Sydney-based design collective Amber Road has a reputation to impress, fronted by an inspiring sister duo.  Since joining forces in 2013, co-directors Katy Svalbe and Yasmine Ghoniem have built a steady collection of award-winning projects, bolstered by credentials in interior design and landscape architecture.

Now part of a growing studio team, the multi-skilled collaborators continue to drive their practice by the principle of relaxed and easy living, or rather ‘the art of living simply’. This philosophy is emergent in their projects like the Cronulla Residence and their wider work as featured in the est Design Directory.

We were lucky enough to chat with the well-travelled women, on how their world adventures have shaped each unique project, spanning across hotels, homes and hospitality. While in the company of Katy and Yasmine, we also couldn’t help but ask how they spend a Sydney Sunday.

WORDS Sophie Lewis | PHOTOGRAPHY Cole Bennetts, Prue Ruscoe and Christopher Morris 

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Katy, you’ve worked with some big names in the Australian design scene. What did they teach you and when did you decide to found your own practice in Amber Road?

Katy: Indeed, my work experience at both Hassell and Aspect Studios had a profound impact on how I, and our studio as a whole practices.

Being multidisciplinary, Hassell, my first work place, gave me firsthand experience in the art of collaboration and working across disciplines.  Additionally, working in this office in the years leading up to the Sydney Olympic Games afforded me the privilege of working on projects as vast and complex as the Master Plan for the Parklands surrounding the Olympic Village at Homebush. I learnt to appreciate the importance of setting up rigorous frameworks and concepts to inform the ongoing evolution of a site. This was critical in the context of that particular project as many of the spaces and places that were dreamt up during the Master Planning phase of the project were not to be realised until well into the future. Tony McCormick, my boss at the time was also a stickler for spelling, so for all of you out there that are not aware… Car Park is two words!

On the flip side, post my professional debut at Hassell, I joined Aspect Studios in Sydney in 1999 when it was just setting sail on the local scene. At the outset we were a team of three, which meant that everything was hands on and every task and project a tremendous learning curve. Working closely on all facets of the growing studio gave me immense insight into how a business runs from all angles.

In regards to starting my own practice, the idea had not really crossed my mind until having completed my degree in Landscape Architecture and notched up a couple of years professional experience, I embarked on a round the world travel adventure and made a stop in to see Yasmine, who was at the time finishing up her degree in Interior Architecture at Savannah College of Design in The States.   Standing on top of a historical fort that was in fact the subject of Yasmine’s final design project [her vision was to retrofit it into for a youth hostel], our dreams and passions in regards to design and the building of community united the seed of having a studio together was planted. An unexpected coincidence for us both, as although of the same mother, we grew up on different sides of the globe!. It wasn’t until we both happened to be back on home turf in Sydney in 2013 that we took the plunge into making our dream a reality….the rest is history!

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Cronulla Residence by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe
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Cronulla Residence by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe

Yasmine, how did your early experience working in design in the USA shape your practice today? 

It was a childhood dream of mine to make it to the ‘melting pot’ which was ‘A m r i k a ” – aka America. A country where everyone was equal and dreams really could come true. After years of growing up in the very brown desert [Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia], colour in the everyday was extremely attractive. So when I finally made it to the States after graduating high school, I was pretty darn chuffed my childhood dream had come to fruition. After graduating in 2004, I drove across the country to Portland Oregon, a rainy city on the west coast and one in the middle of a mini recession [something I should have researched before driving 3000 miles!] I couch surfed between my car and friends places for the better half of a year and worked with an architect for 6 months whilst I painted an Agnes Martin mural in his office for free. My first ‘paid’ job was at a carpet showroom. I spent my breaks hunting on line for my next move, it was slim pickings.  I still remember the scream I made when I heard ‘you got the job’ for a position at a major local architectural firm.  After a 12 month stint, I was forced to jump ship to another architectural practice due to unfortunate changes in work visas. Strip malls and seafood chain restaurants were the norm at this new studio, not that it really mattered as I fell into an illustrator role, coz I could build models and hand render [they love the hand sketches over there]. In my darkest hour there, I was head hunted and jumped across to a boutique interiors firm, at the top of their game decking out hotels and celebrity homes. Now, that was fun.

Across the three years’ post graduating; I had been privy to the ugliest side to architecture, the most beautiful and everything in between. So did it shape me? Um yeah…just a little! It definitely taught me I didn’t want 150 staff on the books, design strip malls, or to work with Cindy Crawford again.

Katy – what first attracted you to landscape design and how has interest that evolved since?

Although the discipline first came to light as a career option upon reading the university hand book and it leaping out as a profession that combined my passions in art and science I did get a little excited about the design of gardens when I won a competition to design and construct a Japanese garden, on ours school grounds in late primary school.

