Following her recognition as one of our esteemed 10 Australian designers for 2023, Sydney-based interior designer Alexandra Donohoe Church took to Instagram to acknowledge the people around her, sharing this pertinent message: “Design, at its core, is about people: what drives us, engages us, comforts us, challenges us and brings us together.” Such is the running theme of this interview, where we got to talk to Alexandra one-on-one about her human-centric approach to design.
In her esteemed 10 interview, Alexandra described her approach to design as “intuitive, meandering and humorous” – the last quality typifying our conversation with the designer. Alexandra’s warm disposition and ‘it’s-not-that-serious’ approach to design has earned her a great deal of admiration in the design community, and has no doubt contributed to the success of her studio, Decus, established in 2009. For Alexandra, interior design is as much about being authentic and connecting with people as it is about creating beautiful spaces.
In this interview, Alexandra shares what it means to be ‘transported’ by design, the importance of staying true to yourself, why details matter and her hopes for the future of the design industry. We conclude with a recount of some of her favourite moments from Milan Design Week, coinciding with the release of our Milan special issue.
Outside of your own practice, how does design have an influence on you?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: For me, design is psychological, and by that I mean it’s transformative; it transports you. You walk into a space that’s really well designed and it takes you to another place. This involves addressing all the senses – not just sight, but also touch, scent and sound. If I’m in a home that makes me feel a sense of wonder, or where I feel at ease, then it’s been successful in its mission as far as I’m concerned.
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: A typical day will involve a lot of workshopping in-house, then back-to-back meetings with clients, team members and consultants, and on some days, site visits or trips to makers’ workshops. It’s very dependent on how many projects we’ve got going on at the one time, and what stages those projects are at. Each day is different so it keeps the work interesting!
In your esteemed 10 interview, you described your approach to design as “intuitive, meandering and humorous.” Could you please elaborate on this – what are some examples of each?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: I think that the interiors industry has a reputation for being quite serious, but I try to see it for what it is, which is just people living; it’s actually quite mundane when you think about it like that. When I meet with clients, I like to bring humour into the conversation to connect with people and understand how they’d like to live. I find humour to be a great way to break down barriers and get the best out of the client-designer relationship. Meandering refers to how interior design isn’t always a linear process; it is more organic and serendipitous, at least in the way I approach it. And when I say intuitive, I mean following my gut.
In that same interview you spoke of the importance of details in your projects; “once I have zoomed in, then I can zoom out.” Why, when it comes to design, is it beneficial to ‘sweat the small stuff’?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: Say it’s a handle, or where you rest your head, or the dimness of a light, or the feeling under your feet when you move from one space to another, or the softness of a chair when you sit on it with shorts on; you may not have an appreciation for these small things when you first walk into a space, but as you use the space, they’re things that you end up appreciating the most.
How do you intend to challenge the status quo of Australian design moving forward?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: My answer doesn’t pertain to design so much as it does to the culture. Architecture and interiors has historically gotten a bad rap for not having decent working hours, or the best support networks. I strive to create the most supportive and encouraging working environment as I can, with frameworks in place for open communication, sufficient mentoring, mental health support, boundary setting and reasonable working hours, all while still managing the commercial realities of running a business. It would be great to see this become the norm across the industry.
I’d also like to see better alignment between fees and the work that is done. The only way to not run a business on overtime is to charge the actual time it takes to deliver a project, and I’d like to see more businesses actually following through with that, so that the industry as a whole moves towards something that’s more sustainable for everyone. There’s so much burnout in the industry, and adequate remuneration would help decrease that.
What have you got in store for the rest of 2023? What can we look forward to?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: To answer that question really well, I won’t tell you about the projects we’ve got in store, but I will say this: 2023, so far, has been our year of saying “no” and listening to our own capacity. We’re being more honest with ourselves and our time, and doing only what feels right for us. That’s what we’ve got in store for the rest of the year.
“For me, design is psychological, and by that I mean it’s transformative; it transports you.”
Where we get designers’ takes on broader topics, themes or events currently surfacing in the design world.
For our just-released Milan special issue, you shared some of your most memorable moments from Milan Design Week ’23. Let’s keep the ball rolling, tell us more!
Alexandra Donohoe Church: We visited Vincenzo de Cotiis’s apartment in the city, which was revelational to me in the sense that it redefined how to plan spaces. It was so refreshing to me because it was so singular in its vision; he has a particular aesthetic and he does not compromise on it. We also had a private tour of an apartment designed by Henry Timi, which was, again, so singular in its vision – down to the very last detail, like how you make your coffee. Both embodied what design is to me: to be transported.
Alexandra shares more highlights from her trip to Milan in our Milan Issue (pp.126-127).
Somewhere that inspires you? Anywhere I’ve never been before
Someone that inspires you? Piero Portaluppi
Favourite vintage or pre-loved stores? Nilufar Gallery & Depot (Milan) and Demisch Denant (New York)
Favourite three materials to work with? Brass, ceramic, timber
Something you want to see more of this year in design? More women in construction
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