Some people are just awesome and they get it. They are precisely the type of people I love giving plenty of airtime. So today, we shine a spotlight on a young Melbourne architecture practice Folk, headed up by Christie Petsinis & Tim Wilson. The pair met in high school, studied and lived together for a few years, and remained great mates while pursuing their dreams of studying and working around the world. Eventually, they both settled back in Melbourne, taking residence in the landmark Nicholas Building, one of the cities most famous creative hubs, from which they run their small-in-scale but large-in-spirit architecture practice.
Christine & Tim believe there is no set formula to approach a project and that each one needs to be a specific response to the site, context and social conditions. They believe that good design is not attributed to one author and there can’t be any room for ego in design – great outcomes are a true collaboration and contributions from the entire project team are worthy of consideration. Their inclusive, user-centred approach to design places people at its core and is part of the reason they called their practice Folk.
What I really love and appreciate about Christie’s and Tim’s work is their ability to apply clever thinking to a whole range of projects – those large and small in scale, with budgets ranging significantly from one to the next. But what is quite evident from their work is their insatiable curiosity and an absolute passion for great design.
In fact, I first became properly aware of Folk last year through what was one of their smallest projects undertaken on a pro bono basis, but the result was an absolute knockout. Commissioned by The National Gallery of Victoria, Folk assisted with the curation of a satellite venue for Melbourne Design Week. With a crazy tight timeline (3 days to design and 4 days to build), they managed to create a brilliant installation called Watchmaker, which in many ways became the flagship of last year’s event. With Melbourne Design Week 2018 officially kicking off again tomorrow, coupled with the fact our friends and roomies from Laminex were the generous sponsors of Watchmaker (more about that further down in the text), we thought it was only fitting to celebrate Folk and all the great things they do in today’s very special feature interview.
Please make some noise for the coolest cats Christie Petsinis & Tim Wilson (who collect crystals & doilies, and love Phil Collins & Kylie, but never mind about that – we’re not here to judge, right?).
Yabby Lake Winery in Tuerong, Victoria. Photography by Peter Bennetts.
+ Hello Christie & Tim, welcome to Yellowtrace! Could you please give us a quick introduction on yourselves? When did you first become interested in the world of architecture? And what path lead you to start your business?
TW & CP: In many ways establishing Folk seemed like a natural progression – after meeting at high school, we studied and lived together for a few years in Geelong and Jan Juc while at university. Christie then went to study Architecture in Helsinki, Finland and contributed to urban renewal projects in West Africa and Estonia. Meanwhile Tim took up an internship at Gabrielle Poole’s office on the Sunshine Coast working on lightweight, tactile and affordable housing with minimal environmental impact.
After graduation we coincidentally both went on to work for the same practice Denton Corker Marshall albeit in different countries, Christie in their Melbourne office and Tim in London. We stayed great mates and have always been drawn to each other creatively, we have a common aesthetic which stems from shared interests and values.
TW: My mother was an interior designer with Daryl Jackson and also worked with the late Janne Faulkner at Nexus during the 1970s and 80s. An appreciation for architecture, art and design was ingrained at an early age with excursions to design practices, galleries, bookstores and the like.
CP: I grew up surrounded by people making all sorts of things. I draw a lot of creativity from my mum, she sewed our clothing with our neighbour. She also has an interior design and property background and initiated adaptive reuse of a few under-utilised inner city warehouses; while some of my earliest memories are with dad, an engineer who put me to work at an early age visiting sites and assisting by holding an end of the measuring tape. Meanwhile my grandparents practiced backyard sustainability – kept bees, had a bountiful garden and were constantly tinkering in their workshop building useful objects.
Yabby Lake Winery in Tuerong, Victoria. Photography by Peter Bennetts.
+ What is your main priority when starting projects? Is there something that is fundamental to your practice – your philosophy and your process?
TW & CP: We like to think that there is no set formula rather each project is a specific response to the site, context and social condition. We believe that good design is not attributed to one author but rather is a creative collaboration in which the contributions of all members of the project team are worthy of consideration.
For us it’s a conversation, and ideas that inform the brief and built form can come from many sources, for example the farm manager who maintains a rural property or the caretaker looking after a community building. It’s a matter of engaging with a broad range of user groups as well as the site and surrounding context to develop a deeper understanding of the project. We like to think of our process as a user centered approach to design, placing people at its core, it’s part of the reason we called ourselves Folk.
Yoke Yoga in Torquay, Melbourne. Photography by Willem-Dirk du Toit.
