Hey Space Healers, I thought I would share the 'non-edited' version of my interview with renowned blog, Interiors Addict. It was a lot of fun writing this chronicle of my career. I also share some of my new vision for Complete Pad.
What course did you study, when did you graduate and what did you do after graduation?
I studied a bachelor of design majoring in interiors straight out of high school. It was a full-time 4 year degree at the University of Technology Sydney. I deferred half way to travel around Europe for a year. One of the best decisions of my life, giving me the self-confidence and broader perspective that only travel can do.
After graduating in 1998 I was selected for a three month paid internship at one of Sydney's coveted architectural and interiors firms. It was a wonderful firm but certainly wasn’t for me. It was at this moment I had the terrifying suspicion that I wasn't the ‘employee’ type. Holding design on a pedestal, I’ve always respected its power to transform lives, so I felt inept to start offering my services without having professionally worked in the industry. Looking back however, this may have been the key to my success.
Still living with my parents, I began accepting small jobs, and then one day, a really big job came my way. I was 23 when my neighbour approached me to renovate his waterfront apartment. It was in original condition and needed everything done, including new electrics and knocking out quite a few walls. I was acting as the builder, engaging all the trades, as well as managing the design and procurement. I was getting stuff done the most effective and efficient way I knew how, totally oblivious to potential indemnity. My dad was well aware of the huge risk, but could see the incredible hands-on learning experience that this project was, so he had a chat to our neighbour, (unbeknownst to me at the time), just to make sure my client was technically ‘the builder’. It wasn't until years later, when I was reflecting on how vulnerable I was, that my Dad told me of his involvement. I have countless stories where Dad had my back in those early years.
Figure 1 & 1a: Larkin Street Project. One of Bronwyn’s first projects completed in 2001. A new build in Waverton NSW. Scope of works included interior architecture and decorating. Client’s favourite colour was green.
Figure 2: Larkin Street Project. Shown here is an integrated bedroom and bathroom design in Bronwyn’s Waverton project.
Figure 3: Bronwyn’s Dee Why project completed in 2002. This project included a custom rotating sofa on a flush disc platform, covered with a bespoke rug, operated by 80 skateboard wheels allowing it to easily manoeuvre into any position.
Figure 4: Bronwyn’s client was a successful Northern beaches builder and surfer. His favourite colour was blue.
Figure 5: There were many bespoke features such as the custom shutters, stair treads, dining table, fish tank, bedhead and mirrors.
How has the industry changed since this time?
I benefited from it being a very young industry. It was extremely specialised back in early 2000. There were architects, interior designers, decorators and no one knew what a stylist was. I had a difficult time with this notion of specialisation so my business model became that a baker; making the cake and icing it too. Our uni course had an architectural focus, so the decorative aspect, particularly soft furnishings, were self-taught.
I was fitting out an investment property for a client who happened to be the marketing consultant for Australand, a large property development company. One day in passing, he mention that he wasn’t sure if the Harvey Norman plaid sofas, just installed in their latest display suite, worked and he asked me to take a look. Sounds crazy now, but back then people didn’t have many options outside Harvey Norman or Freedom.
The internet was very new and my cousin James was also starting his own IT business around the same time. James and my Uncle David were probably the single most influential people in my entrepreneurial success. They encouraged and supported me in getting online with a website that made me look bigger than ‘Ben Hur’ at a time when no one else was doing it.
In recent times, it has been social media that has brought the biggest change. I do feel fortunate to have known business both with and without it. There's no doubt social media has added an extra burden to operations but it has also opened up great opportunity.
Tell me about your business, Touch Interiors and how you have evolved it over this time?
I never officially made the decision to start my own business. It wasn't until telling a friend over coffee, that I needed a business name, when I finally accepted I was in it for the long run. We brainstormed names over that coffee and Touch Interiors was born; a metaphor for how relatable design moves us, makes us feel.
Soon after, around the time I met my (now) husband in 1999, I committed to my first office, a converted garage below a wonderful elderly widow’s home, Lucy, located a few blocks from Balmoral Beach. I paid $125 per week and I happily rented that space for many years. From this moment on I had continual work furnishing investment properties for a local real estate agent and very dear friend, Gen, whose support cannot be undervalued. I was also fitting out multiple display suites for Australand’s Balmain Shores, Altair Rushcutters Bay, Paddington Barracks and King Street Wharf developments. I worked on many homes, as well as a nursing home, bookshop in Glebe, upmarket Chinse restaurant and even renovated and flipped my first investment property. I embraced every opportunity.
