Interview with William Smart of Smart Design Studio

  • With a name like William Smart, architectural brilliance is immediately inferred — and has ensued since the designer discovered this passion at a young age. A fervent drawer and model builder, it seemed that Smart was destined for the world of design. Graduating from Curtin University and spending the early years cutting his teeth on projects in London, Smart has made a name for himself far beyond his Sydney sphere.

    In 2018, his eponymous practice Smart Design Studio celebrates 21 years of designing with flexibility and for longevity. It’s all about smart thinking for smarter designs, and a smarter future. So who better to ask to build the ‘the best house in the world’? Arguably, with all of the accolades his project Indigo Slam has earned, including the AIA Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture, William Smart and his team did exactly that.

    It’s long been on our agenda to find out what makes this architectural genius tick, so we were fortunate to take a moment to reflect with William Smart, and for him to share what it’s like to step into the Smart Design Studio office everyday. 

    PHOTOGRAPHY Sharrin Rees, Anson Smart, David Roche and Ross Honeysett

    What first drew you to design and what sparked your interest in architecture?

    William Smart: I started at a very young age. At seven or eight years old, I was the kid that used to always draw and make sandcastles and buildings. Someone said to me, ‘you should be an architect’. I liked that idea and latched onto it straight away. That was the first job I ever wanted to do. It wasn’t until I was in my teenage years that I started to think maybe I wanted to be a product designer or a car designer. But then I went back to architecture because I realised it offered great opportunity to be expressive, whereas car design I can imagine would have been quite restrictive. With architecture you can also be quite independent and are able to work in all sorts of places around the world.

    I studied in Perth and loved university. At the end of my degree, I stayed in Perth for a year and then went travelling through Europe. I ended up working in Paris for a year and a half which was wonderful. I then went on to work in London for Foster and Partners when that firm was quite small.  When I started there it was about seventy people and it grew to probably 130 during my time there. I stayed in London for just over three and a half years. This gave me tremendous perspective. After five years abroad I came back to Sydney and thought this is where I wanted to work. I landed a great job with HASSEL to work on the Olympic Park railway station. I worked on that from start to end and loved that project. Towards the end, I thought it was time for me to start my own thing. It wasn’t really my plan, but it felt right at the time. A couple of private projects came my way, for an apartment renovation and a terrace extension, which I really enjoyed and it all started from there.

    What has been your biggest learning since founding Smart Design Studio in 1997?

    William Smart: The thing I’ve really learned and what’s become critically evident in my practice is appropriateness. In one of my first projects, I had an idea of what I liked in a building and I really wanted the owners to live in this kind of building that I preferred. At the end, the project was beautiful no doubt, but when the owners put their furniture in, it didn’t quite match with the house and felt really uncomfortable. I looked at that and thought I didn’t get that right; I didn’t build the house for them. Appropriateness is something I really strive for now and think carefully about. I look at the people I’m working for or the area I’m working in, or the people that work in that building and I think about who they are, what they love and what they want. I try to devise a building that is appropriate to its context or the people that live and work there. I try and connect it with meaning. Instead of the architecture being about what I like, it’s about creating a resonance between the people, their personalities and their style.

    Can you please tell me a bit about your work space – how does it foster your collaboration and creativity?

    William Smart: Our workplace is currently in a state of change. We work out of Surry Hills but are now building a new office for ourselves in Alexandria. This project considers what we do, what we enjoy and who we are for the next chapter of our careers. We’re an office of about forty people and it’s very collaborative. There are different areas in the office that specialise in different types of buildings. One team specialises in apartment buildings, one team specialises in houses and one team specialises in interiors and so forth. They all share knowledge with each other. The work requires a stewardship from a place of knowledge. When you come into our studio you see tonnes of models, work pinned up and free-hand drawings. It’s got an energy and with all of the materials and drawings, it’s not neat and strictly organised; it’s kind of messy. It’s the work we do. If we’re not sure, we draw or create a model. If that doesn’t help us, we’ll build a bigger model. Or we’ll do it again and create another option. It’s very hands on.

