Interview: Emma Templeton of Templeton Architecture.
I friggin love our interviews, you guys! And today is another absolute goodie, as we chat to the lovely, thoughtful and generous Emma Templeton, the principal of her eponymous practice, Templeton Architecture.
With degrees in both Architecture & Interior Design from RMIT, Emma worked for some of Australia’s most notable design practices, including the celebrated Chris Connell Design, before establishing her own studio in 2004. As we don’t often speak to such established and experienced practitioners in our interviews, it’s a real treat to hear and learn from someone who has been in the industry for quite a long time, but has in many ways remained under the radar, despite her exceptional talent.
With a close-knit team of four (Emma – Director, Sean Chambers – Associate Director, Joanna Sych – Architect and Karine Szekeres– Designer), Templeton has delivered many beautiful and highly considered residential projects, designed to heighten the human senses. Timelessness, restraint and refinement are the hallmarks of the practice – but don’t be fooled by this seemingly perfect veneer and Emma’s impeccably groomed appearance. This lady is “horrifically passionate” about AFL (dear Lord), and to make things worse – she bloody goes for Collingwood (translation for those who may not be up to speed – Collingwood = extremely uncool!)
I mean, enough said. Lucky she’s so damn talented, so we won’t hold this against her. Besides, you guys know I love nothing more than shining a spotlight on someone who is excellent and what they do, yet completely normal and perfectly imperfect. A shared quality with our roomies and supporters of our beloved Interview Column, our friends from Laminex.
+ Hello Emma, welcome to Yellowtrace and thank you for taking the time to e-chat. Could you please give us a quick introduction? When did you first decide you wanted to become an architect? And what path lead you to start your business?
Thank you for inviting me!
So many architects that I admire seem to have known that they wanted to be an architect from birth. My own journey has been less linear, less obvious.
I didn’t know any architects when I was growing up, I didn’t live in an architecturally designed house (nor do I remember visiting one) and although I was educated to appreciate design my understanding was more modest and limited.
I did rip up the carpet in my bedroom when I was still in primary school and this was the beginning of my first interior design project. I changed the very cool, hot pink ceiling my mother selected and replace it with a safe shade of off-white. I documented the design process as if it was to be featured in a magazine, complete with before and after images and minimal text. With hindsight, the before pictures are far more interesting.
At secondary school, I was interested in all academic streams and deliberately took a subject in each faculty to avoid limiting my career options. Mum remembers me pinning a photo of an architect on my bedroom wall at a young age; however, I suspect this was just tear sheet from Vogue (or Dolly….) that featured a model dressed the way the magazine suggested rather than a portrait of Maggie Edmund.
When I left school, I wanted to combine my love for design, art and history. I completed a degree in Interior Design at RMIT before commencing my Architectural degree while working full time in a corporate design office.
It became obvious that Architecture would be the perfect balance of my interests; on reflection, I suspect it was predetermined and I was just unable to recognize it until I matured. I have been a late bloomer in most areas of my life.
Once I graduated I was keen to work for a firm that had a strong reputation for residential design. My formative position was in an intimate team of highly passionate people at Chris Connell Design (CCD). It was a sink or swim experience that introduced me to the joys and challenges of bespoke residential design. This is still what makes my heart beat.
While working for CCD I was offered my first commission – a beach house in the same town our family spent our childhood summer holidays. I couldn’t resist, I resigned from my position and began sketching on the kitchen table. That was nearly 15 years ago.
‘Merriwee’ in Toorak. Photography by Benjamin Hosking.
+ What is your main priority when starting projects? Is there something that is fundamental to your practice – your philosophy and your process?
We believe that spaces can make you feel, behave and think differently. Architecture is powerful and has the potential to influence a moment and a lifetime for the occupant and the wider community.
We consider the unique qualities of every site. We are preoccupied with proportion, light, colour and junction, but also have a respect for history and narrative. We listen to, embrace and challenge each client’s brief. Ultimately these considerations define our design outcomes. We are committed to creating timeless architecture through restraint, refinement and quality and typically find with residential architecture that it is the deep exploration of the pragmatic and mundane that informs spaces that can house beautiful moments.
Although we have a recognizable architectural language, we celebrate that no project, client or site is the same. We love the process of architecture, the challenges that it uncovers, the varied nature of the tasks involved and the joy found in delivering a quality project.