From then onwards, it has been an ongoing love affair. The transformative power of landscapes, both ‘natural’ and constructed in providing spaces for healing, connecting, gathering and learning for both individuals and communities, is what drives me to keep practicing.

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Inside Out House by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe
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Inside Out House by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe

What are the similarities between a hospitality project and a residential project? Has your experience working on these projects influenced your design sensibility or influences?

Yasmine: Hospitality is a rewarding sector, as it marries a lot of residential detailing like kitchens and baths, but you have to amplify and exaggerate the end user ‘experience’, so defining a strong concept is key to a successful outcome. Residential is so personal and again very rewarding if you can extract what a client truly wants; even when they themselves don’t even know!.  The bonds you make with some of your clients can be wonderful, especially if they engage you again down the track. Hotels are an extension of the home and aim to make nomads feel as comfortable away as they would at home. So I always aim to make residential bathrooms and bedrooms feel ‘hotel’ like, as I still consider it a treat to stay in one.

Designing ‘less’ is also something I have sit at the forefront of any concept. Less is so totally more.

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Cronulla Residence by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe
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Cronulla Residence by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe

We love the Amber Road value of ‘the art of living simply’. How does this drive your decisions in the design process?

Katy: In a nutshell our design intends to make life, as all good design should; more simple and easy!

Our design process typically starts with a strong concept that becomes the driver for all spatial, detail or material selections there on in. In that way, a design inherently becomes simple, in a subtle, sophisticated way; paired back and rigorous.

The notion of ‘the art of living simply’ also nods to our love of avoiding clutter in our designs. A recurring theme in our work is the employment of custom joinery/ or elements, such as integrated seats, ledges or nooks to create spaces that are sculptural, welcoming, functional, and most importantly, due to their site/client specificity; surprise and delight!

What is a common misconception clients may have towards landscape design and how do you overcome it?

Katy: In many instances, landscape projects are directly associated with the design and construction of a building. Unfortunately, when this is the case, landscape architects are brought in at the end of the project; for example, post the design and/or realisation of a building. This often leads to the landscape being something that is engaged to merely decorate or in many instances screen said building. Sadly, in such instances being the last cab of the rank in terms of construction, the landscape budget and design is often severely compromised.

With our breadth of knowledge and vast perspective, I have always rallied that the landscape architect should be at the table from the beginning of the design conversation; working in collaboration with the client, architect and/ or other designers to inform how built form can be distributed/ sited in the landscape. In such a way, built projects/forms can relate to their context in a far more engaging manner and with key frameworks and with concepts, taking into consideration inputs from all disciplines from the get go a project can be designed, detailed and realised in a far more holistic manner.

Such a hurdle can only be overcome by broadening people’s understanding [both the general public and fellow design colleagues] of the profession and building a portfolio of work that demonstrates the great results that can be achieved in working this way.

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Trackmaster by Amber Road | Photo by Christopher Morris
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Trackmaster by Amber Road | Photo by Christopher Morris

Yasmine, you seem to have many creative pursuits. How do your other roles (musician, writer, tutor!) inform your creative practice as a designer?

Yasmine: Variety is the spice of life. I’ve never been very good at pursuing just one thing. I tend to fall in love very quickly with something, give it a go and then push it to the side for a minute. But the one thing that has always stuck with me is music. One of my major reasons behind starting AR, was giving more time to that pursuit. But the busier the studio gets, the less I play and that’s really soul destroying but great for Amber Road I guess! In terms of writing outlets, our mother’s a very colourful writer. Katy and I for years have tried to get her to tell her life story, because it’s so wildly interesting. But it’s more than telling stories for me.  It’s a chance to educate and share knowledge to help broaden someone’s outlook on the subject, and appreciate the value of what we do outside our industry. I was curious to see what was being taught at UNI locally, having studied overseas. So when the chance to tutor at UNSW for Interior Architecture, I jumped at the opportunity. I’d love to bridge the gap between conceptual teachings we all endured during our Uni days and really harness the skills needed for when ‘real life’ work comes into play. The two seem very disconnected.

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Inside Out House by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe
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Cronulla Residence by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe

What Amber Road project are you most proud of, and why?

Katy: Projects where we get to flex our muscles in pushing the limits with how we articulate the boundaries between inside and out and/ or foster strong ties with our clients and/ or local community are those that we are most passionate and proud about.

One of such projects that I have particularly fond memories of is the the Chinta Kechil/Ria restaurant fitout we did in Double Bay.  We had an engaging relationship with our client Simon Goh from start to finish [which, amongst other things, involved sharing a meal or some form of tasty Malaysian delicacy at each and every meeting…of which there were many], we got to collaborate with many fine local artisans and friends, we got to hone our skills in blurring the boundaries between inside and out and we got to get crafty and hands on and personally make several of the important elements of the fitout including the red lanterns that hang in the shopfront and the coconut planters that animate a the back alleyway of the restaurant.

