Interview with Sue Carr

  • If there’s a name to know that’s akin with Australian design, it’s Sue Carr. Since co-founding Inarc in the early seventies and later Carr Design Group, Sue Carr has played a crucial role in the evolution of Australian interior design. Navigating the early days when the career path was largely unheard of, Sue has a far-reaching legacy, earning gold at the Interior Design Excellence Awards. More broadly, Sue Carr was recognised for her leadership by the Financial Review’s Westpac ‘100 Women of Influence’ 2016 event.

    Sue’s work draws from a unique compilation of creativity and science. Under these headings, Sue Carr focuses on constantly exploring new possibilities and ideas through technology, guided by an expert lens of avoiding trends and fads. For original thought, Sue credits reading and immersive travel, and a non-hierarchical approach to a studio space without walls. Working humbly alongside her team, Sue promotes learning and educating; a guidance and support felt across the interior design industry.

    To say we were excited to sit down with a game changer in Australian interior design would be an understatement. We took the opportunity to delve into Sue Carr’s ability to wield design in order to make a positive difference in the fabric of our lives.

    PHOTOGRAPHY Sharyn Cairns, John Gollings and Derek Swalwell

    Sue, you initially took interest in studying science, before a creative urge drove you to interior design. What led you to your passion for design?

    Sue Carr: I was immediately attracted to interior design because it was about the science of how we live and interact with one another in the environments that surround us. What captivated my attention was the importance of blending the discipline of everyday living with the art of producing well-designed spaces. It was original, different and new; it was a space full of possibilities and potential.

    My interest has always been in looking into the future and the ability to predict and contribute to what it might hold; certainly this is what science is all about. The interest in interiors was in understanding people’s needs, how they live and work in a space, and developing detailed client briefs. I enjoy part of the challenge; the analysis of the brief is almost a scientific process, while the design is artistic.  On reflection, I realise that my whole childhood had been geared towards a life in design; a life that would allow me to exercise my two greatest passions – science and art.

    My mother had a strong artistic background and involvement in fashion, and my father was a chemist. The overwhelming feeling at the time was that a career in science was a more logical and professional path. Unlike Europe, or even the United States, Australia had not yet embraced the importance of design. There was no support for a creative culture that could offer designers the necessary opportunities to develop the industry to its full potential. As a result, I commenced my studies in applied chemistry but six months into the course, I began to feel that perhaps I had made a mistake.

    Interior design was quite a pioneering career choice in the sixties. What was it like entering the Australian interior design scene at this time and what was your first project?

    Sue Carr: I began my studies at RMIT University and at the time, interior design was a fledgling faculty, so the range of subjects offered were experimental and varied. When I first entered the industry, I worked for a small architecture firm that was operated by my building construction lecturer. There were limited opportunities for interior designers at this point. I was employed as an architect and trusted with a residential extension. Beginning my career with such a strong architectural focus has had a profound influence on the way I work. It’s about space, form and light, all the tactile issues, the materiality, and subliminal parts. Essentially thinking beyond the obvious or the superficial. Following this invaluable experience, I moved to a larger practice in Collins Street. As is so often the case, the firm put political and commercial agendas well ahead of design merit and so the age-old challenge of commerciality versus creativity presented itself.

    You worked in an architecture practice before opening up your own design firm in 1972, what spurred you to going out on your own?

    Sue Carr: At the previous firm, I was starting to rock the boat and realised I had to see whether I could survive on my own. And so in 1971, I launched Inarc with a former colleague. We worked in a building in Murphy Street, South Yarra, which was home to an interesting mix of people and businesses. There were Merchant Builders, Henderson and Lodge, and other architects such as Kevin Borland. It was great to be working with many individuals of various disciplines and talents.

    It was the middle of a recession. One of our first jobs, a commercial fit out for Moule Hamilton and Derham (now Freehills), was put on stop, which meant we had no work. But somehow we managed to survive by doing bit by bit. We scrounged around and ended up designing houses for close family and friends. We eventually grew. By our fifth birthday, we had grown to a firm of 10 people, and by our tenth we had grown to 50.

    One of the other reasons I started my own practice was due to my deep aversion to the aesthetic of the time. I was interested in hard floors and in the materials, and cladding of forms. The potential in the material’s textural qualities and how light can affect it and produce its own aesthetic. Even then, I avoided working with strong colours and patterns, opting for a neutral palette.

    Flash forward, you are now the head of a hugely successful team of architects and interior designers that make up Carr Design Group. How do you find consistency and coherence as a team?

    Sue Carr: Firstly, it begins with an idea: when we start a project, the most important part of that project is the initial idea that comes out of the design brief. It’s important that everyone understands the idea because a singular idea is the power of a great project. There are no walls in this office – so there are people always listening to other people on the phones, in forums and workshops or just chatting. It might sound like an impossible environment to work in, but I have only ever worked in an environment like this. All our administrative people sit in the middle of the office, which I think works because they understand what’s going on and are aware of the processes.

    Secondly, workshop approach: I believe one of the key success factors in this business has been our workshop approach to every project.  It’s non-hierarchical. I sit in the studio with everybody else so, yes, I am hands on with the majority of projects and overview.