‘Matilda’ in Ruffy. Photography by Benjamin Hosking.
+ How is your studio structured? i.e. How many of you work in the studio, what types of skills do you have in-house, is there anything you are outsourcing, and how many projects do you handle at any one time?
Templeton is small studio comprising of both architects and interior designers. We are a highly passionate and motivated group that I love spending time with. Surrounding myself with a creative and supportive team that understands my value hierarchy has been worth the investment of time. We have had a very stable team over the years and I am fortunate to have had Sean Chambers, my associate, by my side for the best part of a decade. I cannot imagine doing what we do without him to challenge and inspire me.
As a studio we are acutely conscious of the trust our clients bestow on us and take the responsibility of their asset very seriously. Architecture, and in particular residential architecture, is intensely personal, often emotional and bound by financial realities. It is an exhilarating process for the client, architect and builder but it is never without some level of stress. We understand it to be part of our role to guide our clients through this roller coaster.
Fundamentally I am responsible for the design aspects of the projects and Sean and the team oversee the documentation and delivery. I have an intimate understanding of every project from design to occupancy and we deliberately limit our workload to ensure that this remains comfortable. We provide a very personal ‘hands-on’ approach tailored to the needs of the individual project.
We don’t outsource regularly in our office. However, we do rely on our network of consultants, craftsmen and builders to deliver projects to our quality specifications.
Currently we have 18 active projects, which is pretty typical. This is about the extent of my ability to multi-task. The projects vary in scale and are usually spread across various design stages, which assists programming the required tasks. Nevertheless, the construction industry is not always controllable and we found ourselves with seven projects due for hand over around Christmas – extremely exciting but suboptimal in terms of office sanity!
+ 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 (i.e. software, online tools, shortcuts, task management, cheat sheets, advisors, anything!)
Work life balance continues to be an elusive goal. I am constantly trying to balance the passion I have for my work and my love for my family and friends. I want to do meaningful work while being an amazing mother and a supportive and loving partner while still finding time for my valued friendships. It is a daily but energizing struggle that mostly brings the best out in me although I possibly overcompensate by spoiling with my children when I am with them. I am aware that this may not be ideal in the long term.
To control my stress levels I rely on lists. I have many! I was recently introduced to ‘XMind’, which is an online task list program. I love filling it in, often with things I have already achieved and crossing them off…not sure this is the purpose but it is cathartic. Despite my endless lists and my natural desire for order, life is more organic than I would like. Motherhood has taught me to be more nimble and more forgiving in this regard.
As an office, we depend on ‘Harvest’ for timesheets and Xero for accounts, essential but not exciting.
To sleep I rely on wide varieties of podcasts to ensure my mind stops thinking about our projects. I regularly fall asleep with headphones in one ear. This is not a habit I would encourage as I am finding it difficult to break.
I am also fortunate to get away regularly to the northeast of Victoria to our weatherboard cottage outside Mansfield. The spatial qualities of the valley, the majestic mountain backdrop and the country air offer a unique clarity which I find difficult to describe yet I know it is essential to the spirit of the whole family.
In terms of finding more time, it helps to have found a partner that loves to cook!
+ Although you are now quite well established, the world of design and architecture is really competitive and it can be difficult to get a break. In retrospect, what do you consider to have been a turning point in your career? Has there been one project, one client, or an important set of skills you’ve developed that has changed the course of your career?
I don’t think there was one turning point; it has been commitment over a long period, a willingness to make and take any opportunities, passion, and dumb luck.
Early in my career I was introduced to a Sydney based client for whom we have now completed several projects. This client has become a great friend and a mentor when I need a business mind to refocus my often-romantic understanding of architectural practice.
Recently the same client sent me an exert from Gaston Bachelard’s influential book written nearly 60 years ago, The Poetics of Space. My client highlighted a section that he felt described the service we provide to him and his family. In the exert Bachelard contended that our minds thrive in spaces that allow us to daydream, and stagnates in spaces that are depressing or oppressive. Bachelard made the case that improving the ‘poetics of space’ not only stimulates us to think differently but to interact and engage with others more purposefully and thereby creates a more uplifting atmosphere. I read “The Poetics of Space” when I was at university and it was a special moment in my education. I’m proud to think that our work has developed to a point where we achieve environments of this kind for our clients.
