Interview: Blainey North, Architect / Interior Designer
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Interview: Blainey North, Architect / Interior Designer

Post-COVID interiors and why trends are little more than “background noise.”

By Richard Clune
Wed, Apr 21, 2021 1:21pmGrey Clock 7 min

Blainey North’s surname fits well – the ebullient Sydneysider and enviable multitasker on an upward trajectory like few others.

Architect, interior and industrial designer, entrepreneur, business leader and firm Australian success story, North is a standout, having launched her eponymous studio at 21 and pushed hard to achieve ever since.

It’s meant working across a swathe of differing projects, from luxury Australian residences to hotels (Crown Towers and Metropol but two), megayachts (the 54m Mischief), restaurants (Bistro Guillaume) to the world’s tallest residential tower (New York’s Central Park Tower) and more.

We caught up to talk Bladerunner, ‘Zoom walls’ and gender neutrality in design.


Kanebridge News: So much of your work is framed by a sense of architectural allure – which perhaps isnt surprising as this was your chosen field of study, right? 

Blainey North: Yes, I studied architecture and always approach our projects with an eye focusing on the built elements before I even look at the interior decoration. I believe interiors should be crafted with the walls, ceilings and floors becoming part of the consideration in shaping the idea.


KN: Does having such greatly assist in your design process and also your industrial design work with the various Blainey North Collection pieces? 

BN: The rigour in designing a piece of furniture is the same as that of a building, it’s just a set of entirely different problems to solve. I love the freedom of designing the furniture and lighting pieces as they are like beautiful little jewels that I can design without any client in mind. It’s a lovely artistic outlet for me. The latest collection, titled Man and the Machine was inspired by my deep fascination with the city and a bodies movement through it. It was almost an indulgence to be able to think and craft pieces based on a particular area of my interest.


KN: It’s arguably strange that more interior designers dont produce their own pieces – what do you see as the main barriers to overcome here?

BN: To produce and manufacture something is far more involved than anyone would imagine. The design part is actually only a small fraction of what is required as the process of trial and error in prototyping, finding the right people to build it with you, the cost and the labour are all enormous factors in being able to produce a product of excellent quality. That’s all before you have a sale. I’m incredibly proud of our furniture and lighting collection, however it is a very distinct business to the interiors.

Blainey North
A three-storey waterside residence in Sydney’s Rose Bay.

KN: How has COVID impacted or brought change to the way you approach (indeed, clients are wanting you to approach) certain aspects of residential interiors and spaces?

BN: People are again ‘living’ in their homes. By that I mean, they’re entertaining and spending time in and about the house. It’s similar to the1800’s in that respect, and so too there’s a desire for a similar traditional house layout — where the kitchen and the ‘working”’ parts of a house are separated from the entertaining. And so we’re designing homes again with butlers pantries and stand alone kitchens, formal dining rooms, formal lounge areas. It’s a return to the past… Oh, and we’re also being asked to design specific walls for people’s Zoom background, which is quite fun.


KN: Is there a preference when it comes to interiors — in regards to residential over, say, large scale ‘commercial efforts?

BN: I absolutely love working at a large scale – there’s a rush about building something that’s so much larger than you. We’re interestingly seeing a trend where homes and apartments are becoming far bigger, in both Australia and the rest of the world. Many of the homes and apartments we’re working on are over 2000sqm internal… Frankly, though, I love all forms of design and select the projects we take on based on whether I feel inspired by the brief and have a nice synergy with the client.


KN: I recall a want to make every project ‘magazine worthy’ — can you explain this philosophy? 

BN: Many design firms work on a model of designing a large number of projects with simple design and then take on a few special projects that they put extra time and energy into ( they might make a loss on these). My dream was to create a business where the everyday design process in the studio was so rigorous that every project was a project you were proud to show. It’s been a huge decision as it’s meant that financially you take a long term vision. However, right now, 20 years in, it’s meant we have a large body of work that we can stand behind and have so many repeat clients that we’ve worked with for over 15 years now.

Blainey North
A Sydney residence on the edge of the CBD.

KN: You dont present, through your work and also on a personal level, as someone who necessarily follows or adheres to trends. Fair to say theres a Blainey North narrative and that’s your focus

BN: I do spend a lot of time researching and looking at what is current and new, however I’ve always been a lone wolf. Emulating trends in design is just background noise in my opinion. I believe that original design comes from a different place and a unique process, something we like to work with the client on. I like to think of every project being a grand scale couture dress – it’s designed and made just for you.


KN: If you did have to target some likely design trends to appear this year and across 2022 – what can people expect?

