25 October 2019
"Most people love the beach, or the mountains, or the snow, but I feel happiest when I get into a city.” Her compatriots may be known for their love of the great outdoors but for this Australian, nothing beats the bright lights and skyscrapers, corners and curves of sprawling, ever-metamorphosing cities. Sydney is where Blainey North launched her global design firm, known for its luxe-urban style, nearly two decades ago, and she is “obsessed” with London. “My dream is to move here permanently – I [already] go back and forth a lot, and we’re building up a catalogue of projects. I lived here for a while with my family and went to school here; it feels like home, and happily it seems this is where everyone wants to buy our furniture.”
To see this furniture for myself, I meet North in her show apartment above Alice Temperley’s boutique on Bruton Street. Their work together involved “looking for a new brand direction in terms of interior aesthetic” for Temperley stores worldwide. That North gravitates towards urban environments far more than anything else is given concrete expression in the current Blainey North Collection, with which the apartment space is kitted out.
Man & the Machine has been five years in the making. It is a “deep, introspective analysis” of all the things North loves about cities, and the interaction within them between “soft bodies moving through this repetitive hardness”. She shows me the Suspension series, comprising a table lamp, coffee table, dining table, armchair and dining chair, which incorporate, to varying degrees, solid brushed bronze, with electroplated finish and rope detailing that’s actually metal tubing coated in carbon fibre. “So it has the feel of rope but at the same time is almost like a suspension bridge,” North explains, “or a bit of S&M bondage, or things that tie things together, like [the inner workings of] a lift. Things that make the city work.”
As we move around the room, North points out practical design elements – such as cutting off corners (a safety measure implemented surely because of having a five-year-old daughter) and using glass tops, which don’t mark – and more novel ones. The Suspension Dining Table, for example, “is a bit naughty because the two hosts sit at each end and their knees are covered, but everyone else has their knees exposed!”
North shows me a photo on her iPhone of Hong Kong’s arterial roads, lit up by blurred streaks of red and white light, as vehicles stream down a broad grid of streets. This is the shot that originally inspired the Suspension Table Lamp, and thus the Blainey North ethos is encapsulated. “The firm prides itself on its storytelling and level of detail. All of our projects have a very strong conceptual basis, which is what I’m known for in Australia, and an inherent sense of luxury."
Clients also love that they know all our projects are so different.” North and her team pride themselves on an “intelligent, researched approach, with energy and a ‘wow’ factor – something that shocks you”. This wow factor certainly applies to several of the other pieces I see from Man & the Machine, in particular the Strobe Chandelier and Chasm Coffee Table. Each piece is designed to create light and shadow effects that are quite different at night, and I can appreciate how striking these would be, even on a sunny day in this show space.
How did this come to be North’s career? “When I was 10 or 11, my art teacher asked if I had ever thought of doing architecture because, for years, I’d been drawing buildings while everyone else was drawing people! Then I realised my whole life had been about seeing buildings. It’s just how I see the world – whenever we moved, I did floorplans of my room. And so the penny dropped.”
This realisation shaped North’s future studies in architecture – “I was really interested in Zaha [Hadid], Rem Koolhaas and Enric Miralles” – and she continues to find London inspiring, in particular the Lloyd’s building in the City, designed by Richard Rogers. “All of the lifts are on the outside, and I’ve always thought that’s the most wonderful thing, that you can actually see the inner workings on the outside of the building. I also love this area of Mayfair – Mount Street is one of my favourites, with all the beautiful old terracotta buildings. This is where I stay when I’m in London.”
Our capital city is, for North, at the forefront of the design world. She praises London’s “incredible community of artists and artisans... Just this morning I met a lady who does hand-woven leather to stitch into furniture. We do a lot of work with English artisans and send the stuff back to Sydney. It’s a game-changer for me in terms of what ideas we can execute.”
A relatively new technology has also had a big impact on what the Blainey North team can deliver. “Using VR [virtual reality] headsets saves a lot of time. They allow my team and clients to see a project in 3D. It’s revolutionary because we’re ‘building’ these spaces in 3D and working out all the details of the job. This does take an enormous amount of work but it means that when we get on site, we think it will cut down on the variation costs. You can see what you’re going to get before you get it, which takes all of the risk out of your build.”
North pauses after I pose my final question. What does she consider true luxury? Her words have been tumbling out as she has enthused about her work, and it’s easy to tell that this is someone who found her calling early in life, and has reaped the rewards. She finds her answer. “It’s not about something, or the process; it’s about a feeling... There’s something about sitting down and thinking”, with a satisfied exhale, “this is luxury”.