Friday, March 20, 2009

Interview - Nest Architects

Connor Residence in Elwood - interior by Nest Architects

Nest Architects aren't your usual architecture firm. For starters, they're based in an old Private Detective's office in The Nicholas Building in Melbourne's CBD - described perfectly by architect Emilio Fuscaldo as a 'beehive of activity with eccentric lift attendants who constantly knock at our door to discuss the merits of Elvis Presley'. Couldn't have put it better myself!

It's clear that Emilio and his partner in crime, graduate architect Imogen Pullar, have a unique approach to their work. For Nest, architecture isn't about about having a showy office in the city and getting heaps of press... it's about designing beautiful, unpretentious contemporary spaces, which have a real warmth and connection with their inhabitants. BUT, whilst they're not known for blowing their own trumpet... Nest are seriously great at what they do. Everyone's favourite CBD cafe (well, mine anyway), Journal, is a Nest design. So is Lisa Gorman's recent shop in South Yarra... and remember Gorman's Ship Shop I wrote about a little while ago?

Anyway, you gotta love an architect who, when asked to name some of his favourite Melbourne buildings, responds with a deep affection for those "vulgar, red brick 'wog' mansions in footscray" - all "optimism and bolshy pride!". I love Emilio's unique attitude... bring on the optimism!

Nest clearly also have a fantastic relaxed, collaborative working relationship - Emilio and Imogen often start their working day over coffee at Jungle Juice (very civilised!)... and below Emilio even sings the praises of Imogen's banana cake at morning tea! Likewise, Imogen clearly has a true respect and reverence for her employer, mentor and friend - "I still ask Emilio heaps of questions everyday but he doesn’t seem to mind me bugging him." she says!

All this makes for a very un-snobbish, down-to-earth architecture firm, who, above all... just seem extremely nice. And let me tell you... nice can be rare and often underestimated in the design industry!

Read on for an insight into the super-lovely world of Nest Architects! It's a long interview... but I promise it's a real goodie! Don't miss the bit where Imogen says "Any building that feels like you are outside when you are inside is okay by me." !!! (that's my favourite bit!)

Tell me a little about your backgrounds - what path led you to architecture initially, and then setting up Nest Architects and working together?

Emilio: My brother-in-law is an architect. Between taking me to parent teacher nights (my parents had had a gut full after my three sisters) and throwing me into the air like a beach ball, I remember looking through his books on New York skyscrapers and the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. But it took me a long while – an honours degree in philosophy to be precise - to realise that I also wanted to be an architect.

A few years ago Nest was shortlisted for a sculpture prize by the City of Melbourne, which gave me the funds and the confidence to set up the practice full-time. I asked my good friend Tim Fleming if he knew anyone who could help me put the submission together - that’s how I met Imogen. After a few hours of working with her I knew she was gold.

We didn’t set out to create an architectural practice, it just evolved from that first competition entry to helping each other out with some small projects we both had on the go. A few months later we were set up in the Nicholas building in an old Private Detective studio and a practice was born.

Imogen: As a kid I remember drawing floor plans and houses inspired by my mum’s Belle and Home Beautiful – I’d cut out pictures of furniture, rooms, front doors and yards and make a new house with the pictures. I always wanted to be an architect! My parents designed and built the house I grew up in with help from their hippy friends. They used all natural materials and implemented a passive solar design. When I look back on that house (which was built thirty years ago) I think it is a remarkable example of environmentally aware housing for architects and builders today.

After graduating I had the opportunity to design a beach house for my parents at Wye River. The process was incredibly daunting and enriching at the same time – I learnt very quickly on my feet. I didn’t even have a chance to apply for any architecture jobs after graduating before a friend told me Emilio was looking for some help to do a competition entry. And I’m still here, two years later!

How is your business structured – is it just the two of you working together? Do you employ anyone else? You must be great friends as well as colleagues..!

