After moving back to Melbourne from Singapore – where she’s been based for the last 10 years – we catch up with HASSELL principal of interior design Natalie Louey to find out how the country girl from Warrnambool has built a globetrotting career in interior design that, among other things, has involved designing a penthouse apartment for Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.
Australian Design Review: Can you tell us about your background and how you got into the design industry?
Natalie Louey: I spent most of my time living in country Victoria, which I loved and still love when I go back to visit. I went to boarding school in the country town of Hamilton where I enjoyed my friends being my family. Not many young teenagers are able to do that, so it was a pretty special time in my life. I originally studied science and was wanting to be a physiotherapist first, and a biotechnologist or pharmacist second, but realised amongst all the subjects that my natural leaning was towards graphics. Amongst all the stresses of deciding what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’, I decided that interior design was the field of choice. Mostly because I liked the diversity and different streams of specialisation and that the projects were generally shorter so I could see more of my work being built.
ADR: What inspires you in your work?
NL: I am mostly inspired by new cities and people with a passion for what they do. When I had my own company in Melbourne, I worked a lot with clients who already had successful small boutique businesses, such as Phillippa’s and Paterson Cakes, and I would spend a lot of conversation time with them asking what they wanted to achieve and what their aspirations were for the next step. This usually involved digging into the history of why the business existed in the first place and I was always delighted to be part of learning how bread was made, where organic skincare came from, and how educational toy ideas evolved to manufacture. In addition, people who have passion generally spend the time discussing what they want and learn to trust the design process along the way. This makes for a design journey that is ultimately more rewarding for both parties. I never tire of listening to clients who can proudly boast of the influences and ideas that they were able to inject into the final design outcome. Travel is also a source of constant inspiration. The less I understand the language the more I feel engaged with the environment. I think you just generally pay more attention to what is going on around you when you are restricted by verbal communication. I have been lucky enough to have worked in places such as Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Paro (valley town in Bhutan), Colombo (Sri Lanka), and Mauritius, which are all exciting in their own ways. Different experiences can be had in travel and it’s these learnings that I draw upon when approaching design. There is a bit of magic in every place that I visit. To not be influenced by other cultures, to me, would be like designing in a bubble. For hospitality design work, which is my chosen passion, guests can sometimes be more well-travelled than me, so it is important to be able to convey a design that is part of a bigger brand and broad in its hospitality approach from a design and service aspect.
ADR: What excites you the most about moving back to Australia?
NL: I am excited mostly about rediscovering my hometown of Melbourne. Having spent the last 10 years abroad in Singapore and travelling extensively for work, it is nice to settle back in and explore closer to home. Driving to different areas outside of Melbourne is a novelty right now, I am sure it will wear off, but it’s about planning weekend getaways with the family and seeing what’s around. I love that. Having been with HASSELL in Singapore and now with the Melbourne studio, it’s invigorating to be amongst the busy Melbourne culture – where friends ask you how you want your coffee and know exactly where you should go! Since I have spent most of my 24-plus years in hospitality design (mostly hotels), it is our objective to grow this sector of the business. Hotel brands and locations are offering all sorts of guest experiences, Melbourne, being the worlds’ most livable city (seven years in a row!), is positioned perfectly to keep growing its hospitality sector and I want to be involved in that.
ADR: How are you seeing Asian design sensibilities expressed in Australia?
NL: Is this something you are seeing more of? Catering for a broader food audience, experimentation and a lot of culture jammed into crowded small spaces, that’s the main thing I’m seeing. I am so excited to see the immense variety of food/drink/fashion hot spots in the city. My colleagues at HASSELL have already put a list together of places to see, eat and drink at. Not that it is an essentially Asian sensibility, but the importance of good food and coming together over a meal is at the core of hospitality and an element of Australia’s offer that straddles many cultures.
ADR: Where is your favourite place in Australia and why?
NL: Being a country girl, it’s when I get back to Warrnambool I can exhale, put on the weekend gear and just slow down. Time seems to go slower there, and I find that really grounding. I always visit new local stores and support them where I can. It’s great to see how the town evolves and what comes and goes. It’s also nice to see that some things just never change. My husband and I are both from the same town, so we like to go around to our favorite drinking holes and small bakeries where we most likely run into our childhood friends and chat about life.
ADR: What has been the most inspiring or defining moment of your life and why?
NL: I don’t have a most inspiring or defining moment. I have, however, had moments that read like a montage of events, people and moments. Here are a few – in no particular order; spent a day in the Louvre Paris, stepped out of a hotel villa on a mountain in Paro Bhutan (with clouds rolling in), taught dressage techniques on my horse (when I wanted to be a full time equestrian team member), designed a penthouse for Eduardo Saverin (Facebook co-founder), flew in a private jet to Tokyo to research oyster bars, went camel riding in the Dubai desert, worked with Kerry Hill on Aman resorts, and explored an empty QE2 ocean liner – to name a few. I count myself lucky to be able to have had such great experiences that inspire my designs and conversations. I am a big teller of stories and an even better listener of others stories, no matter what topic!
ADR: What would you say has been your proudest moment, either career-wise or otherwise?
NL: My proudest moment career-wise was to start up a hotel specialisation design business in a studio within a larger company in Singapore. I started with just me and my MacBook, and a list of names of people and companies that I saw an alignment with. When you are told that you can have carte blanche on the type of work you can do and the way in which you want to grow the studio, it was daunting but extremely exciting time in my career. I was able to build the team (who remain my closest friends and some of which have joined our HASSELL global team) of just over 20 designers and architects and we were able to secure projects around the world. Amongst the extremely hard work to get through our constant (round the clock) client demands, our ultimate prize was an incentive trip that I was able to organize for the entire team to fly to Tokyo for an all-expenses-paid trip. We had an absolute ball, crafting memories and moments that we will always share (including too much sake). I have a memento from that trip that the team put together as a book. I will always cherish that. I learned that the proudest moments are often not conjured up by oneself but, for me, as a group of friends and family that work together where pride can be shared.