Interview: Nicholas Travers of Techne Architecture and Design

  • If there’s one thing consistent about the work of Melbourne firm Techne Architecture + Interior Design, it’s that they never fail to catch us by surprise. Whether it’s a playful take on a tricky corner block with Mammoth cafe, subverting the idea of a coastal cottage in their recent Eastwell House project or uniting Melbourne’s past and present in this Carlton Home, the studio has demonstrated a consistently innovative and unconventional approach to design.

    It’s a philosophy driven by the studio’s three directors, and indeed captured in the firm’s name itself. To learn more about what the studio’s name means and how it continues to inspire their work, we sat down with co-director Nick Travers. Read on to learn Nick’s thoughts on challenging design conventions, encouraging courage in clients and why they avoid designing bold for design’s sake.

    PHOTOGRAPHY Tom Blachford & Ben Hosking

    What is the story behind coming to be a leader of Techne Architecture + Design?

    Nicholas Travers: Essentially, Justin Northrop and I founded the company in 2001. We were relatively new graduates at that time; we were working in a commercial practice together. We started to work on hospitality projects (basically weekend work) together. In the beginning, we opened our own bar and restaurant, put together the business plan and found the investors and in a way, that project marked our kick off into the hospitality sector. It gave us a bit of exposure and subsequently more hospitality projects. Because of the scale of the project, it gave us opportunity to break out of typical employment and start our own practice. That’s sixteen years ago now and so we’ve had a steady growth year on year, starting out as a partnership and subletting before getting our own space in Hardware lane. We moved out of there a couple of years ago and are now in Carlton. We have a third director, Steve McKeag, who only recently became a shareholder and Director of Techne. Steve is a long-standing employee of Techne Architecture and Design, so it was a natural progression with the experience he gained with us and how he fits in with Justin and I.

    How did you decide on the name of ‘Techne’ and how does the meaning of the word surface in your work?

    Nicholas Travers: We weren’t extremely motivated to work under our own names. I think we had a feeling that we were wanting to be a design entity that wasn’t just centred around us as individuals, but as a collective – whoever the team may be. The abstract name gave us an umbrella under which people can fit. The word Techne came up in my study at university. It’s an ancient Greek word that means, ‘to make poetically’. It’s fairly esoteric, but it philosophically matched our ideals for our work. It was evident at the time and it continues to be an inspiration for our work. We’re always asking the question is it a poetic response? Is there content that is beyond pure utility and function? The name also points to a lot of other things we have developed over the years in our work. We espouse to an honest representation of the ideas in our projects — honest expression. The materials are heroes and there’s a level of humanity in our work that we like to convey, developed through our hospitality work. We’re always thinking about how people socialise in a space and how people feel in a space. For us, our disposition for design always puts people at the centre. That can be an overly used sentiment, and sometimes it sounds a bit obvious, but we really do tap into social engagement.

    Your designs often play with unconventional shape, creating bold new forms. How do you challenge conventions while working with a client; how much is client choice or your own desire to push the boundaries?

    Nicholas Travers: Working in the hospitality space in particular, we’ve been lucky in that it’s a dynamic environment and a competitive market place, and that all of the operators that we’ve been fortunate to work with are some of the best operators in Melbourne. They’re automatically searching for new ideas, for the point of difference. They’re not asking us to provide a cookie-cutter solution, or looking to the last project we did; they’re always searching for new angles and different ways to differentiate themselves in terms of their product and position in the market.

    From that point, we’re always being challenged to be innovative, but I think where Techne differs is that we don’t tend to just design bold for design’s sake. We can recognise the work of other companies that seem to forget about the business condition or people being in the equation. You sort of feel like the design concepts have won over the top of the functionality, feelings such as warmth and the accessibility of the space. We’re always tempering our ideas with what we think and what patrons will enjoy and thinking about the comfort factor. We’re always addressing the questions that the client raises in terms of flexibility in a space. Even though we’re building very discrete spaces and creating designs that people can occupy and enjoy for a couple of hours for drinks and dinner, we’re building flexibility into that so that the operator can make his business work. It’s a real balancing act. I think there are a lot of instances where our successful design supports successful businesses.

    How do you encourage residential clients to be brave and experiment with new design?

