It’s one thing to create a beautiful house and another to create a beautiful home. We mean the type of spaces that feel lived-in, that contain the multitudes of their inhabitants – that don’t feel like they strolled off a designer’s portfolio page without any room for individual expression. But creating homes, not houses, is a skill Chris and Megan from CM Studio have got down pat from the start. While they might be a young studio, their skill for uniting spaces with the idiosyncratic lifestyles they represent is something that can take years to get right. Their projects are also refreshingly unpretentious, devoid of the need to prove one’s self that younger designers can often fall prey to.
Coming off their stellar Bellevue Hill Home project, we sat down with the studio’s C and M themselves on a recent trip to Sydney to hear more about their path to founding the studio, creating an experience through design and why doing less is often harder than doing more.
Est: You started working together straight out of university, correct?
Chris: Yes, we met at uni through working together on a number of projects together. Megan and I always had a similar approach to design; it wasn’t as rigid as some of the other people in our architecture degree in that we were very loose and fun with it and open to other things, which in some ways has been our shared design aesthetic too.
Megan: I actually didn’t finish my last year of Masters, so I was working part-time and Chris was still at uni when we formally worked on our first project together (the Paddington project) which was my own house. Then at the end of that year, when Chris had just finished uni, we got offered the Manly Apartment – which was my parents-in-law’s place. I didn’t want to do it myself so I basically said to Chris “you’re coming on!”.
Chris: It’s funny to think about now – they (the clients) were viewing the property and asked if we wanted to come along and view it, which we did and while there we were chatting with them and they said “so, can you do something with this space?” and while internally we were thinking “oh wow, this is a project!” we just said “of course!” The existing house was the most hideous rabbit-warren, really dark hallways and no light, but it had loads of potential. That’s the thing, when you’re young and inexperienced, you don’t know what you don’t know – so anything’s possible. You think, why can’t I make it like that? Or you come up with a solution – you design and then manufacture and create all the solutions to everyone else’s problems.
Megan: That project, the Manly House, was an enormous learning experience for us, and an amazing outcome in the end – we really made sure it was a beautiful space and the client loved the space. We were there every day (because we didn’t have any other jobs) on site, doing demo with them and learning all the details about plastering and plumbing and all these things that we just didn’t have that base understanding of. When you work at a firm and you’re a junior, you never go out on site, so our experiences were mostly in defects – whereas this was just a huge step up for us. The clients also let us get very involved in the level of detail, we were able to go into such depth – even with the photos, it was all real stuff in the house. The success of that project then lead to more interiors jobs, which now allows us now to do both the architecture and interiors, and really be end-to-end for our clients.
Chris: I really think because our first “proper” job was an interiors project we saw what the value of being able to explore the interiors was. So now we unite interiors and architecture in our work, because we’ve got that experience of how they’ve got to join together. That’s why most clients come to us – because we do all of it, and they want that to happen together.
How do you work together in the business and what is your collaboration process?
Chris: The way we operate currently is that we each take the lead on different projects, whether it’s based on where we live, one of our aesthetics, or just how we each get on with the client – we’ll always have one of us be the main point of contact. This is a lot easier for clarifying communications – it’s a nightmare when you’re both the point of contact.
Megan: Each of us is the vanguard for a project and then we do all the design elements as a team; the design development stage is the first stage, then the specs – we do both of those together. Because of the way we run the business, we both know exactly what’s going on and I can step in on project for Chris and vice versa without interrupting any client process. We also have our other team member (also called Chris) in the office, he goes through all the approvals for clients and then we bounce back to the design stage and onsite management together. Again whoever was the point of contact is the one driving that stage, but we’ll often go to each other’s jobs or meetings if it’s relevant – but it’s never a must-do because we trust the other in their work.
Chris: There’s the trust but also there’s the vulnerability to say “I’m not sure about this” or “I want to clarify this” and be able to do that together. It’s great having the three people in the business – you can have the good cop and bad cop and it really helps to make processes easier. We also do a lot of business planning and analysis and self-analysis – what we feel we’ve done well or badly, what needs to be changed or improved in the businesses, where we want to be taking it – we are constantly assessing and reassessing.
It must have been a big shift to go from being at uni together with no real-world outcomes to not just designing together, but running a business together.
Megan: Very much so. At university, you can design a random library for your favourite designer that has no realistic need to be built – it’s pure creation.