+ How do you organise and manage the competing demands of modern business and life? Do you have any tip or tricks you could share with us that help you in your day-to-day?
TW: Architecture is demanding, projects often take many years and involve a lot of people through subsequent stages. We are fortunate to have some pretty amazing people around us, advisors, mentors and are members of numerous professional organistaions. In terms of systems we’ve adopted Work Flow Max to monitor staffing and scheduling projects, this is linked in to accounting software Xero. We can pick up our network remotely from our laptops and phones.
CP: Aside from the office day to day systems, knowing when you need a short break and time to reset promotes productivity. I’m learning that scheduling in time for a quick swim, yoga class or my Transcendental Meditation practice (that only takes 20 mins) creates space and promotes clarity, organisation, improves communication and efficiency. I find these to be my most powerful tools.
Sweet Factory House in Collingwood, Melbourne. Photography by Tom Blachford.
+ Your portfolio is incredibly diverse – large and boutique commercial, residential, heritage/ cultural, exhibition design etc. Is this variety of projects deliberate? Is there one type of project you prefer working on over another?
CP: We love having projects of varying scales and complexities within the studio. We find that the processes, explorations and learnings from each project typology can help to inform others. For example, the problem solving that you apply to a process driven building like a winery can also be applied to a house. While we are selective with the projects that we choose to embark on as a practice, the diversity of work isn’t necessarily deliberate.
TW: Christie and I have always worked on a range of projects – she is naturally drawn to interiors and has experience working on cultural and civic projects, including bridges, large scale infrastructure and urban design works, while I worked on high end housing and again on cultural projects like Stonehenge Visitor Centre – so our experiences where relatively diverse before we founded Folk.
+ Although smaller in scope and scale than most of your other projects, the Watchmaker exhibition was an incredibly beautiful and exciting response to a forgotten old site. Could you please tell us a little more about this project – your response and the outcome?
TW & CP: Each year we undertake a cultural project within the studio on a pro bono basis, and this often allows us the freedom and flexibility to experiment with materials and process.
The National Gallery of Victoria commissioned us to assist with curating a satellite venue for 2017 Melbourne Design Week. In response to the theme, ‘Design Values’ to accommodate seven exhibitions that reflect upon design – what it means and how it is valued?
Formerly a pawn shop, jewelry and ‘Watchmaker’ store, the gifted venue located in Smith Street, Collingwood revealed an interior with a layered history of trade, practice and markings of time. The site presented an opportunity to reflect upon the shifting landscape around the role of craftsmanship and contemporary themes of repair, in an increasingly throwaway society.
We used mirror in a fluid, yet strategic way to reveal the textural layers of the old site whilst creating a temporary exhibition space. Reflective vestibules defined the arrival from Smith Street to create a transitional infinity space, with the original neon ‘Watchmaker’ sign hovering above. This passage has a transformative effect exaggerating the contrast between the grittiness of the street and the intimacy of the interior – ultimately inspiring our concept for a space defined by mirror.
In acknowledgement of the time limitations of the budget, (3-day design process and 4-day build), the design approach identified how the unique character and spatial qualities of the space could be amplified using simple but inventive gestures.
Laminex were incredibly generous sponsors, providing the mirrored material that we used to curate distinct moments that responded to views, sightlines and helped to uncover markings of the building’s former past.
The design of the temporary exhibition considered the lifecycle costs of the materials used. Details were employed to ensure that the interventions did not mark the existing fabric and could be deconstructed at the conclusion of the exhibition to be repurposed in its next iteration.
As an initial NGV Design Week satellite project, ‘Watchmaker’ successfully attracted a broad and diverse audience and was a celebrated temporary space that created cultural debate on the theme ‘Design Value’ from the curatorial, contributing artists and exhibition design.
+ What do you feel is the most challenging part of being an architect today? And if you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
TW: We would love to see architecture become more accessible to the broader population, particularly in the area of housing – In Australia, as in many other parts of the world, housing affordability is a big issue and the built form that we are seeing here in response to growing population pressures could definitely be improved. It seems crazy to us that only 5% – 10% of houses in Australia are designed by architects.
CP: Good architecture can improve your health, wellbeing and connection within society. I think that people are moving towards co-sharing and intergenerational living – our connection to place, people and culture can be much stronger.
We are always evaluating materials that belong to the place, durable, pragmatic yet recognizes the history and place – people, pattern and folk that were there earlier, yet allows freedom and invites new beginning.