    Nicholas Travers: It comes with a hand-in-hand approach. Residential projects require a different version of service delivery. It’s not quite like the commercial and hospitality work we do, which is fast-paced and where from the get-go the clients are wanting us to come up with new ideas. We have to approach each job differently to encourage our client to think about new ideas. However, given the time we’ve been in the marketplace and our reputation, people place more trust in us. Our clients aren’t looking for safe, beige solutions. I think somehow in our hospitality work, people recognise that design and want to weave that into their own domestic project.

    In our residential projects, we really focus on the bespoke output. We like to demonstrate craft in the work and put unique touches throughout the project to make it special to a particular client. The mantra or philosophy of that work isn’t really different from anything else we do; it just takes a bit longer to bring out the innovation. It may not be as overt or bold as our hospitality work, but we’re also not trying to produce polite contemporary design, we’re trying to create a unique story in each project.

    Can you describe the importance of tactility in your work – how do you use unexpected materials in new ways?

    Nicholas Travers: The importance of tactility and using unexpected materials in new ways points to our innovation. We’re trying to find a unique angle and pull out a story for each project. Quite often we’re working on inner-city sites where there may be existing buildings so we tend to make use of that old fabric and try and express the history through the design. I think people generally respond to finishes with a texture and a sense of warmth; to a sense of history. Sometimes that exists already and in other instances, we have to bring that to the site. The best way to create a sense of honesty and integrity is to use materials in a tactile way. We like to use ‘real’ materials and reveal them for what they truly are. That comes through in the touch points of a project and the engagement; whether it’s beautiful timber, leather, concrete, stone or brick. The sentiment around tactility comes back to our focus on humanity and the connection people have to an environment and the materials themselves.

    Considering the tactility of materials also ties in with how they ‘weather’; how they stand up over a period of time. Our ambition is that the client lives in a property and as time goes by, it gets better and better without degrading. We always appreciate it when we look back at a project and see how the plants have grown and how everything has worn. There’s a sense that lived-in quality makes a project better over time; something we always aspire to.

    As a leading design practice in Australia, where do you think the Australian residential design landscape is heading? Can you comment on the movement in the Australian residential design landscape?

    Nicholas Travers: It definitely depends if you compare single residences with medium-density and high-density apartments. I think one aspect is we live in a really affluent society; the engagement we’re getting on single residences are pretty high in budget, people are pushing for the bespoke delivery and willing to pay for it. We’re seeing that come through as well in the multi-residential projects we’re working on; a movement towards community-minded development. Some of the multi-residential projects we’re involved in at the moment are really geared towards owner-occupiers, as opposed to a purely speculative, investor-driven product. In general, the developers are thinking through the needs of the end user a bit more critically. I guess it comes from a market expectation and people looking for quality, savvy to their expectations and what can actually be achieved. Across the board, we’re seeing the quality of design continually rising. Compared with when we first started, we now offer an absolute full delivery of services which runs  from the architectural design including the interior design, weaving in landscaping. The clients are expecting and engaging us for the full furnishing and decorative services as well. It takes us to the full scale of design delivery. It’s a pretty luxurious position to be in; to be involved in that end-to-end service.

    How do you think your designs are indicative of ‘modern Australian’ style?

    Nicholas Travers: Our use of materials and putting in local content to the design. As all good architects and interior designers do, we’re designing to the climate – obviously to the Australian conditions. There’s something about the honesty of our expression which definitely has an Australian flavour to it. We put playful elements in our project work but there is an inherent integrity with the work and avoiding being too contrived.

    What are you working on right now?

    Nicholas Travers: We’ve built up a bit of momentum in the residential space. We’ve got a variety of new projects that are coming up, currently going through concept design and planning at the moment. We’re happy to see a bit more of that work coming out of Techne. On the hospitality side, we’ve got the Esplanade hotel under construction at the moment which is an enormous undertaking. It’s an icon in terms of Australian pubs. We’re working on an extension of our general food and beverage projects, with accommodation in particular – we’re currently working with boutique hotel brand Tribe, completing projects for them in Adelaide and Melbourne.

    And finally, your quick insider guide:

    Favourite local designers or studios? 

    Life Space Journey, Ross Didier, Tuckbox and Grazia & Co.

     Favourite design stores? 

    Nicholas and Alistair Antique, Vintage Furniture and Hub Furniture.

    Favourite galleries and spaces?  

    NGV, Capitol Theatre  

    Where do you go to look at great design?  

    Dutton Garage – Classic and contemporary sports cars.

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