While ‘Modern Australian’ might be often thrown around as a hold-all phrase to describe the standouts of our local contemporary design landscape, it seems a fitting description for the works of Sydney-based Madeleine Blanchfield and her small studio of architects and interior designers. In emphasising the cohesion between interior and exterior spaces, a reverence for the natural landscape and the personal elements that make each house a home, Madeleine Blanchfield Architects create spaces that capture the contemporary Australian lifestyle. Working primarily with residential projects, their spaces always feel effortless, light-filled and timeless, yet unpretentious and grounded in their surrounds. It’s an attitude many strive to capture in design, but less often achieved – and MBA nail it every time. 

Having followed the works of MBA for some time (recent favourites with the best audience include the Clovelly House and the Coogee Home) and on a recent trip to Sydney sat down with Madeleine for a chat in her Paddington studio.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Prue Ruscoe, Robert Walsh and Felix Forest

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Where did you get your start in design and what brought you to it?

Madeleine Blanchfield: It’s a short answer; I always loved art at school and I was always drawn to anything visual. I remember when I was about eight I really wanted to design a house. I actually remember sitting there with a pen and trying to do it and obviously had no tools with which to do it, but I was obviously really interested in it even then. For me it was always clear that architecture was just what I was going to do.

Then once I got to university, I really felt like I’d found my people. I studied in Canberra and our course was only around 30 people – which in hindsight was very valuable. The teachers were amazing and I learned more there than I did later on in the bigger schools – having that one on one contact with the teachers and then really being able to see what you’re interested in and nurture that was an amazing experience for me.

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Est: And then fill in the blanks for us in between leaving university and then founding this practice. We know you spent some time working in larger organisations…

Madeleine Blanchfield: Yes, when I finished Uni I went to PTW, and then to BKH which I really just loved. I feel I thrived at BKH, working with amazing people and design outcomes. I felt really comfortable and I stayed there for nearly ten years – we had great projects and worked with great people. Towards the end of my time at BKH the dynamic had changed, but what really motivated me to start my own practice was winning the ‘My Ideal Home competition’ in 2009. I was pregnant at the time and decided to go out and my own and just wing it, basically starting to work out of my bedroom between rest days.

Starting out like that was hard but it was good, and I think I might have made that decision too late if I hadn’t been pushed to make that decision at the time. So from there it was just me for a few years and then my first team member came onboard after I had my second baby, and it’s been a really nice progression since.

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Are there any key things you’ve learned in running your own practice you didn’t understand when you worked in larger organisations?

Madeleine Blanchfield: I think as a staff member as opposed to the director you can see things almost side-on, especially the client and director relationships. You can see what made clients happy and unhappy, and I think I learned a lot looking on in that environment. But there were things that I used to see that make a lot of sense now. I can see the questions from the client and the reasons for decision-making in the process from across the project, whereas at the time I was only seeing part of it. And Iain Halliday at BKH was amazing – he was so calm and generous and I feel that made me give my best in my work there. I hope we can have the same ethos here.

Were there other things that you learned or experiences that you had when you were working there that have maybe informed your creative process?

Madeleine Blanchfield: I definitely realised that I really enjoy working on houses because I did some bigger commercial projects and it wasn’t the same for me. The way we like to work is quite directly with the client and makes each project very unique – and I really like that. I like that element of just every time it’s different, rather than cranking out the same stuff. I learnt that there. And of course, you do make mistakes technically, and you learn a lot from that too.

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Would you say MBA has a distinct process or philosophy?

Madeleine Blanchfield: Yes. I think that people are considering buildings that look different, which is where is where our designers fit in. But I think the process is always driven by the planning and getting really strict with the planning and life, success in life. So we basically take in the insights, look at the constraints, the privacy, design and the building – and that process  kind of checks itself out of how you’re going to get the very, very best out of what you’ve got. So in that way, we might work across 10 different sites and while they’ll each look different, but the process and the values are always the same.

The more clients you have the more you realise that people have weird things that they really want or don’t want or hate, and you can’t anticipate that and it’s no problem, you just have to find out what it is before you get too far into it.

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Do you spend a lot of time kind of talking to the client or do you do visual work with them, how do you kind of get that intel from them early in the process?

Madeleine Blanchfield:  Definitely. The more we grow, and learn how to work, the less we do without involving them really. We make sure they come in right at the beginning, we have a session and just get to know the people, which is important.

We’ve also started to put a few thoughts down on paper and then get them in to talk through it and sound out any issues together in those beginning sessions – and we find that invaluable. If we just go up and do a scheme and present it to them, we’re just completely flying blind. Even if you have a great scheme, it’s crucial to look at that and apply it to what the space will be.

So now we do that for the layout and then general plan and also visuals, we just put a whole bunch of stuff in front of them and see how they react. Some people have to push us forward and they know exactly what they want and it’s actually easy for us. But some people need to go around in circles for a while until they can hone it in – they’re just different ways of thinking.

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What’s something clients tend to overlook in the design process, and how do you overcome it?

Madeleine Blanchfield: I think people definitely underestimate how big a thing it is. I can understand, “Oh, it’s just a few walls and finishes and things”,  but I think the biggest misconception of our clients is that you do a design and then it’s done. I think it’s very hard to convey, even if we show them sets of drawings and things that in the first bit are broad, and then it gets more detailed – once you’ve launched the DA you’re still only a quarter of the way there. I think consistently people find that just really hard to recognise that. They don’t understand that we’re going to go and draw exactly how that piece of wall meets that junction and what skirtings go here and what tilings join over there because it’s not something that most people do. Sometimes the time the clients think a project will take is not realistic, although we’re getting better at outlying the whole thing from the beginning forward. Which comes from having done it a few times.

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What do you love most about what you do?

Madeleine Blanchfield: The people. We have fun, we’ve become a real little family and I think it’s that I learn from everyone here every day and that makes it a lot of fun. It’s our clients as well; I’ve been exposed to a lot of different people who do different things, and it is so interesting to get into the lives of an investment banker or psychologist or insurer I think it’s very hard to get that level of exposure to difference individuals in any other profession. And when you finish a house and you actually see the people in there, it’s priceless. That’s why we do what we do.

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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 Bronte. I’m not really a beachy person but I appreciate the outdoors and the role it plays in lifestyle – I think just the light and space, being able to get to an edge is important. You can go to a park, or getting a sense of the ocean and harbour is really nice. And I have a surfing husband and a surfing eight year old so it makes them happy!

Favourite places to eat: 10 William, Sean’s Panorama

Favourite places to drink: Hotel Palisade – it’s such a beautiful building.

Favourite places to shop: I’ve always been a Scanlan & Theodore fan.

Weekly local rituals: Walk the dog, head to the park on Sunday and I’m doing a marathon in November so I’ve been training for that.

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