Stand out projects include Victoria, which was one of our earlier projects and more recently projects like Little Pardon and Elissa demonstrated our versatility.
+ 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?
There are many challenges facing architects and the built environment, from sustainability to the commercial realities of bespoke design. However, the ubiquity of global culture is what is disturbing me currently.
I admit that I am an over-consumer of the internet. Things like Instagram make design so accessible for busy lives. However, with the pervasiveness of communication technology, where everything is one click away, space can too easily be reduced to a visually seductive 2D image. It can quickly lose the specifics of history, narratives of place, the particularities of occupation and the specifics of local culture. Ultimately the experience is unsatisfying and undermines the complexity, inventiveness and imagination of the designer.
Amidst a see of ‘eye candy’ in my inbox each morning, sites like Yellowtrace become so valuable. Yellowtrace provides a more complete picture with curated content, considered editorial and credits for designers and photographers. It also manages to keep a sense of humour and doesn’t become too self-important. It is a joy to read each day.
My personal challenge is to limit interruptions, finding more quiet moments to experience, create and reflect by controlling my addiction to devices, podcasts etc…
‘Long Lane’ in Mansfield. Photography by Sharyn Cairns.
+ 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 – i.e. books, magazines, websites/ blogs etc?
I don’t find it particularly difficult to stay motivated. I am happily competitive and believe a healthy competitive spirit is essential. Alex (my partner) laughs at my silent competition with my mother to create better birthday cakes for my boys than she produced when we were growing up. I am not winning that race but I still have time.
My focus is on staying fresh and original and this requires a wide variety of influences and, for me, some solitude. As family has made international travel more difficult I have had to concentrate on experiences closer to home. Fashion, art, film and books continue to be a large part of my design world but the most valuable experiences remain spatial. When I physically experience space and watch people interact within and around spaces I learn the most about what I do. I am increasingly conscious that I can do this anywhere from a playground to bush picnic.
Teaching at The University of Melbourne provides me contact with the next generation of architects. I find their enthusiasm, optimism and creativity intoxicating and I just love the ambience of campus life. It often has me considering post-grad.
I would like more time to travel, read and attend galleries, theatre and ballet. I know this time will come soon enough, however, currently I can only find short moments of indulgence within the daily routines of life. If I can manage an hour absorbing World of Interiors it’s a well planned day. Its layers of decadent beauty provide an escape while still being remotely related to what we do and love.
‘Long Lane’ in Mansfield, featuring Laminex Aquapanel in White used in the bathroom. Photography by Sharyn Cairns.
The idyllic setting of ‘Long Lane’ project in Mansfield. Photography by Sharyn Cairns.
+ Who or what are some of your influences? What other designers, peers and creatives in general do you admire?
So many and the list continues to grow. Growing up my mother was my creative influence. Mum designed the most insane children’s birthday parties for my brother and I, complete with crape paper costumes, theme-related party games and socialist outcomes for our guests. I remain famous for these events.
At University, I was fortunate to take studios under the guidance of Peter Corrigan and Sean Godsell; very different experiences but both hugely influential moments in my academic life and their teachings continue to infiltrate my thinking each day as I design and review our work.
Working under Chris Connell was truly inspirational. Chris is one of the most talented and naturally gifted designers in the country. Watching Chris draw is like theatre, I could sit and watch Chris fill blank paper for hours. However, the real genius is found in his ability to capture the sensory concept on paper and how the completed projects manage to retain the same energy.
When I first started my practice I shared an office with Nic Graham. Nic’s love of design influenced every aspect of his day. Nic’s keen eye, design rigour and his sense of humor is evident in his approach and his extraordinary work.
I also have an enduring love for Scandinavian, Belgium and Japanese designers, architects and artists. I love the use of light in Scandinavian design, the natural materials and complex colours in Belgium and the simplicity achieved by Japanese designers.
More recently I have focused my attention on other women in the industry to guide my development as an employer and as a designer. If I could rewrite my career I would design my experience to include more female role models for their unique insights and approach to business and design solutions.
‘Delatite’ in Mansfield. Photography by Sharyn Cairns.
