Interview: Jeremy Bull of Alexander & Co

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    One of Sydney’s most promising emerging designers, Jeremy Bull and his studio Alexander & Co. are behind many a notable local project – from hospitality institution Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel to one of the most popular homes on est of late, Iluka House.

    With a curiosity to take on diverse, multifaceted projects and a respect for craftsmanship and materiality, Jeremy has developed a studio that goes behind responding to a brief to discover what is pivotal about a space and its identity. We sat down with Jeremy to learn more about his road to founding Alexander & Co., where the practice is evolving, and how to capture timelessness in design.

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    What first drew you to design and how did you get your start in the industry?

    Jeremy Bull: It was a lack of planning and not so much driving passion. I have always drawn, ever since I was little I was most comfortable with pen and paper and nothing else. So there was always an underlying interest in the solitude of that art and that exploration. When it came to university, there was absolutely no strategy that I ended up in an architecture degree, but maybe it was serendipity that brought me back to the pen and the paper that I had always enjoyed most. 

    I had was a bit directionless going through high school and the first few years of university. It was in my last years of university that I fell back in love with art and I realised the value of this in my life.

    As an undergrad,  I worked in a studio but I was obviously at the very bottom of the food chain so learnt the very outer edges of what I was going to be doing for the next 15 years. After travelling for six months, I came back and applied for a job with Andrew Burges Architects. Andrew was one of my tutors at university and I found him to be a really fascinating character; for me he was kind of this idol of design. I got the job and worked there for three years. During my time there I kind of underwent a collection of reality checks – the fact that this was not only an art form, that there were all these contractual responsibilities. Andrew’s office was a coming of age, with all the diligence and legal and academic knowledge that I had not really considered or university hadn’t given me. After my work with Andrew’s office I then travelled for a year. Three-quarters of the way through that trip I met up in the States with my then friend and colleague Kelvin Ho (we had both worked for Andrew Burges) and he had just started practicing with his dad at that point. We agreed in 2008 that we would start working together and the practice got renamed Akin – I was the Associate Director there with Kelvin for about three or four years before I started Alexander & Co.

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    Alexander and Co. is much more than a design studio – your projects don’t generally fit a simple brief. Did you always intend to develop a multidisciplinary practice or did this evolve as a response to the projects you’ve taken on?

    Jeremy: It’s always a thing that I wanted and I think it came from working for Andrew Burges Architectural Practice and working with Kelvin who was primarily focused on interior and retail interior when we started working together. The idea of architecture or interior or retail is really just a construct that other people make. A design brief is a design brief whether it is a chair, or a light or a fit out or a new house. Ultimately the ambition of a designer should be to answer a brief, not work to a speciality. So, it has been a really central motivation to be able to answer any brief, but it has probably been one of our single biggest practice challenges. When you employ people, they don’t necessarily come from the same school of thinking – certainly universities are not setting them up to come in and be able to do architecture and interiors or object design.

    I love the idea of the kind of market use and where you are given a design challenge and it doesn’t matter what it is, you treat it like an autonomous project. You could say multidisciplinary but really it’s no discipline at all, it is absolutely anything can walk through the door and if it’s a fit for our ambitions, it is fit as a project. The qualifiers that work for me as I get more experienced at doing this is not ‘it’s residential’ or ‘it’s a fit-out’. If it’s a client and project ambition that will drive our office forward, or is it a project or a client that is going to drive us backward. Really those become the only qualifiers — is this going to be an amazing experience where we’re all going to learn, or is this going to be an uncomfortable commercial exchange where we do something for money.

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    Would you say Alexander & Co have a distinct style? If so, how would you describe it?

    Jeremy: For me, the only clear thread between the work – aside from the process within the office which is exploratory and we hope rigorous – is that the work always has this sort of handmade sense. I try and not focus on the automation of the craft and I like things to be made by hand so the expressiveness of the craftsmanship is probably one thing that is central to our work. For example, painted chip rock is sort of the enemy of design – it is often this spatial vacuum – but putting together materials in a way where you can see both the thought and the handwork in the installation, application or manufacturer becomes really fascinating.

    So bringing the artisan into the work and seeing the work has been made by humans is a really critical dialogue. Sometimes you see some commercial work and everything has a kind of plasticisation, it feels automated, like a loss of the human from the project. It’s there for a human to use but you don’t get a sense that humans were involved in the making of it. That human thing is something that is super important in our work, and also our relationships and practice.

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    While recent Alexander & Co projects like the Iluka House have certainly captured the interior design zeitgeist right now there is also a sense of timelessness in your work. How do you find the balance between classic and contemporary influences?

    Jeremy: I’ve been practicing for about sixteen years and when I look back to when I was just graduating, there was this amazing project at the time that was really quite a manufactured experience. That approach dovetailed with the explosion of the internet, cyberspace and all these different sorts of rapid prototyping and manufacture. I can kind of get the sense that people are seeing what they thought automation, rapid prototyping and global communication that it didn’t necessarily give value. If you go way back when, there’s a whole bunch of conceptual dialogue about what they call regionalism – things being made locally by local skills. For me, I think maybe there is a movement towards critical, regional thinking, whereby you use the best local manufacturers to do the work for your project. There is a broader dialogue about how do you get more craft-focused, where the heroes are the guy who uses the timber and the guy who makes the metal by hand and those suppliers for us have always been there. When Kelvin and I were working together, we had such a focus on finding those people and we still use the same sort of suppliers.

