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It feels like everyone’s a would-be interior designer these days, spurred on by a few episodes of The Block or any number of home improvement shows.
But for Kier Gregg (left) and Louise Kichenside (right), the art of making a home beautiful and liveable is really more of a science, backed by years of study, hands-on experience, continued professional education and learning from the odd mistake.
The pair are co-owners of Department of Design (DOD), one of the city’s most sought-after interior design firms, not only catering to a local demand, but increasingly called upon to create their particular brand of aesthetic magic on interstate jobs both large and small.
They have also recently established their own styling arm, Bromley Home, which can source furniture, art, and all those little extras that bring a new room to life.
Rather than suffer a downturn in demand due to COVID, the DOD team have found bookings for jobs have ramped up.
According to Louise, “We’ve certainly seen a massive uptake in terms of people spending their holiday money to improve their house over the last year.”
She reasons that because people are spending more time in their homes, they are “actually taking a step back to look at themselves and how they live and then deciding they are ready to make a change.”
But while the TV shows make it look easy, the skills Kier, Louise and the other five members of the all-woman team bring to any new job are hard won.
Both Kier and Louise have amassed more than 40 years of combined experience in the industry. Louise studied a Bachelor of Interior Architecture at Monash University, working in Melbourne and London before returning to Canberra, while Kier completed an Advanced Diploma of Interior Design and a Diploma of Interior Decoration before completing a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Interior Design) at the University of Canberra and spending a few years working for large architectural firms in Sydney.
They met while both working at a local firm. Their sympatico relationship blossomed immediately, and when Kier decided to go out on her own— creating DOD from her loungeroom in 2013—it wasn’t long before Louise came on board.
Almost five years ago, they gave a musty commercial space in Fyshwick their very own makeover—now a light and bright studio space is filled with inspirational pieces, walls painted in colours that suddenly become must-have shades, and enough samples to sink a ship. It is home during the working day to the only male member of the squad, Eames, the office cavoodle.
And in the best tradition of people who are irrevocably drawn to a specific career path in life, these two women don’t consider their jobs “work”.
Says Kier only half-jokingly, “I can sometimes forget my kid’s names, but I will remember every house that I’ve ever walked into, and the first colours that I ever specified for a job—as hideous as they were.”
Louise counters “we’re those weird people that are in a restaurant picking up a chair and seeing what it is. Or touching underneath something and to see how it is constructed. You just live, eat and breathe it.”
Their work is diverse and there is no ‘formula’ to rely on as every job is unique.
“We really are a multi-disciplinary company, so we try and spread ourselves across the majority of the design realm,” says Louise.
“We do residential, small commercial, hospitality, office fit-outs, a little bit of medical practice stuff, and a lot of development work, so whether that’s planning alongside architects for unit developments, whether it’s just colour selections—we do it all.”
The best part? “The connection with the client. Sometimes we’ll work on the smallest of projects but they just give you so much delight because you really engage with the client,” says Louise.
Kier agrees that while it is exciting handing over the keys to a $3 million build, there can be just as much innate joy when the team hands over a simple job of a colour palette. “That sense of seeing somebody else love it as much as we do is a complete adrenaline rush.”
Of course, it is not always as seamless or glamorous as the TV shows would have us believe.
The consultation process by necessity needs to be rigorous and sometimes may even feel invasive.
Kier explains, “unless we understand the way that someone lives, down to the point where we ask ‘Do you wash left to right or right to left at the sink? Do you iron? How do you bring your shopping home? Where do you dump your keys?’, there is the potential that some of the aspects of a home may drive you completely mad after two years of living with the wrong choice.”
Their job is to ensure that everything really works—first time and for a lifetime. They pride themselves on knowing everything—from finishes which don’t attract hand marks to the latest technology in white goods and the most beautiful induction cooktops.
Louise describes her perfect space as one which has resolved alignment and symmetry and sticks to muted tones and colour. “I like spaces that I go in to be serene and give me a sense of calm. Because I think we’re all so busy and so involved in our day-to-day goings on, that if you can walk into your home and you just get this sense of calm and you know that’s the place that you belong.”
Similarly, Kier likes to feel calm, but for her that is manifest more though light and a connection to nature.
“So for me, that integration of the inside and outside is big and I love indoor plants as much as I love outdoor plants. Just being able to feel connected to a space, I think, is the most important thing, and I think also there is an emotion that kind of rumbles in your tummy when something feels good and right.”
While the women conclude that shows like The Block have elevated the understanding and importance of design across the broader community and that is a good thing, “it’s not an easy job, and there are some very unglamorous parts of it. We’re on site, we’re meeting with joiners, we’re talking in a very male-dominated industry, which is quite difficult and we’re very practised in it,” says Louise.
“We’re not just personal shoppers,” adds Kier. “There’s hours and hours and hours of test fitting, and designing details, and speaking to suppliers and resolving which way the cupboard doors open and the requirements of the particular door hinge you need. But when it all comes together in the end, it’s just magic.”
The Department of Design Studio is located at 6/1 Pirie Street Fyshwick.
Photography by Anne Stroud.
Styling by Bijoux Home.
This story is part of a series highlighting Canberra’s innovative interior design sector sponsored by Harvey Norman Commercial.