+ What advice would you give to emerging designers who want to follow your path? What was one of your biggest lessons learned since starting your practice?
They say that anybody that fully understands the work involved in starting your own business would never do it. The footnote to this truth is that once you are up and running you will never look back. It is a joy and a privilege to run a creative business (even the bits I’m not good at, of which there are plenty) and I am grateful even on the tough days.
I would encourage any emerging designer to develop a strategy that allows them to set aside their natural desire for perfectionism and start producing. Listen to the feedback, self-assess, ask questions, adjust, re-focus and continue. You won’t get everything right every time but you have to be willing to keep learning.
The toughest lesson I have learnt since starting my practice is to say no or pass on things that don’t feel right. We now allow ourselves to be selective when it comes to taking on new projects. We have created strict criteria by which we assess new projects and if the project cannot assist us in steering the office in the right direction we gracefully decline. We do this in the best interests of ourselves and also the interests of the potential clients we decline, as we know we are not the right office for the particular project.
‘Victoria’ in Fitzroy. Photography by Sharyn Cairns.
+ What’s next – can you share with us your vision, some of your goals (and some of your current projects)?
We have several projects close to completion and some magical new projects ready to commence this year. The projects include compact inner-city transformations, contemporary new homes, country estates, hospitality projects and heritage restorations.
We intend to remain focused on bespoke residential architecture, as homes are my passion. However, we are also exploring some larger scale projects within the multi-residential, hospitality and hotel sectors.
We have a genuine desire to be part of the conversation around building better quality housing, especially focusing on smaller footprints. We are interested in clever designs that stand the test of time, improve the urban and rural landscape and enhance the quality of life for the occupants and community.
At home, I intend to commence work on two patchwork quilts constructed from my children’s baby clothes (inspired by artist Sonia Delaunay). In the meantime, William (4 yrs.) and I are making the biggest ever Duplo fire station, just out of Arthur’s (18 months) reach.
I have been known to quote a Russian proverb my best friend shared with me when we were studying, ‘I’m not so rich that I can afford cheap things’. My partner feels this is a convenient way to justify spending excessively, however, I know Lisa knew me better and realized that it reflected my desire for quality over quantity. I apply this philosophy to our work and my wardrobe.
I am also working on accepting some new rules. For a long time, I have been encouraging clients to celebrate the mapping of their lives on their marble bench or hard plaster walls, for example. Now it is my turn to “celebrate” as I try to accept ‘beautiful chaos’, including the indelible stains on the sofa courtesy of the children.
In the studio with Templeton Architecture.
+ Your most treasured belonging?
Time is easily my most treasured belonging. I feel guilty if I don’t use it productively, however, I sometimes mistake ‘productive’ for ‘not enjoyable’. I am working hard to carve out a little more time for enjoyable, meaningful moments, whether they relate to work, family or friends. It is not a skill I am good at.
I’m attached to many physical things too, mostly for nostalgic reasons. The things I love have a narrative attached to them, items that trigger a memory or a story. Sometimes this is because I tend to allow myself important purchase to celebrate moments. I purchased an amazing 20th century, Italian mirror from Geoffrey Hatty (Applied Arts) when I sold my first apartment and a painting when Collingwood won the grand final in 2010. I like beautiful things that are layered with significance. I have a strong memory of standing at the counter of an unnamed retailer contemplating the purchase of a dress I could barely resist when I received a phone call confirming my first commission. I still have the threadbare dress.
+ What’s one thing other people may not know about you?
I am actually terrible at keeping secrets and more inclined to overshare. As a result, people are more likely to know even the dullest details of my world; I suspect my studio (and my family) would prefer I kept more unknown.
+ It’s not very cool, but I really like…
I am horrifically passionate about football (AFL). My team’s success (Collingwood, particularly uncool) or failure has an unreasonable impact on my mood, composure (by that I mean language) and sense of well being. I adore the optimism felt by supporters at the start of each season, the life lessons that sport can teach (all in an afternoon), and the unexplainable joy of merely watching your team succeed while eating ‘yellow food’ in the stands and somehow feeling crucial to their success!
The lovely Emma Templeton herself. Photography by Duncan Jacob.
Sean Chambers, Associate Director at Templeton Architecture. Photography by Duncun Jacob.