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Inside Out House by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe
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Inside Out House by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe

As owners of well-stamped passports, what are some of the places that have inspired you the most, and why?

Yasmine: Barcelona, for the blindingly seductive Gaudi forms, Hanoi, for elderly Asian men dressed in berets, Dubrovnik,  for that blue water and its history,  Berlin, because our brother lives there and we miss him, Sri Lanka for Kandy and Christmas-lit Elephants, but – nothing stirs me like Africa. I visited Kenya when I was ten and vowed I would return when I was older. In 2007, I embarked on a 6 month volunteer experience, and spent 3 months teaching and building schools in the middle of the Maasai Mara. Sleeping on a dirt floor in a Manyata hut was the most humbling of experiences. So many people I met had so little, yet their sense of community was immensely inspiring. I always remember my hosts when I think about designing for community on home turf; something our studio is really passionate about.

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Inside Out House by Amber Road | Photo by Prue Ruscoe

Finally, how do you see the role of design in shaping communities of the future?

Katy: Equipped with a keenness to observe, ask questions, listen and communicate, as well as the skills to visually articulate ourselves, designers have a key role in shaping the world and communities we live in for the better. With such tools at the ready, we are key players in unravelling and interpreting complex situations and space and in doing so we are pivotal figures in creating a world that is inclusive, engaging and accessible for all.

Yasmine: It’s about becoming more accessible as architects and designers to the general public who are the real beneficiaries from our skills and knowledge. That means attending things outside industry launches [as lovely as they are] which are  meaningful to you as a designer and offering yourself up as a vehicle and facilitator for the change you want to see.

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Trackmaster by Amber Road | Photo by Christopher Morris
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Trackmaster by Amber Road | Photo by Christopher Morris

Where do you live in Sydney and what do you love most about it?

Yasmine: I live probably in the most enviable street in Sydney in perhaps the daggiest apartment block on the strip. It’s right across from fisho’s point in Bronte. It’s magic

Katy: Erskineville. I love that it feels like a little village. I know my neighbours, my local shops are a 30 second stroll from my front door, I don’t have a car and don’t feel I need one, I have two train stations in a less than a 5 minute walk and I can ride my bike to most places I like to visit.

Favourite places to eat:

Yasmine: It doesn’t take much to please. Arthur’s Pizza for a Sunday chill with Mum [she loves it], Flour and Stone for a mega sweet treat, Iggy’s bakery for a humble jam and toast and a cup of joe on Sunday mornings. I do love a bit of the The Apollo, Riley St Garage, and Cho Cho San.

Katy: Recent finds and loves: Acre at Camperdown Commons, Cairo on Enmore Road, The Apollo in Potts Point. Generally I am most content when enjoying a meal using produce from our very own vegetable/ herb patch at home, often enhanced by some treats gleaned from our local Erskineville deli.

Favourite places to drink:

Yasmine: You can’t beat Edition Roasters for coffee and Japanese sweets in the AM. I’m always a fan of the ‘ol Shady Pines and The Commons when heading out for a sun- downer after work.

Katy: My weekday morning ritual is to savour a delicious coffee from Edition Roasters that is located but a stone’s throw from our studio in Darlinghurst. When close to home, my favourite local watering hole is the Hive Bar; humble, small, great peeps, tasty beer and top beats.

Favourite places to shop:

Yasmine: Zomp for shoes, Vinnies for everything else, although I do love a bit of Alpha 60 and Third Form. When our office buddies have their bi – annual BIG FASHION sale, that’s when our office’s clothing budgets come unhinged.

Katy: One of my recently discovered favourite places to shop is in the nursery at the Royal Botanic Gardens. What a bounty of both indigenous and exotic plant varieties!

Weekly local rituals: 

Yasmine: I hate to say it, but at some stage during the week, my partner and I brave the crowds and do our weekly shop at BJ [better known as Bondi Junction] at an array of places coz let’s face it, you can never get everything at one place can you?  I never totally enjoy the experience, but a quick pit stop to the ‘Tea Gardens’ for a sneaky one before punching the supermarkets seems to do the trick. So classy.

Katy: Our inner west neighbourhood is a veritable smorgasbord of food and culture. Of a weekend, I like to meander around the hood on foot or bike, perhaps drop into Carriageworks market at Eveleigh on a Saturday morning and grab breakfast + a few special culinary delights and check out what they have on show. Taking a roll around the forever evolving [and growing!]. Central Park Precinct also always unearths new design marvels and delights. A wander around White Rabbit Gallery, followed by tea and dumpling is also always a treat.
On Sunday nights, we have an evolving tradition of dinners shared with family. With all of living in different nooks and crannies of Sydney, it is a fun way of exploring the forever changing feast of restaurants this town affords us.

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Ume Burger by Amber Road | Photo by Christopher Morris
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est living interview Amber Road Ume Burger 1

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