Emilio: We have structured our practice to have a minimal amount of hierarchy. As a result our designs are a collaborative effort involving our clients, the two of us, and whatever has recently inspired us. After the design phase we tend to head off into our computers and work independently to produce drawings that will communicate the design to the client and to the builder. Even though the computer is a solitary space, we are constantly reviewing each other’s work to make sure that we’re not messing anything up. These sessions can take the form of a quick glance over the other’s shoulder on the way to the jaffle-maker or a semi-formal meeting where we get the red pen out and scribble all over each other’s drawings.

But that’s not to say that it’s just the two of us; we regularly ask friends, in particular Tim Fleming who is on level 7 of the building, to tell us what they think of particular designs and we probably call a builder we know 4 times a day to ask how two bits of timber go together. I once said to Imogen that ‘we spend more time together than we do with our partners, so we better be sure we like each other.’ Neither of us has pulled a knife on the other, so I guess we’re doing ok. Plus, her banana cake at morning tea is killer.

Imogen: I have learnt so much from working with Emilio. If I think back to when I first started at Nest I was a wide-eyed graduate with little understanding of how an architectural practise is run. I still ask Emilio heaps of questions everyday but he doesn’t seem to mind me bugging him. We work well together and bounce ideas off each other all the time. Sometimes it can be a bit weird when he knows what I’m going to say before I say it and vice versa. At the start of a project we sit down for a creative brainstorm and flesh out an idea. This helps get the energy flowing for a design. When I’m really stuck on something, Emilio will glance over and say ‘why don’t you try this’ and everything will fall into place.

What have been some of your favourite projects?

Emilio: A favourite project of mine is a house in Fitzroy that is almost complete. Keeping the beautiful old façade, Nest has transformed this old falling down house complete with stables and squatters into a family home again. One of my biggest gripes with heritage Melbourne homes is their lack of light – so we have focused on getting a whole lot of light spilling into the home from behind the façade. Today there is so much light, particularly in the kitchen, you almost have to wear sunglasses.

Another one of my favourites was a small project for Sony Ericsson, mainly because somehow we managed to design, draw and co-ordinate the fabrication of a portable translucent showroom in about 6 weeks for the company to travel around the country as a photo gallery for their users. It was designed it to look like a melting ice-cube that glowed from the inside-out – Nest’s own little offering to climate change awareness. We have since gotten the portable showroom back and are looking to give it to an environmental group who would like to use it in an awareness campaign to reduce climate change.

Sony Ericsson Translucent Showroom at Southern Cross Station

I also really enjoy doing the photo-shoot of a complete project – sometimes I get in an artist, such as Tai Snaith and photographer Jesse Marlow, and we set about creating a little narrative throughout the building. My partner’s rabbit, Sherbet, in a bathtub full of carrots has been a popular image from one of these shoots and the abandoned house theme at a new house we completed in Warrandyte was a lot of fun.

Imogen: I always like the last project we’ve done the best because it is so fresh in my mind. The Connor Residence in Elwood is such a simple and light interior fit-out, bringing the art deco apartment up to speed without taking away its classic feel. The recycled timber provides richness to uncomplicated forms.

How would you describe your design aesthetic as a company? How does this style compare with the aesthetic you bring to your own private spaces?

Emilio: Now that we have completed a few projects we can start to see what our aesthetic actually is. We’re able to test if our aesthetic judgements that started the project are any good and had the strength to take the project to its completion - so far, so good.

Overall we want our projects to be backdrops to the life that occur within and around them. We want to them to take a back seat to the everyday things that happen; cooking, eating, drinking, and playing. It is a boring dinner party that sees its guests talk incessantly about the host’s home. We want our designs to instead embrace these activities rather than over-shadow them.

To do this, we forsake those crazy Beetlejuice-style shapes for beautiful spaces. We are careful to be honest with the materials we use, wood is wood, concrete is concrete, we never mimick or fake a material. Using recycled timber is another thing we like to do as it is not only sustainable but imbues a new structure with a history. For example, the Gorman shop we built in South Yarra uses Blackbutt timber from an old abandoned bridge.

Gorman Shop - South Yarra

Imogen: Emilio has a similar aesthetic to my own. We both like raw materials, functional mid-century inspired spaces and recycled timber. I think Nest’s aesthetic is understated and simple design with rich materials and a sustainable core.