    Your award-winning project Indigo Slam has earned a global reputation for pioneering design. What was it like to work on such a standout project and why do you think it continues to demand people’s attention?

    William Smart: It was a joy to work with client Judith Neilson on her home. She is an incredible, visionary person. She was the perfect client in a hundred different ways. She gave us a great opportunity. She didn’t restrict us in any way by saying ‘I need this’ or ‘it should look like this’. The brief was ‘build me a great house and make it the best house in the world’. That was extraordinary and ignited a whole lot of excitement and creative opportunity. I felt like it was the first time someone said to me, ‘go and be creative and build me something amazing’. The freedom was thrilling. I worked very closely on that project for many years and I feel like what we created in the end was in many aspects timeless, but also unique. It’s classic while being very contemporary – I think it has an enduring quality. It was designed in 2012 and while it’s not that old, it’s still incredibly relevant. It’s very soft and gentle, but also very strong. It brings together elements that aren’t always complementary.

    Now I feel like people have an inherent trust in what we do. They know that we will work hard, detail well and want to build a good relationship with them, to give a good outcome. That goes a long way.

    During the design process, what is one thing generally overlooked or misconceived by clients?

    William Smart: Often people list out the numbers of rooms they want and I feel like in some cases, they’re not required. People could do more with less. I often question; do you need a family room, living room and a cinema room? Can you make the family room work harder to save money and use less resources – and make it more energetic?

    I’m really interested in making spaces work harder and then investing in the quality of that space. If you do want to combine your family room and your cinema room for example, the question is how do you hide the TV? The speakers? How do you combine all of those elements to make a beautiful room?

    What excites you most about the Australian design landscape and equally, what concerns you most?

    William Smart: Compared with Europe, here there’s tremendous opportunity to create new buildings, to be less fettered by the architecture of the past, to take risks and together with risks, you have successes. This is definitely revealed through Sydney’s architectural landscape.

    I’m excited by the opportunities and the freedom that exists here. I’m most concerned about the mediocrity. I don’t think it’s everywhere but I do think there’s a lot of it. I feel like we’re wasting opportunity, in building mediocre outcomes. I think that’s driven by people saying mediocre is good, when it’s ordinary. If you want to be different, or above ordinary then do it better, make it better.

    How do you see the role of architecture evolving in the future?

    William Smart: I expect there to be more niches, in a greater variety of buildings and architecture. Lately you can see apartment buildings have become prevalent, but perhaps within that there are niches for apartment buildings to do things differently. At the moment they all really adopt the same model where you have a foyer, a communal gym and a series of apartments that are all relatively the same size. Maybe in the future you will see ideas of collective living or see smaller apartments which are much more affordable, as well as larger ones that cater more to a large family.

    The other thing I hope to see more in the future is higher density villages that replicate the qualities that we all love of Paddington and Surry Hills and inner-city suburbs. Rather than having houses separated from one another, or individual blocks of land where everybody drives to the shops or drives to work and feels isolated from one another. I hope for a village-style atmosphere where you can walk to the local pub or the gallery, or the school. I am also hoping that sustainability will be much more embraced in the future. It’s something that we are very committed to in the office.

    What are you currently working on – what do we have to look forward to? 

    William Smart: We’re across lots of great work at the moment. We’re just completing a really fascinating building for Sydney Trains which is the rail operation centre. I’m currently collaborating with another architect on an eighty-storey building in the city which is really exciting. That’s the first time we’ve done such a large scale.

    We’re also involved in a new hotel, the Crown Plaza in Sydney, that’s under construction at the moment. We’re building a number of beautiful houses and it’s a joy to be working so closely with those clients. We’re really happy to be working locally where we’re very hands on and can control the quality.

    Insider’s Guide:

    Favourite local designers or studios?

    William Smart: Panov Scott

    Favourite design stores?

    William Smart: Kinokuniya

    Favourite galleries and spaces?

    William Smart: WRG

    Where do you go to look at great design?

    William Smart: All different places when travelling; I love traditional architecture, contemporary architecture, cities, galleries and museums.

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