BN: Detail and craft – it’s like the 1920’s all over again. The world is coming out of a period of minimalism and great pain and we’re ready to celebrate again and see beauty in all aspects of our life. I think that will mean that creativity will flourish in all areas of the arts with a specific focus on our interior spaces, the ones we have spent so much of the year inhabiting. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in my field.


KN: In regards to your aesthetics there’s often a sense of moody and arguable masculinity to some of the work — fair summation?  

BN: I’ve always found this idea of gender based aesthetic so curious, I mean, what does it mean to have a male or female aesthetic? If it’s floral and curved should that mean it’s feminine? I can say that I attempt to be original in detail and concept in each of our projects, and bring that rigour to the detail as well. I think it’s that attention to detail and alignment that is similar to the principles of Art Deco.

KN: Where do you find inspiration — is much of it delivered, simply, by the everyday and all that surrounds you in Sydney

BN: I’m usually researching something in my spare time — for example, I’m currently interested in the direction of Kris Van Assche, the creative director of Berluti. In his latest collection he’s been fusing the art of a particular ceramicist and morphing it into fashion in a way I haven’t seen before. It’s started me thinking about how I might use this same technique and apply it to our architecture and interiors. I’m sure that our next project will have some of this inspiration coming from the art world.

Blainey North
A grand waterfront residence in Sydney.

KN: Are Australians — generally speaking — becoming braver and bolder with their approach to interior and architectural design? 

BN: I think there is a new appreciation for design as a whole. Australia has now seen that good design might be more expensive in the short term, but it can deliver financially in the long term. That means that the developers are enthusiastic about building good design and understand that can relate to better sales and longevity in the product.


KN: Do you feel international markets are increasingly looking enviously at the contemporary design aesthetics we’ve developed here — especially in relation to open interiors, use of light, airiness and so on?

BN: Absolutely, we have such a unique set of criteria here with intense light and an amazing climate, we’ve developed amazing solutions to the indoor/ outdoor transition.


KN: Crown Spa Sydney is a recent project of yours can you talk us through the concept here and what you were wanting to achieve. And your take on the Chris Wilkinson-designed building itself, from an architectural standpoint? 

BN: We wanted the spa to feel like the moment you start drifting off to sleep, that space between sleeping and waking where your peripheral vision blurs. I think that’s one of the most beautiful and relaxing moments in a day, when the mind stops before it goes into a dream state. The design is full of curves and semi transparent walls of resin that you slip around. We worked with Hayden Cox, the famous Sydney surfboard shaper to create these unusual tables and benches in organic surfboard like shapes. It’s lovely as it feels incredibly relaxing but also somewhat unusual — a space which flows and you can’t quite put your finger on.

As for the buildng, it’s our greatest piece of architecture second only to the Sydney Opera House. It was an incredible feat to be able to build a tower which is twisting in three directions. There isn’t a straight wall on the whole façade which meant it was a challenging project for all the team involved. The documentation required complex spacial thinking and resolution. I’m so proud to have worked on the project — it’s rare that such an architectural vision is executed at this level of quality.


KN: What are your other artistic pursuits beyond design? 

BN: One could argue I’ve made an art out of dining out. However I do spend time going to galleries and I’m a patron of the Sydney Film Festival. I really love film and find film sets of great inspiration for our work. In fact, one of our designs had wall panels inspired by the set of the movie Bladerunner.


KN: Name three timeless pieces every home needs and a simple sentence as to why?  


  1. Something beautiful to put your bag/ keys on when you walk in the door. I think that’s important as it’s the first moment when you arrive home and should set the tone for your home.
  2. A lamp in the living room — because great entertaining is about people feeling comfortable and lamps throw a beautiful soft light to make people feel just that.
  3. A great coffee table. It’s the centrepiece of the living room so make it something amazing to look at.


KN: What projects are exciting you most in regards to the year ahead — those which you can discuss?

BN: We are so excited to be finishing the apartments in Central Park Tower, the tallest residential tower in the world and which is on Central Park in Manhattan. It’s been an amazing challenge to build during Covid, however, we’ve created some amazing new systems to work with our clients and offices internationally. We’re presenting more and more in virtual reality, where I can walk the client and the team through the design in real time on the computer.


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For the Best Interior Design Finds, Take a Guided Shopping Tour to Paris, Istanbul and More

Passionate about both decor and travel? Design industry pros are leading global tours to share their secret shopping sources—and help you score one-of-a-kind pieces.

Mon, Feb 6, 2023 6 min

WHEN MELANIE BURNS of Oklahoma City first entered the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, she was stunned by its sheer size and the pathways winding through its tented structures like a tangle of yarn. Though well-traveled and an old hand at hunting one-of-a-kind objets, she’d never experienced such an onslaught of potential riches. “The bazaar is intimidating,” she said, “the size of about five football fields.”

