Interview with Sally Caroline

We sit down with director of namesake studio Sally Caroline to talk through her laser-sharp focus on bespoke residential design, design influences and what’s integral to the designer’s own home.

Interior designer Sally Caroline recalls an interest in the idea of home that can be traced back to a school project at age 13. Fully recognising this interest as a career path at age 21, Sally Caroline’s passion for creating home hasn’t wavered in the 12 years since. 

Before she had even graduated, Sally Caroline’s resume included an exclusive exchange program in Copenhagen, followed by an internship at Phillippe Starke’s London-based Development Company Yoo Limited. Entering the industry, the designer concentrated on boutique design, cutting her teeth with David Hicks and Kerry Phelan (KPDO). Taking the leap of opening her own studio, Sally Caroline has created a bespoke design studio with an impressive portfolio, dedicated to luxury residential design and based around the rituals of those that live there.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Sally Caroline in the midst of her hugely busy schedule to discuss how her career began, the challenges of residential design and designing intuitive interiors. Sally Caroline also shares how her tight-knit team work cohesively and exciting new ventures on the horizon, including a new product range.

Sally Caroline | interview with Designer Sally Caroline

Sally Caroline

Why did you choose interior design as a career path? 

Sally Caroline: I remember doing a project in year seven. I was given the task to redesign a house and to do a floor plan and really enjoyed this idea of creating a home. This skill was obviously already within me, but I hadn’t really discovered it until I was 21.

When I graduated from high school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was definitely very lost, I wasn’t someone that knew what they wanted to do to straight away. So I just travelled; I lived in Sydney for a little bit and then overseas. It wasn’t until I was 21 and after living abroad that I decided interior design was absolutely what I wanted to do and I was really passionate about it. So I moved back to Melbourne and started my degree.

Ever since I had that moment at 21 I have had an unwavering obsession with design, construction and creating things. In a way I think it was so nice before I had a passion, because I could go on a holiday and really relax. But now I go on a holiday and I listen to podcasts and iBooks and there’s no stopping for me now – it’s been 12 years of being pretty intense.

“Of course, we’re creative and we need projects where we can be creative and push boundaries. We prefer to take on less projects where we can have creative license, explore ideas and really have fun with the clients.”

– Sally Caroline

How did you enter the industry?

Sally Caroline: I started my degree and then while I was studying, I worked as a property stylist. I also did part of my degree in Copenhagen, which was a huge influence on my direction; it was an amazing learning experience. 

It was really tough but I’m so glad I did it. The school took in just 15 students from around the world. I didn’t get in the first time I applied – it was definitely a huge achievement to be accepted. I lived for six months over there. While I was overseas, I also interned with Yoo Limited, which is Philippe Starck’s Development Company based in London. So I set this design foundation for myself before I had even graduated. Once I graduated, I worked for David Hicks and then Kerry Phelan (KPDO). I was very intentional about where I worked because I knew I wanted to be doing boutique interiors. 

I always knew from the outset I wanted to be in a boutique environment. So that’s how I cut my teeth, in small firms of three to five staff. But I’ve definitely always loved business. In university I did entrepreneurship as an elective and my dad is an entrepreneur, so I guess I already always had that drive.

Why did you decide to start your own studio and focus entirely on residential design?

Sally Caroline: I left Kerry Phelan in 2014 and started my own firm. I’d been in the industry and had quite a bit of experience in different types of work including retail, residential development, luxury residential and hospitality. By this point I knew that I was really passionate about the idea of home and creating homes for people. I wanted to be laser sharp at what I felt I best at – residential.

I know that I’m not the best at retail or cafes and I will happily refer that kind of work. What I’ve learned is just to stay in my lane and stay with what I’m really passionate about. As a studio, we’re really honing in on luxury residential, where we design based around rituals. That’s an idea we’ve really delved into. The more the focus has been on residential, the deeper I’ve found that there is to go in terms of really perfecting and understanding the idiosyncrasies of the way people live.

Anyone can put together a house but I think the real skill in residential design is fully understanding how people live; how they dream to live, where they can store things so they’re easy to use and in order, where everything is in its place. Creating a home that’s really intuitive – that’s the skill of residential design.

What do you find most challenging and rewarding about residential design?

Sally Caroline: One of the most challenging aspects of residential design is that it’s such an important investment and it’s incredibly emotionally charged. It’s kind of like being a wedding planner. There’s so much pressure to get it right because people have probably spent all of their working life to take the leap of creating their dream home.

That’s definitely something that we’re mindful of, but also, that’s the challenge that makes us better at what we do because we have been conditioned in that way and we know that there’s so much expectation around it. It’s about getting the right outcome that’s perfect for the client.

What’s something unique and fundamental to your practice? 

