate that level of detail?
KD: Probably the Richmond Residence and then Penny Drop. The Richmond project involved the refitting of an existing early 1990s warehouse. A small part of it was a refresh of the interiors with new floor finishes, paint and joinery. The next layer was furniture and accessories, including the objects on the shelves and a custom-designed rug, and ongoing collaboration from the client along the way.
AM: The client has an amazing art collection including paintings by Ben Quilty, Dale Frank and Josie Kunoth Petyarre, so we drew on those pieces for inspiration. With both the Richmond Residence and Penny Drop there was a lot of client trust...
KD: ...trust in the process too.
Tell me about Penny Drop.
KD: Penny Drop is a café located in a new building in Box Hill in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The building is occupied by the Australian Taxation Office so the name and the branding concept by graphic designers Pop and Pac is a play on a penny dropping from the pockets of the ATO above (laugher). Conceptually the floor plan derived from the name and all the decision-making for the interior was a direct response to the playfulness of the brand.
AM: The client had a very strong and clear brief and gave us all the functional requirements. Box Hill is not one of the café hubs of Melbourne so Penny Drop had to become a destination, somewhere memorable that people would travel to.
KD: It was a great process and a strong team.
Which project, or projects, have had the biggest creative (or business) impact for your practice?
KD: The Richmond Residence received an Australian Interior Design Commendation Award for Residential Decoration and that has changed our business in terms of exposure and the type of enquiries we now get. Penny Drop has also been an important project for us because people have seen what we can do with a really strong brand.
AM: Penny Drop is also a space that connects with our friends and family, who, bless them, have had no idea until now what we do.
I imagine designing public spaces comes with the benefits of exposure and feedback.
KD: Yes, so many people have taken photos of Penny Drop on Instagram so it’s nice to see the interaction of the everyday user and to see what they love...
AM: … and what consistently gets photographed. The textured wall behind the dark green chairs, the custom table that seats 14 people and the bathrooms are all really popular.
D: I think the bathrooms have had the most likes (laughter).
You also have a very active Instagram account, has that been an important tool for establishing and building your practice profile?
AM: We focused on Instagram early on. That was the one way we could share our...
KD: … brand presence and our visual presence. It touched right into the idea of us always hunting. We thought that if we could show people the beauty that we find every day they might get a sense of what our aesthetic is without having a big folio of work behind us.
AM: Some of our clients have contacted us through Instagram...
KD: … and we have made a conscious effort for all of our images to be related to our everyday practice. So we don’t post other people’s photos. We take photos of everything from a pile of finishes to a brick wall.
AM: Our photos are intuitive and of the everyday. We are constantly looking...
KD: ...and we are constantly taking photos and sending them to each other (laughter).
What is a typical day for you both?
AM: In the early days we both did the same things. I work part-time at the moment so Kylie is more project focused but we both work on business development and client proposals together. I think the balance that we have achieved in our practice to date is a result of working side by side.
KD: That’s why we finish off each others sentences (laughter). We like to be involved in the design process together because we both bring different strengths.
AM: We have never separated projects between us, we have always worked together. We try and catch up weekly and talk about the business and we have been talking about surrounding ourselves with more small business owners just to chat further, ask questions and bounce ideas about the day to day.
KD: It’s easy to stay in your own little bubble but it’s important to get out.
Who inspires you?
AM: It’s a range of people. There is a design studio called Studiopepe who we take a lot of inspiration from. They design objects and beautiful spaces, their use of colour and balance of form is stunning.
KD: Yes, and we always chat about Viktoria & Woods and their latest fashion collections. Whilst there are people who inspire us in interior design, architecture and furniture design, we also look at fashion.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learnt about running a small business, and do you call on other local practices for advice?
AM: One of the main things is we always trust our instincts.
AM We are always talking to people, listening and asking lots of questions of clients, consultants, builders. We speak to other directors of small businesses to download and to hear how they might have handled a particular situation.
KD: It's important to absorb as much information as you can and hold on to the parts that are most relevant. There are businesses that were established at a similar time to us, so we are all quite good at communicating and picking up the phone. Although we are pitching for jobs against each other, we still chat about the process.
AM & KD: We are learning every day!
What is currently on the drawing board?
D: We have quite a few high-end residential projects in the office at the moment which are great. They are projects which last quite a long time so it’s a nice contrast to some of the more commercial projects.
AM: We are also working on a café and wellness centre in an existing Art Deco Victorian-style building. We are injecting some new joinery to make it work and it will include spaces for pilates, yoga and physiotherapy.
KD: We are also working on another café in Armadale with a fairly well-known chef. We are taking over an existing space and reinventing it with a fresher brand so that’s a really exciting project.
The 2016 Australian Interior Design Award for an Emerging Interior Design Practice was sponsored by Space Furniture Australia. See more residential and commercial projects on the Space Furniture website.