    That has touched the other market of places as well, the social role of the organisation has evolved with the influx of Gen Y so you can’t just put people to a desk and automate them. All of the things which were real when I first started practice sixteen years ago, are no longer a thing. So you can’t put a guy in the print room for two years and that’s how he gets his first job experience – people won’t accept that anymore.  The role of dealing with humans and human value, whether it’s in the craft or the fit out or  within the culture of the office, has so radically changed and continues to change. That definitely is an industry norm; that humanity component and the expectation of your team and suppliers has all changed.

    What is something you’ve found clients tend to overlook or miss in the design process, and how do you overcome it?

    Jeremy: For people that have not done this before, it’s that the process is so rigorous and it requires so much time – that’s the universal norm for residential clients. There is this belief that you plug this information into a computer and it spits out paper, without realising how much time it takes to put together a specifications and set of documents of that quality requires a huge amount of process. There’s a general lack of understanding of process involved in something looking just right or feeling just right – it’s enormous.

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    How do you see the role of interior design evolving in the future?

    Jeremy: My feeling is that the influence of the cultural factors will continue to develop. As resources become more scarce, as the demands of people become greater, the need for cultural contribution and cultural sustainability as a part of a greater sustainability dialogue is naturally going to develop. How do you cater for the individual requirements of human beings? How does that very human interaction then affect the work? For us, I feel the consciousness, the presence of the human component, the consciousness of the resourcing around conscious practice will continue to develop.

    One of our key motivators is how do you get rid of the ideas of automation, of ego and of removing the humanity, and come back to the humanity, the craft, the importance of the individual and the importance of the individual to the team. The emotional, cultural, workplace sustainability are all things we have not yet nailed, and we really struggle with, but are all things that are really central to the reality of coming into the next fifty years. You can no longer pretend that resources are infinite and in abundance, they are challenged.I think conspicuous consumption has come and gone today. I do think people still want luxury, but they want luxury to be expressed in a less conspicuous way. The idea of handmade is the closest to inconspicuous consumption. We know the workmanship was exhaustive and artisan, but it didn’t have to have gold leaf – but I do think there is a market that still wants gold leaf. Conspicuous consumption is not a marketplace we have gravitated towards, I guess maybe by virtue we don’t see it as much. I think conspicuous consumption has fallen down the line to the mainstream, and something new is on its way. It’s luxurious to be able to buy sustainable.

    We have a current project in Dubai, with Tribe Studio, in the Dubai Opera House. Dubai is quintessentially known for glitz, the project is in the top level of the Opera House, a multi-million dollar fit out. I see the huge cultural shift by virtue of comparison.  I still see where they see value and it is radically different to Europe, the United States, or in this case Australia. If it doesn’t shine over there, no one understands it. By that comparison alone, I can see we used to want everything to be shiny, but now everyone is saying they want the roughness, the coarseness, the handmade, the real materials. Whereas in Dubai, convincing them that realness is good, is still a battle.

    We have a chalet in Queenstown, a project that has been going for four years, and is an incredibly expensive development but everything is aged copper and local stones. It’s as expensive as a development comes, but there’s nothing in there that’s razzle dazzle, it’s all just natural, handmade, craft items and materials.

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    What’s next for Alexander & Co.? Any projects you’re particularly excited about?

    Jeremy: Certainly the Dubai Opera with Tribe Studio is awesome. We’ve been working on that for a year and it is totally an outrageous food and beverage venue at the top of the Opera House – a remarkable project.

    We’ve got a hotel which which we have been working on for about two and a half years which is three venues getting relaunched and rebranded. It will open over the course of Christmas.

    Then there’s the next Riley St Garage in Rosemary opening in the next few months and a truckload of other projects, both residential and retail. We have moved into picking up a couple of retail commissions over the past six months, like a new rebrand for Cue Clothing. All of those are really exciting to see come to maturity.

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    And now, a couple of Sydney questions;

    Where do you live in Sydney and what do you love most about it? I live in Bondi Junction with my partner and four kids. I absolutely love Bondi Junction because with four kids, I can get everywhere on a bike. It’s all super easy to get to – gym, yoga, food, cafes – it’s all there (which is critical when you have got a football team to tow around with you).

    Favourite place to eat: With the kids going to local cafes is always a bit of a mess but my partner Tess and I do have our favourites. For example, Chiswick in Woollahra is a total main-stay for us. To be honest, most of my social time is with my kids, not trying to do too much.

    Favourite place to drink: My office is right behind Three Williams in Redfern, so I’m there every morning – way too much coffee – and lunch.

    Favourite places to shop: I am an online shopper of Mr Porter and Farfetch. If they don’t sell it, I probably don’t wear it.

    Weekly local rituals: I try not to work on the weekends, I work about an 80-hour week but don’t work on the weekend at all. Then the weekend is really just devoted to family, riding around on our pushbikes around Bondi Junction, taking the kids to football, trying to get on a surfboard and in the water if I can. The weeks are fast and intense both with kids and work, so the weekends are for filling the soul with R&R.

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