Sustainability is imperative – there is no reasons why the buildings that we create cannot be autonomous, architects need to design places in respect to future generations. We have two projects in the studio at the moment that are being remodeled and reduced in size (as opposed to extended). The reward for people’s commitment to live in smaller footprints that are well designed is the reduction in ongoing maintenance and service costs – and it usually gives more space for nature and the re-establishment of the garden.
We both live next to family members, in communities, largely unplanned – in some ways it’s a utopian model. For instance, I live in a mixed-use/ former wool store in the inner city that contains 3 apartments and we all share things – a car, vacuum cleaners, internet… It works well as I travel often so there is always someone around and we have international guests coming through to stay so the spaces are utilised – that’s inherently sustainable.
TW: Similarly I live next door to my sister and her family, we share a backyard and common deck area and our children are similar ages. Only now I have to lock the back door to prevent my nephew waking up my three-year-old daughter Willow at 5.30am! But otherwise there are so many benefits, conveniences, and efficiencies to communal living. It’s a great way to build strong and healthy communities which can be reinforced through good design.
Art Deco House in Melbourne. Photography by Peter Bennetts.
+ What are some of your methods to stay motivated, focused and expressive? And your top 3 main sources of inspiration and references you are drawn to regularly?
TW & CP: There are so many inspiring people in the fields of art, science and technology, history etc. Since we started Folk we have always maintained that its important to look outside the profession as well as within it for inspiration. At a project level we find that discussions with all user groups, gardeners, occupants, craftspeople etc. can facilitate ideas and inform the brief and outcome. They often have invaluable insights about the site, workings of spaces and the environment.
We are also motivated by receiving post occupancy feedback from clients. For example, Yarra Valley house, an early project, is completely off the grid and maintains a temperature between 18-25 degrees all year.
CP: Inspiration comes from everywhere, constantly – colours, textures, forms, sounds in everything from art, architecture, design, textiles, nature, experiences, observations, music, food, conversations – I travel regularly and that’s often when I get most inspired and float ideas back to the studio.
Within the studio we love exchanging our thoughts and reviewing projects with the team – everyone contributes to the process. As co-directors, Tim and I have complementary skills, I often pitch initial ideas and he formalises – I usually work on the creative direction at the beginning and then get really involved with the interiors at end of the project, whilst Tim heads up the documentation team and delivery. However, we are both always hands on and are across everything, so most of our decisions come through our ongoing discussions, review and intuitions and for these reasons we have made the decision to keep the studio tight. We collaborate with other practices and partner up at times, but we are trying to keep our core team between 5-10.
TW: Recently I have been getting involved in Urban Planning, Environmental, and Legal Conferences – sharing knowledge and experience with people from different disciplines is incredibly rewarding. There is such a depth of knowledge and research into the issues around livability and the creation of healthy communities, and I think it’s important for architects, researchers, planners and policy makers to have an ongoing dialog if we want to see real improvements in the built environment.
CP: I love New Philosopher, Apartmento, Pin-up Magazine. Instagram ranges anywhere from Nitch to Nowness, Pierre.Yovanovitch to Decrohardcore, Kookslams (surfing bloopers), www.swellnet.com also gets regular web hits.
Friday afternoon visits to World Food Books on Level 3 in the Nicholas Building – really amazing handpicked collection of new and rare books, catalogues, etc spanning art, architecture, film, cultural theory… Some of my favourite books are The Bush – Don Watson, The One Straw Revolution – Masanobu Fukuoka, Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari, Einstein’s Dreams – Alan Lightman.
Yarra Valley House in Yarra Valley, Victoria. Photography by Brooke Holm.
+ Who or what are some of your influences? What other architects, peers and creatives do you admire?
TW & CP: Our studio is located in the Nicholas Building, which is a community spirited place, a vertical village of makers, artists, and interesting people. The building and its occupants is an ongoing influence (milliners, jewelers and other creatives that indirectly inspire and influence each other.
CP: Studying Architecture in Helsinki, Finland was very influential. Their deep understanding of vernacular architecture, landscape, forestry and culture is embedded in design. I was humbled to recently meet members of Alvar Aalto’s family and it rekindled my appreciation of Finnish culture – their connection to nature, appreciation of art, architecture. I also think that we need to invest in our Indigenous culture – people like the legendary Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu Black Seed have a wealth of knowledge and we have so much to learn. We support Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria and find the people associated within the organisation to be a constant source of inspiration.
Yarra Valley House in Yarra Valley, Victoria. Photography by Brooke Holm.
+ What advice would you give to emerging architects who want to follow your path? What was one of your biggest lessons learned since starting your practices?