Sally Caroline: We really are specialists in luxury residential. So we don’t just take on anything and everything. We invest all of our time on luxury residential and getting that right. We see ourselves as very much a bespoke player, similar to how the fashion houses of the forties would interact with clients in such a detailed, millimetre-perfect environment. A completely tailored approach.

That’s what we see as our key point of difference. Peeling things back and just really focusing on our clients. That allows us to respond to these really bespoke homes that aren’t for everyone – they’re specifically for our people.

How do you all stay aligned in your studio?

Sally Caroline:  Communication rhythms are really important. I think this is where my entrepreneurial and business training has all come into place because we are a creative office and we do everything we can to nurture creativity, but we have really strong structures in place. We see it very much like a well-oiled machine. The more our communication and our systems are strong, the more creative we can be within that framework. So by this I mean having structured team meetings on Monday mornings, and then a team huddle every other morning.

The harder we work, the more we put into outings and play dates. So if we’re really bunkering down to get things out we’ll schedule in an outing, go and visit a workshop, or some of fabric or furniture suppliers. We make sure we’re really nurturing our creativity and getting out and about, because it can be quite mundane when you’re just sitting in the office. That helps to keep everyone aligned.

We have an annual retreat together every year. At the beginning of the year we have two days out of the business where we just connect as a team and do some yoga and wellness activities. We also discuss what we achieved in the last year and give each other a pat on the back. Then we’ll lay out what we want to achieve for the following year. We then stick these goals up on the wall for the year. 

An example of this is we discussed we wanted to move into product because we design custom items that don’t always get built. We wanted to put a couple of things into production. So that’s what we’re working on with the idea that we’ll launch in probably October of this year. It’s a way of all the various team members being involved in shaping the company, growing the company and taking it in a direction. It’s definitely a level structure, where everyone’s involved and aligned. 

What is a common client misconception?

Sally Caroline: Time. Sometimes we get inquiries where people say ‘we’re about to start on site, we thought we’d bring you on board’ – but we should have been speaking two months ago. 

I think there can also be a misconception around how much time and work goes into designing and documenting. There’s so much detail and thought that goes into every decision, for a fully-considered design. That’s why we intensely go into what are you doing every morning? What are you doing every evening? What are you doing with the kids? What are you doing when you’re having parties? How do you use the kitchen? If we understand all of those rituals we’ve returned a space that is completely bespoke to them.

Your Flinders Farm and Sorrento House project both enjoy a prime location. How do you ensure you’re always relaying the significance of the site in your designs?

Sally Caroline: When we start a project, there’s always that consideration of its location, its orientation and what’s happening externally. Then we move inside from there. It’s everything from outlook, to colours, which is often why we go for more natural, earthy tones. So that calmness from the outside roles in. I think the beach house is more light and vibrant, which suits Sorrento.

What’s integral to your own home?

Sally Caroline: I’m a real function geek. One of the questions we ask clients is what does luxury mean to you? Because luxury means something different to everyone. My idea of luxury is function and that’s what I instil in all of my projects and definitely my own home. It’s really about what is going where, to improve the quality of life. I love the idea of different systems that we can use to make our everyday rituals quicker, easier and more pleasant. I think intuitive elements in a home are the most important.

You’ve mentioned a product range for the end of this year, what else do we have to look forward to from Sally Caroline in the next year?

Sally Caroline: We’ve got a really special project that we’ve been working on since 2016 which will be finished and photographed in September. We’re also moving office and hiring a studio manager – we’re growing quite intensely. We’ve also got some smaller, exciting projects going ahead. In terms of location, our projects are mostly in and around Melbourne, with some in Sydney and on the Gold Coast. 

Design Insider’s Guide:

Favourite Local Designers? 

Sally Caroline: Den Holm and TCYK.

Favourite Design Stores? 

Sally Caroline: Halcyon Lake, Space Furniture, 1st Dibs and Once Milano

Galleries and Spaces? 

Sally Caroline: Jonny Niesche (artist), Sophie Gannon and Scott Livesey.

Where do you go to look at great design?

Sally Caroline: I purposely narrow my focus when looking for inspiration. I stay away from Pinterest and other Australian designer’s work – I don’t want to be influenced by other local work. Instead I look outside interior design and outside of Australia.

Having a fabulous library is so important, with design books, past and present. Books in our library span industrial design, furniture design, architecture and interiors, as well as curiosities like “A Dictionary of Colour Combinations” and “Kinfolk Entrepreneur: Ideas for Meaningful Work”.

Travel; this would have to be the most influential and inspiring. Small details on the streets of cities far away, or seeing how people live on the other side of the world and bringing that back to Australia. I always feel completely energised after a sourcing trip, or even a holiday for that matter.

Design events such as the Milan Furniture Fair are where I go to look at great design. I visited Milan last year, and this year I’m heading to Design Miami. Whoop!

Film; I love taking in the sets of iconic films, it is truly is an art form this one!

est living sally caroline designer interview 14

Olive Haven

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