Architect and interior designer Blainey North might be a new face on the London scene but her name is more than known in her native Australia. Having just opened her first international studio in the capital, the award-winning designer’s style is set to become a synonym for thoughtful design this side of the equator as well.
Showcasing the designer’s various collections, the studio is located above the flagship Alice Temperley Bruton Street store (Alice is a close friend and past collaborator) where pieces from Blainey’s original furniture collection can also be found.
The arrangement features updated classics (the Olivier smoking chair) paired with unique designs (a glass coffee table embedded with glossy piston-like rods) which aim to further the furniture industry. Luxurious finishes is her calling card but unique materials and uses are employed here too – interesting pony hair lamp shades are just one example.
We caught up with the designer – who is as fun as she is talented – in the stunning new space for some design chat and laughter.
LD: How did your journey into design start, Blainey?
BN: I studied architecture. The long story is really that when I was at school, I thought I’d do law or something like that and then I was doing art and my art teacher said to me, “Have you ever considered architecture?” which I never had. And she said, “Blainey, for the last 10 years, you’ve only drawn pictures of buildings. Haven’t you noticed that everyone else in the class is drawing people and you’ve been drawing buildings this whole time?”
So when I went and did architecture, I loved it! It’s definitely for me. I realised at that point that all of my life (even when I was little and we’d move house) I’d drawn floor plans of my bedroom to work out how to put my furniture. Thinking back it seems odd but it was obviously a sign.
LD: When did you establish your firm?
I started my practice very young when I was still at university, when I was 22. I was doing private projects and then I started doing the foyers of commercial buildings for property trusts as well as a lot of houses. And it kind of just took off, we won some awards… so that by the time I was doing my final design I had five staff working for me. So it’s grown from there and now I’ve had my business for 16 years.
We work in architecture and interiors. We do more interiors but I like to think of it as carving the space as opposed to treating the space.
I feel really comfortable with big spaces and enthusiastic with large-scale projects. That’s where I feel at home.
LD: London might prove to be a struggle for you then because everything’s so compact!
The thing that’s wonderful about London is that they really understand layering and detail and all of the beautiful craftsmanship.
LD: How would you describe your aesthetic?
BN: There are two answers, I guess. One is [that] I like to think that when you come into one of our spaces it has a feeling of surprise and, also, that you feel like it’s something that you haven’t seen before. There should be a moment that you’re being overtaken by what’s around you. And it should also feel very calm. The combination of having a heightened experience of yourself within a space but, at the same time, you should feel very calm and relaxed. Even though you might feel, “Oh, this is such an exciting new environment that I haven’t been in”, you don’t feel stressed about what you’re looking at. We work a lot in three dimension to allow lots of our lines to meet, from vertical and horizontal planes, running through our projects so that you have visual reference points, to ensure a calmness.
And I think the second thing is that every project starts with a big concept. That concept has to be a really strong idea that’s bigger than the project itself. One of the projects we worked on were apartment and offices which were built on the edge of the harbour. We wanted it to feel like you were cocooned in the space, because the brief was that it was to feel like a gentleman’s club, but there’s this amazing view of the water and the harbour. So we were thinking about this idea of rock pools and when the water comes into the rock pool and carves the rocks away in lines of time. We had the idea to carve out the interior with all these circular motions which swept in and extended out towards the view in the same way water erodes the rocks at the edge of a cliff. All the joinery was curved and kept linking into each other and everything flowed almost like the tide. It was that idea of erosion, time, the release and motion of water that were quite deep.
That becomes the foundation for every single thing we try to do within the interior. In a way, the aesthetic and style of each project is determined partially by these [big] concepts.
LD: Where do you turn for design inspiration?
BN: Usually I’ll say, “So many things inspire me – nature, fashion…” The truth really is that that inspiration is a product of a series of different intellectual investigations and then the inspiration comes from that. That inspiration is part of your internal Rolodex of knowledge of the world. For example, I would’ve seen every single new collection of fashion that came out two weeks ago. I go through all of the fashion archives – I love looking at fashion because I think it’s such an amazing space for generating continuously new ideas. And I love the thing about creating something on a moving platform. I spend a lot of time looking at new art, researching artists and film. I feel like it’s very important to be abreast of everything that’s going on in the world. And I personally pride myself in knowing those things. Even food and fusing cultures is fascinating so I think it can really be from any single spectrum.