Figure 6: Bronwyn's first investment property which she renovated and sold in 2002.
Figure 7: Bronwyn’s Balmoral Slopes project as featured in My Home magazine. Whilst the clients went traveling around Australia for a year in 2003, Bronwyn was left in charge of designing and project managing this four bedroom Mosman home.
Figure 8: Bronwyn designed all three bathrooms with a unique feel using different materials for each. Shown here is the Master Spa.
Figure 8: Bronwyn designed all three bathrooms with a unique feel using different materials for each. Shown here is the Master Spa.
Figure 10: Details from Bronwyn's Mosman project.
It was in 2000 when I officially launched the Touch Interiors website. Dreaming big, as you do, I bought the ‘dot com’ and ‘dot com dot au’. My vision has always remained the same over the years. Inspired by the altruistic notion that interior design should be accessible to everyone, I started offering package solutions on my site, eventually adding a small shopping cart for single purchases. There was no such thing as online shopping back then and my suppliers thought I was cuckoo, but it became a significant part of my business over the following ten years, enough to rebrand the shop to Complete Pad in 2005.
My business has always provided great personal flexibility, something I wanted to protect when my first born, Hugh, was conceived. Despite working comfortably from our first home at the time, I made the counter-intuitive decision to wind things up, rather than down. In 2006 I committed to a three year lease on a beautiful 100 year old cottage nestled within George's Heights in the national park of Mosman.
Figure 11: The Touch Interiors office between years 2006 – 2013, located at Georges Heights Mosman NSW. Bronwyn’s blog post showing her child friendly office.
Figure 12: Bronwyn and Jason’s first home in Cremorne purchased in 2004. Bronwyn’s previous home office now converted into a family friendly study / playroom.
I realised the only way to have my cake and eat it too, was to build a design team to allow me to be the hands on mummy I dreamed of, whilst still enjoying career satisfaction. It was a great move and taught me so much about running a small company, becoming an employer and building a business that truly supported my life to the fullest.
Touch Interiors and Complete Pad were mostly operated by the same team during this time, with my main focus on the mix of commercial and residential Touch Interiors clients. My team and I completed projects of all sizes, including some major commercial ones like a 105 room serviced apartment complex in Western Australia in 2009. This was probably my greatest business achievement because I won the tender over five very large Australian procurement companies who were much more experienced at the time. I also played cupid on this project, when a close friend who assisted me eventually married the whitegoods supplier, can you believe!
Figure 13: One of three schemes for The Broadwater Mariners resort in Geraldton Western Australia - 105 suites completed by Bronwyn in 2009.
Figure 14 & 14A: Rooms included hand painted artworks by Sydney artist Sophie Taggart who flew over to Geraldton to experience its unique landscape, flora and fauna.
Other memorable commercial projects included the Breakfast Point Country Club, multiple F.F.E specifications for multi-storey residential developments, many investment property packages, event furniture for the Red Bull Air Race, an upmarket Chinese restaurant in Kirribilli and Coco Cubano Café and Bar in Crows Nest, (now named The Cornerstone Bar & Café). Clients included Australand, Frasers Property, Broadwater Resorts, Multiplex, Rose Group, Red Bull, Kyko Group and Stockland.
It was a wonderful seven year journey spent in this creative haven. I realise in hindsight how lucky I was to have made it all work.
Figure 15: The Breakfast Point Country Club completed in 2005 by Bronwyn for Rose Group.
Figure 16: Scope of Works for the Breakfast Point Country club included all interiors and exterior furniture.
Figure 17: Bronwyn designed the sofas and used various coastal themed textile to create an inviting atmosphere sympathetic with the Cape Code style architecture. Bronwyn also commissioned a local photographer using a series of black and white artworks throughout the space.
Figure 18: Bronwyn custom designed the library unit with ladder, magazine rack, floor rug with logo and rowing ore artwork.
Neutral Bay project completed by Bronwyn in 2007. Scope of works included interior design and decorating.
Figure 20, 20a & 20b: Middle Cove project completed by Bronwyn in 2008. Scope of works included interior design and decoration.
Figure 21, 21a, 21b, 21c, 21d: Bronte Beach project completed by Bronwyn in 2010. Scope of works included interior design and decoration.
Figure 22 & 22a: Seaside Dreaming 1 of 4 suites completed in 2011 by Bronwyn for the Queensland Mon Komo development for Kyko Group. The brief was to create four distinctive Caribbean inspired display homes.
