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Women of Influence – Shona McElroy

Women of Influence – Shona McElroy


Australian Design Review is putting the spotlight on Women of Influence in architecture and interior design, starting with Shona McElroy, 30UNDER30 alum and SMAC Studio principal, to talk about inspiration and equality and join her to tour her new studio space in Paddington. 

As Australian Design Review walks the tight little streets of Sydney’s Paddington on a sultry summer morning, there’s something a little bit boho and British about the scene. Tall terraces house hipster coffee shops, flowers bloom outside a posh IGA and you feel as though Kate Moss could pop out of one of the bougie boutiques that dot the Five-Ways intersection of the village. 

Shona McElroy greets us at the door of one of these reclaimed corner shops. With a messy bun, slinky slip and Christian Dior slides, she encapsulates all smiling, off-duty rock ‘n’ roll glamour, perfectly suited to the location of her newly fitted-out Paddington SMAC Studio

After graduating from the first cohort of Australian Design Review’s 2023 30UNDER30 interior and product design stream, McElroy is a name to watch in the interior design scene.  

With high-end commissions and nominations for a Dezeen House Interior Award and IDEA Emerging Designer of the Year, she’s firmly taking the architecture and design world by storm. 

Reflecting on the support she has received in her rise to the top, McElroy tips her hat at the mentorship provided by industry heavyweight, Kirsten Stanisich through Australian Design Review’s 30UNDER30 program.  

“I have Kirsten Stanisich as my mentor, who has built a fabulous business alongside Jonathon Richards,” she says “I curate my questions to ask her when I see her, as well as often thinking: “What would Kirsten do?” She’s so open, invested and nurturing. I’m learning how to balance business, money, design and growth within the industry.”

Interior design and architecture talent runs in the family. 

“I grew up surrounded by design,” says McElroy, on her childhood.

“Dad is an architect and Mum is an interior designer and they used to collaborate. We travelled a lot and were constantly on site, which enabled me to want to do design.”

McElroy feels predominantly supported but there is still a way to go for the built world industry to support women in a more inclusive manner. 

“To be honest, I am so lucky that I have mostly dealt with amazing people who have supported and built me up during my career and I always have a strong seat at the table when it comes to design and consultant meetings,” she says.

“I have, in very infrequent situations, felt that my easy-going nature and empathy have allowed people to think that they can push the boundaries I set for workload and finances.”

McElroy believes workplaces still have a way to go in providing more flexibility for employees with children. “At our office, we have multiple working mothers and their hours are flexible,” she says “There’s a mutual respect and understanding for the sometimes on-call nature of being a mother, as well as the sometimes on-call nature of clients and this job. So it’s a give and take.”

In terms of inspiration, McElroy looks to Kelly Wearstler as the ultimate role model as a woman of influence in the design industry. 

“Not only has she managed to almost create an entirely new interior design style, but she has been able to put her creative spin on multiple product collaborations as well. She’s so chic with her fashion choices and has graced the cover of many interior design and fashion magazines. God knows how, but she’s also managed to raise kids while building a design empire.”

And within Australia, there are a host of women paving the way for an equal future inspiring design. 

“Kirsten [Stanisich] is one, of course,” McElroy says. “I’ve worked with both Megan Morton and Claire Delmar as stylists on various projects — these two women are not only powerhouses at their jobs, but they really love and are so passionate about what they do. “They bring a wonderful energy to the set and are so supportive and great to work with. 

“I love Yasmine Ghoniem for her daringness and intricate detailing — she uses unexpected materials that should be wrong but with her, they’re always so right. 

I also love Tali Roth. To me, her projects find that balance that feels worldly and fun, yet grown up and timeless. Tamsin Johnson’s showroom and eclectic mixed-era design is super chic — again with the unexpected materiality she just manages to nail it.”

To be successful enough to create your studio showroom is a dream for many interior designers, but McElroy has taken the step of setting up her own space in her stride. 

McElroy recounts how she stumbled upon the studio at a moment when expansion was just a dream.

“It wasn’t going to work out financially for me, and then one day this place was up for rent at half the price that it was originally,” she says. “It just felt like a little meant-to-be moment.”.

The space was transformed from a tired former 18th-century butcher’s shop in need of some serious love, into a Hollywood Regency dream in two days. 

SMAC Studio, with its spiral staircase and unique charm, was envisioned as a sanctuary not just for creativity but for inspiration. McElroy wanted a space that transcended the conventional interior design studio.

“I wanted it to feel like a little boudoir… more like a home than an office. I wanted people to walk in and feel inspired,” she explains.

The design elements within the studio are bold yet harmonious, featuring dramatic stone, pops of colour and a pink rug that, despite their individual intensities, come together.

McElroy skilfully uses the studio itself as a showcase for potential clients, demonstrating how daring choices can result in a space that is both stunning and tranquil. 

“Even though this marble and this pink rug feels dramatic when put together, it actually speaks nicely to the space and feels calm,” McElroy says. 

Attention to detail and a knack for finding treasures are evident in McElroy’s choice of furnishings, like the brown velvet 70’s chairs found on Facebook Marketplace, which became the first pieces of furniture in the studio.

“They were the first thing we got when there was nothing in this office. I paid $500 for six of them,” she recalls, reflecting on the thrill of the find.

From serendipitous beginnings to a carefully curated space that welcomes and inspires, McElroy’s rise to superstar status is well and truly on the horizon. She is genuinely deserving of Australian Design Review’s Women of Influence – Rising Star accolade.

Photography by Dave Wheeler.

For the month of March, in recognition of International Women’s day, Australian Design Review will be shining a spotlight on Women of Influence in Architecture and Interior Design. While we pride ourselves on championing women, those who identify as women, and others from underrepresented groups at all times, we believe it’s necessary to recognise the achievements of individuals who have risen to the top, despite social or industry related imbalances. As well as bringing you profiles and project features that celebrate the work of game changing, innovative women, we’ll also lean into the very real, yet rarely discussed realities of working in an industry that still holds onto traditional modes of working that aren’t always inclusive or supportive. It’s our privilege this month to bring you profiles and features that celebrate the unique skills and talents that women bring to the Architecture and Interior Design industry. We congratulate each and every female member of the Australian design community for the important contribution they make.


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