For one of the projects we’re working on at the moment, we’re looking at the idea of light refraction and reflection and we’ve looked at the work of this woman called Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian who’s an Iranian artist. She’s in her 80s or 90s and she’s been making these art works made out of beautiful little pieces of mirrored tiles which are like the tiles they used in their traditional architecture but to make these quite contemporary sculptural pieces. And there’s this idea of taking these tiny little beautiful things, putting them all together to make some much bigger but then the idea of what happens when the light refracts and creates unexpected moments from these things – it’s always reactive to its space. We’re working on a project which is looking at that – what happens when you create a framework which is there but not there because a mirror is there but it’s not really there because it’s reflecting other things.
LD: Much of your furniture designs have an Art Deco feel. Is that a fair observation?
BN: The first collection was inspired by the Deco period. We named all the pieces after 1920s authors or 1920s/1930s movie stars so this chair is the Hemingway. It’s inspired by [him] the club style chair because you imagine that’s the way he sat. It has a softer interior but the more tough exterior. That floor lamp over there is called the Romero which is based on his novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises and Romero was the bullfighter so we imagined that that lamp embodies a bullfighter – it’s this face which is its a strong exterior. This is the Olivier smoking chair who was always sitting back with a cigar.
The next collection is not going to be very Deco at all. It’s going into a different space. I guess it’s almost like luxury industrial or something. I wouldn’t say our work from an interiors perspective is particularly Deco and I think that the new furniture line is really moving away from that. The thing I like about Deco is that it was about a very strong rigour in craftsmanship and detail and design but it also had a certain kind of aesthetic which we don’t necessarily feel is relevant to everything that we do. I’m kind of always mindful of not being placed in an Art Deco bracket because I think that puts us in a weird aesthetic space that is not necessarily where we sit.
LD: Your work boasts international appeal but is particularly popular in Europe, which has led to the launch of a new studio in Mayfair. Why do you think your work resonates so well with the European?
BN: The truth is I don’t really know. We create what we think is beautiful and hope that people feel the same thing, right? I definitely feel like what we’re doing, what we have been doing, is appreciated. People in Europe seem to get it.
LD: What are you working on at the moment?
BN: This morning I’ve been working on this project which is a restaurant where it’s an Italian chef and we’re designing the interior based on Futurist Italian posters. There’s an amazing Italian poster movement which really started from them creating posters for people to go to the opera before movies and all that kind of thing. And Italian poster art has so many amazing artists that did posters so there was a whole Futurist movement which was part of reunifying Italy after the war. So the interior we’re working on is based on some of these artworks which is really interesting. This morning I’ve been working on designing the ceiling which is a giant Futurist poster.
LD: Wow! You definitely don’t go small! Are there any trends you’re seeing emerging this year?
BN: I think, for me, where I think that there’s not a lot of stuff is that if you’re a young person, between the ages of 20 and 40, and you’re successful and you can afford to buy nice furniture, there aren’t a lot of places that cater for cool, interesting stuff that isn’t vintage. That’s a niche market. There aren’t many people that are doing things that feel young and cool and relevant to [young people]. A lot of the furniture and lighting out there feels like it could be in your home or your mum and dad’s home. With our new collection we really want to create stuff that you feel like is definitely youthful and different and it’s not part of a traditional old home. When we’ve been creating this new line we’re creating what we want to live with – pieces we think are really unique, different and which doesn’t feel like they’re part of a past furniture typology.
LD: An early fascination with buildings drew you to the interior design world. Are there any past or present architects that have had a particular influence on you?
BN: Well, I’m a die-hard for Scarpa – I love his work! I love architects like Jean Nouvel and I really love Giles & Boissier.
LD: What’s the best piece of design advice you could give?
BN: My design mantra would be about rigour – it’s really got to be rigorous design. It’s not just about some amazing concept that comes in. It’s a real process. That’s something I always try to instil in my team. Some pretty isn’t good enough – it’s got to have a foundation in something much bigger. And the thing that I think is the most important thing is to constantly keep walking through the space in your mind. Because I see the space in three dimensions in my mind before it’s built. I like to go to sleep, lying there at night, and walk through the spaces in my head and look at every corner of a room, every detail, and check our design. If you can actually try and embody yourself into somewhere before it’s actually built, if you can be entirely immersed in it, then you’ll have a good project.