Travellers Sanctuary 2 of 4 suites for Mon Komo
Figure 24 & 24a: Caribbean Carnivale 3 of 4 suites for Mon Komo
Island Breeze 4 of 4 suites for Mon Komo
Neutral Bay project completed by Bronwyn in 2012. Scope of works included interior design and decoration.
Figure 28: Bronwyn’s Coco Cubano fit-out in Sydney’s Crows Nest (now called The Cornerstone Café& Bar). Completed by Bronwyn in 2013
Figure 29: Bronwyn imported handmade lighting made from rustic old wheel hubs that were suspended throughout the space in Bronwyn's Coco Cubano project.
When and why did you move to LA?
We moved to L.A. in Feb 2014. My husband, Jason, a film editor, had just finished working on two big Aussie films, The Great Gatsby and Mad Max. There were no new films on the horizon and we had stretched ourselves on a larger new home a few years prior and now had three children. Managing my business meant we had live in Au-pairs. It wasn't a lifestyle for the faint hearted. Whilst being absolutely awesome while it lasted, we both knew it wasn't sustainable. We thought we would put Jason's recent credits to good use and apply for an American work visa. He got one, so we packed the house, moved across, no job, no accomm, but a school sorted for the kids.
Figure 30 & 30a: Bronwyn and Jason’s new home in Neutral Bay purchased in 2011.
Figure 31: Bronwyn, Jason, Hugh, Ashley & Darci’s current home in Santa Monica. The Ballantine’s patio features one of Bronwyn’s products for her exclusive pro collection on her online shop, Complete Pad – ceramic wall hanging by California artist Heather Levine.
How did you establish yourself in LA as an unknown, despite having a successful career back in Aus?
Well, I'm not quite established yet! I hope to do some fabulous jobs down the track, but for now I'm just dabbling, accepting jobs I can't refuse and ones that fit in with our children’s schedule. I am not entirely ready to get help with the kids yet. I'm enjoying them too much.
Houzz has been a wonderful resource and a handful of clients have found me that way. It has also provided some great press opportunities which has been exciting.
Figure 32: A few of Bronwyn’s Instagram photos of her first L.A. job completed in 2014, located in Santa Monica Canyon. Bronwyn enjoyed using a few of her Australian suppliers such as Armadillo & Co. and established artist, Lara Merrett.
How do you manage your Australian based team from Los Angeles?
It always surprises me how things work out when you go with the flow. Managing my business abroad has been a delightful change. I can focus on big picture goals, rather than sweating the small stuff. My Sydney design practice is managed by associate designer and long time staff member, Rhiannon Matthews. She is pretty much the ultimate 'set and forget' employee and I mean that in the most appreciative and admiring way.
She's been able to take the reins and continue delivering the Touch Interiors promise; liveable fine art spaces that feel as good as they look. We don't adhere to any one design style, rather we seek a deeper level of enquiry to identify our client’s natural aesthetic rhythm and that of their home. Rhi and I talk multiple times a week and she keeps me abreast of everything. Some of our Australian clients choose to engage me for my 'Space Healing' service at the beginning of the process. It's my newly packaged service, delivered by FaceTime and my favourite part of the design process.
When the decision was made to spend some time in America, both Rhi and I weren't quite sure how it would work, but we've found our feet and our genuine respect for each-other has held us tight. Next month I’m flying home to help photograph her recent projects. I can't wait!
Moving forward, Rhi and I would love to find another experienced, like-minded designer, to work with us under Touch. Rhiannon is off on maternity leave soon, so it's a great time to welcome a new member to our work family.
Figure 33: Bronwyn’s newly packaged ‘Space Healing’ service offered over Skype or FaceTime.
As for Complete Pad, that's a whole other story and team. I took the opportunity of moving to America to rebuild my Australian shopping site. After a previous failed attempt engaging offshore developers, I finally had the focus to get the shop back on track with an ambitious new concept. Patricia Bal is my long-time collaborator in Complete Pad and the IT genius behind the new site. Jaclyn Schoene is my guru general manager and interior stylist by trade. I made the critical decision to retain their loyalty and dedication by offering a capital incentive / profit share agreement. It meant I could keep control of my business but now had true partners to share the good and bad days with. It has been the best business decision made to date and I'm so incredibly grateful the ladies were all on-board. We are an awesome team and our natural strengths extremely complimentary. We talk multiple times a day.
Figure 34: Patricia and Bronwyn. Patricia came to surprise Bron in L.A. for her 40th birthday last month.
How do the industries differ in America compared to Australia?