Which designers, artists or creative people are you inspired by?

Emilio: Work produced by artists Fiona Hall, Marion Drew and Rosalie Gascoigne are constantly keeping me curious and inspired. All three inspire a deep respect and appreciation for the world around us and refuse to put up barriers between the natural world and humanity. Also Queensland architect and scholar Paul Memmott’s Gunyah Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia has taught me not to take for granted the 40,000 years of history this country and its people has. Also, spending a day at Toyo Ito’s Mediatech in Sendai and breaking into Steven Holl’s apartment complex in Fukuoka (both in Japan) I finally understood why some architects truly deserve their superstar status.

Imogen: Over the years I have learnt something from each of the following creative people in different ways; they are not always architects but their work has helped me form my own architectural ideas. Artist Olafur Eliasson, architect Toyo Ito, architect Robin Boyd, and designer Mary Featherston for her child-friendly creations. I love graphic artist Chris Ware - he can tell the most amazing stories without writing a word. His drawings convey so much. I suppose that is what architects have to do as well - we can’t rely on words to explain a building. Our drawings need to be understood by builders, plumbers, electricians, and our clients. And when the building is complete, it needs to be intuitively understood by its inhabitants.

Nest's Sculpture submission, shortlisted for City of Melbourne's 'Illuminating Melbourne' Program

Where else do you find inspiration – ie books, magazines, your environment, travel, your family and friends?

Emilio: I travelled to Cuba with my partner a couple of years ago and Havana opened my creative floodgates. The collapsing Art Deco buildings, the peeling pastel paint, the sweeping Hollywood staircases, the Soviet-style slabs of concrete, Spanish balconies laden with laundry, the vibrant public spaces, the abundance of mojitioes and the endless parade of beautiful people mostly wrapped in Lycra and disco garb all mashed into an experience that I am still taking inspiration from.

Closer to home, the golden rocks, ti-tree rivers and azure waters of Kangaroo Island are a feast for the senses. At the moment many architectural books and magazines don’t necessarily inspire me as much as they inform me of current trends, theories and construction details. Having said that, Domus magazine from Italy is an amazing monthly review of the design world that doesn’t limit its content to buildings that look like blobs of goo.

My great friend Lisa Gorman is always an inspiration; her seemingly bottomless amounts of drive and energy are infectious, and she has taught me much about business, aesthetics and plain old happiness.

Imogen: I love to flick through books for inspiration. Not only architecture books but fashion, art, graphic design, even comic books. Travelling overseas is always a big eye opener – I spent some time living in Denmark and rode on a bicycle around the city seeing the minute modern insertions between these beautiful crumbling ornate buildings – just when you think there is no space left to build anything more, they design something gorgeous in the tiniest gap! I am lucky to have creative people around me – being in the Nicholas Building there is a buzz of creative energy in the hallways, behind every door there are amazing people doing amazing things!

Nest Architects unique studio space in The Nicholas Building in Melbourne's CBD

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Emilio: If we’re not on a building site first thing in the morning, we seem to begin with a coffee at Jungle Juice. It is at these daily meetings that we work out what we have to do and how we’re going to do it, and sometimes, if we’ve gotten ourselves in a bit deep and over our heads, we work out how we’re going to get out of it.

In the office we work hard, relief often coming in the form of coffee, green tea or a packet of jellybeans from the chemist downstairs. Sometimes the day can get pretty spontaneous as we may get a call from a client to quickly check out a potential site for a new café. Or one of us may head off to chat to our joiner and clarify how he is going to make that design work. We spend the rest of our time at our desks with our heads in our computers trying desperately to avoid the temptation of joining Twitter.

Imogen: I like a varied day. There’s nothing worse than trying to stand up after sitting at the computer all day and not feeling your legs! So, a leisurely bike ride to work in the morning, followed by a chat with the lift attendant always gets me in a good mood for the day. I always imagine myself drinking lots of green tea and regular walks around the building – but mostly it ends up as coffee and walks to snacks on Flinders Lane. Sometimes I can be working on one project for a week, and other times I’ve got heaps of things on the go.