CP: Don’t follow us, go and discover your own path! Follow your heart, do what you love. Don’t feel obligated to carve out a path as an architect in a traditional way either. I think that an architectural education is rich, broad and touches on so many disciplines – we both studied construction management and architecture – I also studied permaculture with David Holmgren, Tim studied marine sciences, I took up sculpture and art at the Victorian College of the Arts, followed by a Masters of Urban Culture in Barcelona. I think all of these things come into play, they influence and inspire our work – understanding of people, place and context.
TW: Stick to your values, write a list of principals that you deem to be important and revisit the list on a regular basis. Running a practice can be challenging at times, and it’s important to stay in touch with your core values. It’s also important to have fun!
Medhurst Winery in Yarra Valley, Victoria. Photography by Peter Bennetts.
+ What’s next – can you share with us your vision, some of your goals (and some of your current projects)?
TW & CP: Its an exciting time in the studio at the moment, there are a number of projects on the go that include residential work – new and alterations (and reductions – we are making them smaller!)
Commercial works including two new Cellar Doors, another Winery, two potential new rooftop hospitality venues… We also have a new community center and site activation/ urban renewal projects.
There are also a number of self-initiated studio projects that include looking at intergenerational and flexible housing as well as some furniture, and a book…
Our vision is to create places that are low impact and highlight functions to stand the test of time and promote health and wellbeing within the community. We are passionate about architecture that is inclusive and accessible, we want to continue to create projects that engage with a broad and diverse audience which make a positive contribution to the built environment.
CP: When Tim and I first founded Folk a friend/ client who has an inspiring lifestyle brand (that branches into the realms of food, music, art, fashion, and graphics) shared some wisdom: ‘Design your practice to suit your aspirations and the way you want to live’. I am always reminded of that statement.
+ What’s the best mistake you have ever made?
TW & CP: Mistakes are great learning opportunities and sometimes serendipity… In 2012 we won an open competition for the Temporary Activation of the Docklands Harbour Esplanade after rewriting the project brief. Hortus was a relocatable glass house, edible plant installation and café. The creation of this civic space relied upon sponsorship and in-kind support from local industries.
Just when we thought that the impossible had been accomplished we hit an unforeseeable series of planning obstacles and took a year longer to get off the ground – however, during this period we initiated a series of temporary events and the first food truck permits in Melbourne. These food truck lunches were successful site activations, drew the community together and laid the basis for the communities ongoing commitment to the space. We also took this opportunity to engage with people at ground level and discuss their perceptions and ideas about the site, as well as the imminent ongoing development of Harbour Esplanade. The project has continued to be a catalyst for small scale, fine grain intervention within the precinct and a test pilot for ideas that can assist to facilitate successful future built outcomes.
The project was originally commissioned for 18 months but has been an integral part of the Docklands for 4 years. The pavilion is no longer run by Seven Seeds and is now undergoing its next iteration as the site for the Ferry Terminal. A welcomed addition to the Docklands.
Hortus in Docklands, Melbourne. Photography by Peter Bennetts.
+ Your most treasured belonging?
CP: My family and friends – forever grateful, they are a pretty awesome bunch. I do have some treasured artworks, a Sally Smart that was a birthday present many years ago, more recently I bought an artwork by Kosovo artist Flaka Haliti at Liste, Art Basel. But my true love right now is a 1980s Springer single fin that a friend gave me to ride in charity event, the Bolt Blowers – an invitational retro surf competition.
TW: A vintage surfboard that I bought with my brother at a Cash Converters in Geelong. It’s a fluroescent pink and yellow stick, circa 1980 Nev Hyman shaped twin fin – a beautiful object in its own right and super fun to surf.
+ What’s one thing other people may not know about you?
TW: I have a collection of 17 surfboards, a few of them are at home but the majority are scattered around various friends garages etc. Collecting surfboards isn’t a conscious decision, I just can’t help myself whenever chance upon one in a garage sale or vintage store.
CP: Tim is a humble minimalist, really considered – forever questioning consumerism, yet it doesn’t apply to his surplus of surfboards! 17 is a serious oversupply!
I’ve got a crystal collection! An appreciation for tie dye, quietly a hippy at heart. We’ll stop here!
+ It’s not very cool, but I really like…
TW: Phil Collins.
CP: Well, Phil could be considered a classic. I think Kylie is cool.
I’ve got a budding collection of heirloom dollies… The embroidering skills, patterns and detail is so intricate and beautiful – they are proliferating around my apartment as I’m exploring new decorative applications.