In more ways than I could have anticipated. Stating the obvious, it's a whole new market; different tastes, different environmental conditions, different values, different architecture, different vendors, different economy. My time here has been spent absorbing all these differences and relating to them in my own unique way. I've been doing a lot of living and having a lot of fun. I figure that it is time well invested in the long run.
The interior design procurement is as expected; endless options for all budgets. It has been a welcome change.
As far as business conduct goes, nothing comes close to Australian authenticity. It really makes business so much easier knowing you have a deal by the glint in one’s eye. Here, it is an interesting game, playing against 'smiling assassins' as Jas calls them. Put it this way, you never sit a bad interview!
Any tips on creating work / life balance and juggling motherhood with 3 young children?
Well, only the ones I'm still trying to master; mindfulness, boundaries, acknowledging my IT addiction.
Developing my instincts for which decisions to make, or sacrifices to endure, or investments to give, have been key to navigating my life. But to develop this, I've had to continually invest in me, by continually getting to know myself, over and over again. A good nature hit always pays-off and recharges my instincts for knowing when to let go, or hang on, or blindly trust. My mum installed this notion in my sisters and me early, always telling us to look after ourselves first. It certainly saved me the likely mother guilt I may have suffered otherwise. I'm really thankful for her advice. It has made me a mostly patient mummy with a good sense for priorities.
What advice could you offer aspiring designers and / or decorators?
# 1: Know yourself. Identify your strengths and articulate it until you are blue in the face. Take the Gallup Strengths Finder test - Clifton Top 5, if you have no idea where to start. Find your niche working to your strengths and you'll never work a day in your life. I think I just ripped that last line off someone because it sounds very familiar, anyway it's solid advice, so I'm sharing the love.
# 2: Your twenties, (or pre-kid years), are your most powerful years in business so don't stuff around.
# 3: If you are going to put strategy and boundaries in place, put them around social media. A lot of time is wasted on these platforms trying to build reputation. In the wise words of Australian actor Gregory Rush, 'The cream always rises to the top'.
What are the 3 biggest lessons you have learnt in business to date?
· Draft a 5 year, mutually exclusive, business and lifestyle growth plan. Regularly check-in on it. It’s powerful stuff.
· Invest in the best accounting team and you'll never have to second guess a thing.
· Only collaborate with people you truly respect.
· Never stop evolving.
Tell me about Complete Pad.
Complete Pad is my Australian online interiors community where you can shop for individual items for your home, and or, connect with a pro to help you. Turning 10 this year, we celebrated with a freshen up and a new pro-centric collection called ‘Unique Pad’; a special area on our site dedicated to freely promoting independent designers and decorators who honour the individuality of their clients. My pet name for these special pros are ‘Space Healers’ and they are the ones who understand the importance of putting their style agenda to one side to truly serve. We believe in substance over style.
Figure 35: An invitation for Australian designers and decorators to learn more about ‘Unique Pad’. Bronwyn’s new industry initiative designed to promote pros by leveraging their gifts rather than a distinctive style.
Holding true to my vision since conception, I want to build a platform to empower more homemakers to be authentic, courageous and in control of their decorating destiny. I didn’t want to rebuild just another online shop. I wanted to find a solution to the challenges, both connection and engagement, that homemakers and pros experience.
Our industry tends to promote itself internally, to one another. We post, tweet and blog about inspo that only a pro can decode. It takes a pro’s perspective to become inspired by that weathered blue wall in Morocco, or that incredible over done interior from our design icon. Only we know how to apply this to the suburban home of a typical client; using it in a way that is authentic to create a space that is uplifting, improving quality of life. It really is a fine art and one that should command enormous respect.
However, as I suspect, the issue is that we as interior pros, designers and decorators alike, are separating ourselves from the hands that feeds us. The real homemakers and owners, with whom we work, don't think the way that we do and we question why they are not enquiring away at our 'contact us' forms. I want to change this. I want to cultivate a platform that allows clients to really understand our worth. I want to do this for every talented Australian pro who works with real homes. I want to make us more relatable and accessible. I want to help more homemakers create a space that matters.
I am endeavouring to do this in six powerful ways within ‘Unique Pad’, supported by my established online shop that connects with homemakers and owners from all around Australia, all day, every-day. I am seeking interior pros to join me here. This is the mere beginning of my vision, one that I have held for a very long time. I really want this to work because I believe our industry and Australians, deserve and can have, more.
PS: Can I give my talented photographer, (and cuz), Matt Craig a little shout out! Many of these images were taken by him. He has been such an amazing support to me over the years.