What are you most proud of professionally?

Emilio: I’m so proud of the fact that we’re actually running an architectural practice.

Running a small business in general is difficult so I am ecstatic to not only get the chance to walk through a completed project, but pay our GST as well. I am also really proud of the fact that we seem to be creating really lovely architecture. We are in a hard profession (people often refer to architects as ‘the yellow canaries of the economy’) and we have to make sure we maintain the confidence to keep control of the project from its first design through to the built form. There are always many constraints and personalities to deal with when collaborating with clients, builders, and councils, it’s a wonder anything gets built at all! So to keep creative and managerial control of a project over what could be 2 or 3 years is hugely rewarding.

Imogen: Sometimes I have to pinch myself – I can’t believe I’m actually doing what I’ve wanted to do for so long. I only graduated in 2006 and already achieved so many dream projects: a personal design that has actually been built, the Polyester Records shop on Flinders Lane fit-out and a few interior projects under my belt, not forgetting work on amazing projects with Nest. This seems so crazy to me!

Home in Warrandyte designed by Nest Architects

What's the best thing about your job?

Emilio: For me it’s great being my own boss and having control of the small things like the feel of our studio space and big things like the overall aesthetic of a house. But the best thing about my job has to be walking around a building site and watching our ideas grow.

Imogen: Giving people a great house, something that they live in everyday and that makes them comfortable and happy. I love to see how people live in them, furnish them… how the house starts to move from looking new and shiny to more relaxed in its environment – the garden growing up, and evidence of a nice life. Seeing the finished product is a great thing.

And the worst?

Emilio: All those things like paying bills and doing paperwork are tedious - but they are just a necessary part of running a business. I think the worst aspect of my job is only just revealing itself. The bigger Nest grows and the more projects we take on, the less time I have to draw and design. The creative energy that needs to be harnessed to design is invigorating and I need to make sure that I allow myself the time and space to express myself through such drawings.

Imogen: It’s sooooo cold in our studio in winter. No matter how many layers of clothes I’m wearing or how many cups of tea I drink… its still freezing!

What would be your dream creative project?

Emilio: I’d love to design a public space that incorporates a few different activities. At university my final year thesis focused on the redevelopment of an urban public space just off Sydney Road to incorporate retail spaces, a public transport hub, public toilets, car parking, a pedestrian mall, and so on. The fun bit about this hypothetical project was the chance to subtly inform the behaviour of people in the space to promote spontaneous interaction. Then again, a client with not only enough funds but also complete trust in Nest’s ideas to let us independently build a beach shack would also be a dream project.

Imogen: My own house. I get to draw up other people’s dreams all the time, and often daydream about the sorts of things I would like in my own house. Mind you, it changes all the time. I’d hate to have me as a client.

What are you looking forward to?

Emilio: Personally, I’m looking forward to going back to Samoa to go body boarding on those picture perfect reef breaks. On a professional level, I can’t wait for the Gorman/Angelucci residence in Fitzroy to be completed. Not only to see the finished product, but to sit in the courtyard and have a lazy Sunday lunch. Every project Nest designs seems to be another version of a dream home I’d like to live in, should I ever manage to get myself out of the rental market. The Fitzroy clients are great friends of mine, so the chance of intimately experiencing the spaces we’ve designed is really exciting.

Imogen: Packing up the car on Friday night and heading down to Wye River for the weekend, sleeping in and going for walks on the beach with the dog. Oh, and professionally, registering as an Architect – so I can really call myself one.

Melbourne Questions –

Your favourite buildings in Melbourne - from an architectural point of view?

Emilio: I love those spectacularly vulgar, red brick ‘wog’ mansions in Footscray with their columns, winding staircases, cement gardens with concrete lions and Caravaggio-esque cupids, fruit trees heavily laden with figs or lemons and covered with mosquito nets. I have no desire to live in one or build one of these houses but I love the optimism and bolshy pride that emanates from them. The Nicholas building where Imogen and I work has captured my heart with its beehive of activity and eccentric lift attendants who constantly knock at our door to discuss the merits of Elvis Presley. But I am happiest inside some very odd architecture – my partner’s and my Aero-van down at Venus Bay. An old WWII plane converted into a caravan in the style of a 1950’s diner – the Aero-van is a haven for my partner and me.