She had expert allies, however: Clare Louise Frost and Elizabeth Hewitt of Tamam, a lifestyle brand and Manhattan store specialising in Turkish antiques and their own collections. The duo led Ms. Burns to a shop layered deep behind other shops. “It was no more than about 14 feet square, and stacked high with the most beautiful hand-woven vintage tapestries I’ve ever seen,” Ms. Burns recalled. “I would never have tackled the place without these women. They are walking encyclopedias, they speak the language and when you shop with them, you don’t overpay.”

Ms. Frost, who calls the bazaar “her second home,” lived in Istanbul for nine years, and her business partners, Ms. Hewitt and Hüseyin Kaplan, still live there. Together they host trips to Turkey, capped at 14 participants, all eager to buy décor to take back home. Overseas shopping sprees like this are an increasingly popular new category of travel. Interior-design pros immerse travellers in a country’s culture and guide them to fabulous finds, whether an ornate vintage camel bag from Turkey or a contemporary French sculpture.

Indagare, a travel company in Manhattan, is seeing a growing market for overseas shopping trips. The 30 Insider Journey trips it ran in 2022, including seven design-centred jaunts, drew 540 travellers, twice as many as in 2019. Sicily, Japan and Mallorca are locales Indagare is eyeing for future design trips. Penta, a magazine that, like The Wall Street Journal, is published by Dow Jones & Co., has a partnership with Indagare to organise trips.

“Covid taught us we need to go when we have the opportunity,” said Grant K. Gibson, a San Francisco interior designer who himself has led eight trips to India and two to Morocco and is adding excursions to Egypt, Mexico and Turkey.

Trips are as cultural as they are commercial. Before Mr. Gibson’s group of 10 globetrotters start looking for linens or bargaining for bowls, they tour Jaipur by electric rickshaw and visit a textile museum. “I want them to understand the history and know where design ideas come from,” he said. Cynthia Smith, a biotech exec from San Francisco who traveled with Mr. Gibson to Morocco, came home with pottery in a vibrant green glaze unique to Tamegroute, a village that edges the Sahara. “Everyone asks me about the vase, and I have a story to tell about Tamegroute pottery,” she said. “It gives character to my house.”

The packages don’t come cheap—from around $4,000 to $18,000 (not including flights) depending on location and length—but offer you insider access. Designer Chloe Mackintosh of Boxwood Avenue Interiors in Reno, Nev., is leading her first trip this year to parts of Italy and France she knows well. One focus will be the weekend antique markets in L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue, in southeast France, but she’ll also introduce guests to local artisans, including a fifth-generation ceramist. Her group will take a pottery-making class to understand the process behind the product.

Known as “the huntress” because of her many years buying and selling vintage furniture, Ariene C. Bethea says people began asking her to lead a trip so they could hunt alongside her. The owner of Dressing Rooms Interiors, a shop and design studio in Charlotte, N.C., teamed with TrovaTrip to create a journey to the Paris flea markets this May. With Ms. Bethea’s input, the Portland, Ore., group-travel managers lined up accommodations, vendors, translators and tickets to museums. “I plan to help my guests shop, give them ideas and help them learn to tell stories in a space,” said Ms. Bethea, known for her playful use of colours, bold patterns and culturally inspired designs.

Lodging on these guided forays offers design cred, too. Ms. Mackintosh has reserved an entire 16-room château in the French countryside for just 12 people. Tamam’s Istanbul guests stay in a marble-floored hotel that was a late 19th-century Ottoman bank—with a vault that doubles as a wine cellar—and for excursions to Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey, they bed down in a traditional cavelike home carved out of soft rock.

On a trip to the South of France with Los Angeles-based designer Kathryn M. Ireland, visitors stay in Ms. Ireland’s farmhouse near Toulouse. Her trademark fabrics and colourful Bohemian and English-country style are on display in every bedroom lamp shade and living room chair. “Guests shop my house, and then I point them in the right direction to buy similar things,” she said. Ms. Ireland has been leading groups (a maximum of 10 people) for over a decade, taking them to neighbours’ villas, antique markets and out-of-the-way bakeries and bee yards.

Abby Landers first visited Ms. Ireland’s home as a high-school senior, traveling with her mother. Now five years out of college and living in Boston, she recently returned. “Kathryn embraced us, and she has been a mentor for me ever since.” Inspired by that first trip, Ms. Landers earned a master’s degree in interior architecture, and her current boss is someone she met on that trip. “You’re there for a week, and it’s a whirlwind of meeting artists and artisans, all friends of Kathryn’s.”

