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Art-house: Barnacle Studio


When Mignon Steele and Morgen Figgis met 15 years ago, the foundations of a fruitful multidisciplinary partnership were already in place. The pair were both creative jugglers.

Aside from her artistic practice, Steele painted film and television sets as well as houses, while Figgis, a graduate of architecture, worked for a Sydney-based architectural practice that specialised in a full design and build service. Collaboration, then, became a natural progression for the duo. Moving to Melbourne, they gained experience in small projects, including joinery, decks and “weird renos of impossible rental properties.”


Morgen Figgis and Mignon Steele of Barnacle Studio.

Now based in regional NSW as Barnacle Studio, the partners in life and practice continue to operate at the intersection of art, design and architecture. “I think most artists and creatives have a similar experience balancing workaday jobs to make time and space for what we feel compelled to make,” Steele says. “We came to this way of working because neither of us wants to do just one type of work.” With complementary skill sets, Steele and Figgis work independently and in tandem as appropriate. “Jumping between disciplines seems to help the inspired investigation and open creativity of a new task,” Figgis explains.

Their EE Shed project displays the successful amalgamation of Steele’s artistic sensibility and Figgis’ expertise in the built form. Painted with random geometric shapes in muted tones of yellow and charcoal, the exterior creates a colourful shell for a pared-back interior expressed through timber, form ply and concrete. Barnacle Studio keep their approach fresh by escaping the norm, taking cues from farm sheds and silos spied on their travels, and the small epiphanies experienced “when it’s all stripped back to a tent and maybe a tarpaulin in the trees.”


The prefabricated EE Shed combines architecture and art from the studio. Photo by Sylvie Figgis.

The Cowshed, built on a site high on the Illawarra escarpment, is a perfect illustration of this principle. Designed as a studio office for the owner, the rear wall is lined with shelves to provide ample storage, while the desk outlook and side entrance are glazed. In this way, the owner is positioned among the trees even from within. “Lots of buildings are swamped in extraneous stuff that prevent humans from experiencing the natural world,” Figgis says.

The low-cost, efficient build of Mignon’s painting studio demonstrates the pair’s shared appreciation of the built language of the rural Australian landscape. Recycled elements, including corrugated steel panels and weatherboard over a timber frame, were assembled over 15 days with the help of friends “paid in baked beans and coffee,” to create a neatly resolved, enjoyable small-scale project filled with character.


The Cowshed is a simple structure that allows a sense of connection to nature. Photo by Morgen Figgis.

Their art serves as explorations of form and colour, encompassing sculpture and painting with a playful, tactile feel. Their latest collection of works, entitled Antidote, was shown at the Sheffer Gallery this past August.

“Publicly presenting artworks is always a bit nerve-wracking, but it was really satisfying to push through it,” says Figgis. Steele’s painting style is quirky and rhythmic, eliciting an enjoyable feeling of spontaneity through soft colours in energetic, contrasting patterns.

Currently, Barnacle Studio are focused on researching and refining construction techniques to improve the value of a finished building, while maintaining the design quality, flexibility and environmental sensitivity in their work. The busy pair keep an eye out for opportunities to collaborate outside the Barnacle umbrella, to challenge themselves by making “ambitious stuff.” Another goal is to be able to combine work and travel, seeking a residency program to give their young family “some really solid cultural and environmental experiences.”


Quiver by Barnacle Studio as part of the Antidote exhibition at Sheffer Gallery. Photo by Jessica Maurer.

Being parents, the ever-present reality of family life naturally has an ongoing impact on the process. While it gives rise to creative opportunity and makes a habit of resourcefulness – one delightful small joinery project is an inventive sleeping bunk for their little ones – it can be “a challenge to find the space to collaborate,” Figgis says. “Despite living under the same roof, life with young kids can mean that is difficult to achieve.” So, understandably, the couple take pride in the fact that “we’re still self-employed, still friends and still married!” In Figgis’ words, “there are so many things to look forward to; making time for it all is the only problem.”


This article originally appeared in MEZZANINE issue 6 – available online on newsstands and digitally through Zinio.


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