All these buildings are examples of free spirited spontaneous design that doesn’t take itself too seriously but at the same time provides joyful spaces where all sorts of activities are allowed to happen. If I had to narrow my list of favourites down to a single work, then it would have to be Peter Elliott’s small ancillary structures that are dotted around the University of Melbourne. These are beautifully considered and detailed buildings.

Imogen: I really like the Forum Theatre on the corner of Russel Street and Flinders Street. When you are inside it feels like you are in a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre under the glowing night sky. Any building that feels like you are outside when you are inside is okay by me.

Melbourne’s best bookshop for architectural inspiration?

Emilio: I spend a lot of time upstairs in the architecture and design section of the Brunswick Street Bookstore. It is a great space where you can sit and read for hours, and also a perfect spot for friends to meet before heading off somewhere for dinner, especially when you have an eternally late girlfriend.

Imogen: I can’t leave Metropolis empty-handed. I spend most of my time there in the art section. Also - it is a guaranteed place to find great presents.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Emilio: My housemate Jessica made a lemon sponge cake for my birthday this year. Complete with a dollop of yogurt and I was in heaven. Just about everything on the menu at Warung Agus, a Balinese restaurant in North Melbourne, is spectacular. But being a good Italian son, I have to attribute my last great meal to my Mum out at their place in Eltham. A bowl of mussels will lure me out there every time.

Imogen: Sunday night, Persian banquette at Minor Place. Home-style mama’s cooking that is the most warming comfort food and scrumptiously flavoured food you can imagine.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Emilio: When my partner is in town and if we can make the time, you’ll find us packing her panel van and heading down to Venus Bay. When she’s away, which is cruelly often these days as she is a writer and goes where the stories take her, you’ll find me walking through East Brunswick with a vinyl shopping trolley heading for the fruit and veg store, listening to the latest This American Life podcast.

Imogen: Weather permitting, you’ll find me in the park by the Merri creek, with a coffee and warm croissant from the bakery in hand and Nathan (my partner) and Zooey (my mini dachshund) close by.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Emilio: Launching a two-man canoe at the Fairfield boathouse and paddling along the Yarra. Hopefully my mother is waiting at Laughing Waters in Eltham with a bottle of champagne. I used to do this when I was little with my oldest sister and her boyfriend Phillip. Their dog would bark maniacally at every stick that floated past us in the water.

Imogen: Monk House Design on Lygon Street, Brunswick East is my favourite place to shop. Locally made clothes for smart girls. They stock the forever-lovely clothing label ‘Kuwaii’ by my good friend Kristy Barber. Her clothes are sharp and styling with an effortless simplicity.


  1. what an inspirational team - this was a great interview, lucy. thanks for sharing it with us. btw, the house in fitzroy with the stables out the back wouldn't happen to be in george st, would it??!! they've got me guessing now! x shelley t

  2. Hey Shelley! Yes I think that's it... a gorgeous Victorian frontage with the timber cladded new section? Gord and I are very jealous! It looks amazing... I guess with clients like Lisa Gorman and Dean Angelucci you'd expect a pretty fabulous outcome!

    Hope you guys are well! must drop in again soon... x

  3. ow little lucy i am so excited hello sandwich has made it into your links! you know you have really made it into the blog world when you are on 'The Design Files'
    links! yay! [jumping around my study with excitement right now]
    Thank you petal!

  4. Oooh Ebony it was such an oversight that I hadn't added you yet! Aggh! Sorry!

    I am loving your blog so much! :) I wanna come visit your house and have a cup of tea with you in that gorgeous dining room on a polka-dot chair. ;) xxx

  5. I'm totally in love with their use of wood, an inspiration for my home reno. Thanks.

  6. very exciting! loved this!

    word verification: nestra!