Kirstan Barnett, a tech investor from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., traveled to Tangier with Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of Indagare. Ms. Barnett was particularly moved by dinner at the 300-year-old, whitewashed, riad-style residence of Jamie Creel and Marco Scarani, two of the many designers she met at private events. The home was so richly layered and eclectic, she said, it inspired her to approach her own décor more bravely and reject the notion that a room must adhere to one style.

Some pros who organise such tours offer itinerary planning to folks who don’t want to travel with strangers. Mr. Gibson recently created a program for a group of four going to Jaipur. Though he won’t be joining them, he’s chosen the lodging and booked the restaurants and the experiences.

Travelers laser-focused on in-the-know shopping minus the touring can hire Chicago-based Skin Interior Design in cities such as London, Paris and Milan. The company arranges excursions so clients are shown exactly what they want—whether French midcentury chairs or Venetian-glass chandeliers. “We have an education in art history and antiques, and we help find pieces that keep value,” said Lauren Lozano Ziol, one of the founders. A recent two-day antique-furniture and art expedition in London cost $10,000.

How to get all the booty home? Mr. Gibson advises guests to travel with at least one empty suitcase. Bulky items can be packed and airfreighted home using DHL or FedEx. (Most carriers will pick up at the hotel.) Some vendors ship direct to the States from their stores at reasonable rates. For those who travel with Tamam to Turkey, easy shipping—including having your purchases collected from the vendors—is one of the perks. Ms. Burns, who bought ceramics, four suzani bedspreads and six rugs, said Tamam handled shipping for about $400. “Some of my things arrived before I even got home,” she said.

International Harvest / Souvenirs that guests collected on their design-focused journeys abroad

Five 2023 trips abroad devised and helmed by interiors experts imparting their insider info

Ready to shop your way around the world? Here are just some of the available packages that focus on home design. Prices are per person and generally include accommodations, meals and beverages, guided touring, activities and local transportation.

Flea Market Foraging | May 4-10, 2023

The owner of Dressing Rooms Interiors, a vintage-home-furnishings boutique and design studio in Charlotte, N.C., Ariene C. Bethea takes travellers shopping the Paris vintage markets and art galleries and on visits to lesser-known museums such as the Museum Nationale Gustave Moreau. Also on the agenda: a foray to Versailles and its gardens, a tour of Montmartre street art and a tasting at the Museum of Wine. From $3,649,

Ciao, Italia | May 15-19, 2023 (wait list only)

Chloe Mackintosh, owner of Boxwood Avenue Interiors, a Reno, Nev., studio and shop, leads a 4-night trip in Florence, Italy. Travelers stay at the five-star Il Salviatino, a restored 15th-century villa that mixes Renaissance and contemporary décor. Along with shopping excursions, antiquing and a workshop at a local artisan’s studio, the trip includes wine tasting and cooking lessons. Florence, from $5,500,

Turkey Club | May 17-26, 2023

Designer Clare Louise Frost, Tulu Textiles owner Elizabeth Hewitt and carpet dealer Hüseyin Kaplan teamed up to create Tamam, located in Manhattan and Istanbul and specialising in antique and vintage Turkish textiles, rugs and ceramics. Travelers tour Istanbul, Konya and Cappadocia, shopping the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar and visiting textiles and antique dealers. Plus: a hot-air-balloon ride and cooking class. Tamam in Turkey, from $3,600,

English Town and Country | June 11-17, 2023

In London, South African interior designer Serena Crawford guides travellers through Kensington Palace’s Sunken Garden (Diana’s favourite) as well as shops such as heritage brand Fortnum & Mason. In the university town of Oxford, architectural highlights range from medieval to modern, and in the bucolic Cotswolds, guests visit private homes and gardens of renowned interior designers. London & the Cotswolds with Serena Crawford, from $15,350,

Joie de Vivre in France | Sept. 9-16, 2023

Los Angeles-based designer Kathryn M. Ireland takes you on private museum tours, flea market hunts and a trend-spotting tour of design fair Maison et Objet in Paris (ticket not included), followed by leisurely days in the French countryside at her farmhouse outside Toulouse. Paris & La Castellane, from $7,900, Paris hotel not included,

India, Indeed | Dec. 11-18, 2023

San Francisco interior designer Grant K. Gibson shares his passion for India with a guided tour of Jaipur and Taj Mahal. Participants stay in a guesthouse once part of a maharajah’s gardens; enjoy traditional Indian feasts; learn the history of block printing; rendezvous with rescue elephants; and conquer the chaotic bazaar, comprising flower and spice markets and rug and textiles vendors. Travel with Grant from $9,500,

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