In Conversation | Robson Rak

  • St Huberts by Robson Rak

    We get to know husband and wife team Kathryn Robson and Chris Rak, the names behind Melbourne architecture and design studio, Robson Rak

    Since Robson Rak’s inception in 2008, when principal architect Kathryn Robson joined forces with her husband Chris Rak, the design duo have carved a niche in Melbourne’s heritage-listed inner suburbs, resurrecting centuries-old buildings and turning them into contemporary family homes. With an eye for detail and a penchant for using longevous natural materials, the team have a way of recognising a heritage home’s original design intent without compromising character and charm – an approach Kathryn describes as ‘resolved, cohesive and thoughtful’.

    We caught up with Kathryn and Chris to learn more about how they’re designing homes to last for generations, the simple yet effective environmental considerations they implement into each design, and how they achieve a resolved dialogue between the past and the present.

    Kathryn, you trained as an architect, while Chris, you worked for more than a decade in steel sculpting before training in interior design and joining forces. How do your backgrounds and approaches to design complement each other?

    Kathryn Robson: Chris has spent many years obsessing about the most minute details, which carries through into our work. He’s extremely focused on the micro details, and I am passionate and focused on the macro. Every home starts with a hand sketch on a trace where we work through the jigsaw puzzle of space planning a home, always thinking through vistas, proportions, light, and shadow. Combining this shared focus on the large and small detail ensures every element of the architecture and interior design is resolved, cohesive and thoughtful.

    You’ve built a portfolio that reflects your ability to intuitively revive and rework Melbourne’s heritage homes. Recently, we saw this in your St Hubert’s project, one of our most-read home features of 2021. What do you think is unique about your response to Melbourne’s heritage residential architecture?

    Kathryn Robson: We recognise the beauty in heritage homes and acknowledge their shortfalls. They were designed in different eras to ours, so we’re not afraid to replan spaces and create new decorative elements that co-exist with the existing ones. We’re always trying to discreetly bring the home up to the technological expectations in 2022. If we extend the home, we try to design an extension that respects the detail and proportions of the heritage home while simultaneously creating a new distinct language.

    What’s a key piece of advice or a quote that has stuck with you in your practice – how does this reveal itself in your work?

    Chris Rak: ‘It’s the projects that you turn down that define the direction of your business.’  We carefully select our projects just as carefully as our clients select us. We take on both large and small projects but always homes that inspire us to create magic.

    There is a consistent natural stone and timber thread in all your projects. Why do you favour these materials – and more broadly, what does this say about the Robson Rak design ethos?

    Chris Rak: We have a strong belief that every home should be designed for generations to come, and this is only possible by using honest, natural materials that age gracefully over time. Our buildings should patina with use and take on their surrounding environment. They should require minimal maintenance and age gracefully while retaining their relevance. Additionally, we believe there should be minimal distinction between the materials used externally and internally. Blurring the divide between inside and out encourages the user to embrace the landscape.


    “We recognise the beauty in heritage homes, but we also acknowledge their shortfalls. They were designed in very different eras to ours so we’re not afraid to replan spaces and discreetly bring the home up to the technological expectations of a home in 2022.”


    – Kathryn Robson and Chris Rak

    The Garden Estate by Robson Rak

    The Garden Estate by Robson Rak

    Could you talk about Robson Rak’s affinity for premium Italian design, including brands such as B&B Italia, Cassina and Living Divani?

    Chris Rak: Beautifully designed and made, there’s not much more to say. We’ve visited factories like B&B in Italy and seen first hand how these products are manufactured. These brands are loaded with design history; they’re worth investing in.

    Alongside coveted international brands, your interiors often showcase pieces from Australian makers and distributors, such as Articolo, Brodware, Grazia&Co and Halcyon Lake. In your opinion, why is it important to work with local craftspeople and retailers?

    Chris Rak: We try very hard to support local. There’s always a healthy mix of international and local in our projects. Melbourne has such a mature and intimate design scene directly from designers engaging local craftspeople and retailers for many years.

    You undertook the redesign of your own family home in Melbourne’s Elwood a few years ago. How does designing for yourself compare to designing for your clients? Is there anything you would do differently?

    Kathryn Robson and Chris Rak: No, there is nothing we would change! Every architect and interior designer should design their own home as it’s an eye-opener to be on the other side of the relationship. The last two years proved that a modest home designed with thought and precision is perfect for our family. Our home provided us with so much joy, and we felt fortunate to have our home and garden as our sanctuary.

    What does sustainability mean to you, and how are you integrating sustainable practices and measures into your work?

    Kathryn Robson: For us, it means thinking about the history, lifespan and embodied energy of the products we specify. We’re always striving to create spaces that are capable of breathing on their own without the constant need for mechanical intervention. Simple environmental considerations such as light and natural ventilation can have a powerful effect on sustainability. We also feel a responsibility to design homes with longevity. Too often, buildings are designed with a ridiculously short lifespan, be it through poor quality materials and construction and design that doesn’t consider site-specific environmental conditions.

    Textiles play an important role in your interiors. Why are they integral to achieving your overall design intent?

    Chris Rak: The layers of textiles in our buildings begin with selecting the building material such as stone or brick and progress to the design and selection of soft furnishings and rugs. The fossils in an ancient limestone used on floors and walls recently inspired and informed the patterns we designed for the floor rugs. The ability to curate every element of our homes, including textiles, is a powerful way to set the tone for a space. It’s hard to imagine a home without them.

    Over the past three years, our homes have been central to how we feel – especially when it comes to seeking a reprieve from what’s happening in the world. Looking to the future, how are you designing spaces of sanctuary, particularly in private spaces such as the bedroom? 

    Kathryn Robson: Honestly, the past three years have not necessarily changed our design approach. We’ve always strived to design homes that provide sanctuary and sanity from a busy and frenetic world. We aim to create uplifting yet intimate homes and provide the user with a sense of warmth and well-being.

    We’re always designing our homes in a way that encourages the user to connect with the landscape, be it large or small. We believe a connection with the outside is imperative to good health, and the ability to observe the changing seasons, the sun, the moon, the heat and the cold is what makes us feel alive; it’s a principle we incorporate into every Robson Rak home.

    Design Insider’s Guide:

    Favourite local designer?

    Chris Rak: We can’t go past our good friend Chris Connell; great respect and admiration for everything he’s done so well and for so many years.

    Favourite design stores?

    Kathryn Robson: There are too many to name but looking forward to Perth’s Mobilia coming to Melbourne

    Favourite galleries or spaces? 

    Kathryn Robson: ACCA for the unexpected, Heide for warming the soul and NGV just continues to amaze.

    Where do you go to look at great design?

    Chris Rak: Salone del Mobile in Milan is pretty amazing. We’re also big book buyers and always on the hunt for a vintage book on a long-forgotten designer.

    Kathryn Robson and Chris Rak

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