Chris: University taught me how to think structurally, how to design, how to think about design and architecture – but not really necessarily how to ‘be’ an architect. That’s been a steep learning curve.
Megan: But it’s been a really good learning curve! I think we have to stop and look at how early we are in our careers to be in this position, and be really thankful every day we have the clients we have and are able to be creating these spaces for them.
You mentioned before that you don’t think you do have a distinct design aesthetic – would you say you have more of a distinct approach?
Megan: Yes, it’s more about site restraints or client restraints – bringing that together in the best possible way. Often the materials will be a reaction to what’s most appropriate for the site, rather than what the client wants – it’s more practical, or the best balance of the existing materiality – what is best for all fronts.
Chris: We’ve got a very clear approach to planning and a strong approach to spaces – a very logical flow of space in our design. We’re not about creating awkward space or weird rooms, we want function and flow, a quality of light and drawing light in. It’s about simple logical planning that creates a beautiful quality and feel of space, regardless of what’s on the wall. It’s more of a feeling or a tone.
Megan: Something that we realised off the back of that Manly project actually, is that the feel of the place is so pivotal – it’s like an event. Through that, we now make sure it’s always an experience as you walk through the house to create different spaces. Even in that tiny Paddington house, there were differences between the front of the house with its heritage vibes and the rear rooms that were very bright and open – it felt like you were in a completely different place. That essence of escapism is what we really want for our clients, because that’s their real life, not a beautiful home they’re admiring from afar.
Chris: We’re also pretty open to things and try different things – I think that’s why even now we wouldn’t say we have a distinct style, we’re more about having a common approach to every project and a common design ethos but that’s very flexible in terms of how it’s applied to a project.
Megan: We’re not complete architecture nuts – while we’re obsessed with what we do, we’re happy to pull inspiration from so many different things. I think we’re less bound by tradition but we’re still very aware of it.
Est: Who have been some of your biggest influences or inspirations?
Megan: I would actually say one of our biggest influences is travel – even when the other person is overseas, we’ll often text each other about a detail like a lampshade saying ‘check this out, it’s amazing’. Travel is really important to both of us and we’re always communicating our ideas. In terms of designers, Vincent Van Duysen is a huge influence and we love Isay Weinfeld – we love the Brazilian contemporary design scene.
Chris: I’d say John Pawson as well – a lot of his works contain that same minimalistic aesthetic but with a warmth through the materiality. His ‘Life House’ project was a huge influence on us; it is super tonal and restorative and I thought it was incredible to get that feeling of minimalism through tones, not just white. That’s something I think we always try to look for in our aesthetic – how can we get that simplistic design, but with the warmth of a natural palette. We’re not big fans of architecture for architecture’s sake, where the designers do things just because they can do it, such as using 70 materials because they can use 70 different materials. I think it can just be a bit over the top, particularly in Sydney.
Megan: The palette is a really important influence in itself for each project. In two of our recent jobs we’ve used only four materials internally, which is still very interesting because they’re four very different materials and very site-specific for each project. In both cases this was driven by the client, their taste and lifestyle. The two palettes are wildly different, but still very simple palettes, very refined. I actually think it’s easier to do, it’s hard to do less, to really peel it back and be disciplined is difficult.
And now, for some Sydney questions:
Where do you live in Sydney and what do you love most about it?
Chris: I live in Mona Vale, just near the beach. Feels so removed from the city on the weekends.
Megan: I live in Tamarama on Sydney’s eastern beaches. Love living so close to the ocean but still only a relativity short commute from the office. I really love winter at the beach, it’s so moody and always changing, although you cannot beat a summer’s day when the water turns turquoise off the rocks at Tamarama beach and we go swimming down there with our dog.
Favourite places to eat:
Favourite places to drink:
Favourite places to shop:
Chris: PJ Johnson Tailors for my work uniform….their Paddington showroom is just up the road from our office.
Megan: Glenmore Road Paddington… it’s right near our office which is a little dangerous! Acne, Bassike and Camilla and Marc are my go-to’s for a work uniform.
Weekly local rituals:
Chris: Northern Beaches Farmer’s Markets on Friday mornings – I love grabbing some fresh produce on the way into the office.
Megan: Every Saturday morning I head to Bondi fresh food markets and pick up all our produce for the week and fresh flowers for the house – and to grab a delicious breakfast while I’m down there!