    Thirdly, team: the team is fantastic at maintaining this incredible energy and sense of excitement with every project. This in turn creates a strong dynamic within the office because it is the sharing of the ideas, the experience and the expertise that produces the best work.  In fact it is the best of both worlds, experience combined with the enthusiasm and vibrancy of the team. Every day I am handing as many opportunities as I can to the team, guiding them and allowing them to learn.

    Fourthly, the environment: of utmost importance to me is the creation of an environment that challenges and encourages the team by establishing goals and objectives – having something to aim for – rather than generating a climate of apprehension or anxiety. And lastly, design excellence – what also remains consistent, despite the size and nature of the project, is our commitment to ensuring our client’s success by using design excellence, budgetary control and exceptional service as a major instrument of that success. I see our enduring relationships with several clients are testament to this and always, the most successful projects are those with clients that challenge us and then fully support the outcomes.

    Over the years, what do you think has been your biggest challenge and triumph at Carr Design Group?

    Sue Carr: In over forty years of business, I have experienced many hurdles and challenges, and I have often been encouraged by various parties to design interiors that would appeal to the model. But it is through my belief that good design has the power to make a positive difference on the environment that surrounds it, that I have continued to rebel against fads and trends. For me, every project is always a new client, a new opportunity, a new location, a new time in life. We’re always learning things that are completely different and exciting, and it’s worth examining that so it can be of value to the job.

    Undoubtedly the biggest change has been today’s fast-changing, global environment and the way we as designers have had to harness the power of digital technology to stay competitive. Since the beginning, technology has played a crucial role in our business. A decade ago, we were presented with one of most challenging shifts. After meeting some European designers and learning about their innovative approach, I was convinced that we needed to embrace 3D technology. It was a huge gamble as we had to retrain our entire team, but it paid off in spades.

    The late architect, Philip Johnson, once stated that “Great technologies breed great architecture”. Technology is not a limitation. I’m excited by the infinite possibilities it presents. As technology continues to develop and evolve, we are opened up to the possibility of realising forms and designs on a much larger and more complex scale. The only drawback with technology is that it encourages a ‘cut and paste’ mentality, which leads to mediocre work. Today, it’s easy to create what’s been created before. This can open designers up to mimicry and a lack of original thought.

    What has been the largest influence on your design approach?

    Sue Carr: Reading; I read, and read, and read. Every morning I wake up at 5.45am and read the printed versions of The Age and Australian Financial Review. I also love reading books. At the moment Tom Kundig’s book, Houses 2, is an absolute favourite. Looking at the wonderful photography, you can almost grasp a project’s geometry, its weight and its clever use of light. Tadao Ando’s The Colours of Light, is considered a landmark for architectural publishing. It is an exquisite work of art and although it was first published over 20 years ago, I still turn to it for inspiration. I also love reading any books on Vincent Van Duysen, Peter Zumthor and David Chipperfield. I love C+A for its interesting graphic design and its rich catalogue of images, which are collated together by Garry Emery. Online, I regularly visit Dezeen and The Cool Hunter to see what’s happening internationally.

    Travel; I also travel extensively, because nothing takes place over travel. Even if it’s just sitting somewhere and watching, you get a deeper feeling about what’s happening around the world. It doesn’t have to be about going off and looking at the latest building, it’s more about just soaking up how people live.

    Team; my team provides me with constant inspiration; their clothes, their style, their travel choices, what they like, what motivates them, what they are passionate about.  We hold a monthly forum where they bring to the table something that has excited them, whether that is a graphic, a product, a piece of advertising, an interior.

    It is my constant intention to expose and involve myself and the team of people I work with to ideas and concepts underlying the design of architectural interiors, including influences from related fields of design, the social and behavioural sciences, the unique Australian environment and the fine arts. This is an important part of the process if our industry is to continue producing fresh, valuable ideas.

    Out of your timeless work, you also have a pointed focus on environmental sustainability. How do you integrate this approach into your projects?

    Sue Carr: Carr is committed to delivering environmentally sustainable principles in all our projects, in partnership with sound design sense and practicality of use. Our team is committed to demonstrating the benefits of sustainable design from the strategic briefing onwards. Through continual dialogue, the potential opportunities are explored at an early stage, setting clear goals. This provides the greatest possible opportunity to achieve a sustainable outcome without sacrificing design integrity or added cost.

    Finally, how are you guiding Carr Design Group into the future?

    Sue Carr: I’m looking forward to continuing to pursue the standard of excellence, that continues to be my commitment to the design industry and community both currently and in the future. The future will see designers called upon to have more technical knowledge in specialised areas, possess strong skills to work as a team, work more closely with related professions and accept greater responsibility and accountability of the environments they shape. I’m looking forward to maintaining a clear focus on ESD and to continuing to empower and develop the Carr team who show no end to their enthusiasm and passion. I’m also relishing the opportunity at exposing clients to the value of good design, not from a commercial perspective, but to the way we live our lives and to ensuring the environments we shape make a difference.

    This interview has been condensed and edited

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