In this conversation with Alexandra Donohue Church, we explore the interplay between interior design and art, uncovering how the two are linked through a shared understanding of colour, space, and form.
Alexandra reveals how her art collection holds special personal memories, such as a Guy Maestri painting that is evocative of her engagement or Petrina Hicks and Jacqui Stockdale’s narrations of experiences as a young woman. She also notes the relationship between functional design and art — the reptilian scales and melted forms of Eric Schmitt or the crackled ceramics of Jos Devriendt’s toadstool-like lamps. “Handcrafted in small volumes, these functional art pieces inherently record the hand of their maker – for me, evoking nothing short of a visceral reaction,” Alexandra says.
As the Decus founder and managing director, what have you learned about the relationship between art and interiors in your practice and personal life?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: What I’ve learned about the relationship between art and interiors stems from early childhood experiences right through to my practice today. I’ve always had a long-standing interest in art which continues to evolve, but my first private residential clients allowed me to build upon this passion. They introduced me to several abstract artists and galleries, with whom I’ve since developed incredible working relationships. I think of a piece of art as a great conversationalist with other artworks and its surroundings. Art is also the conduit between furniture and the built environment.
We frequently work with clients who share our curiosity about and passion for art – some with established collections and others wanting our advice to curate, acquire, and place each piece. It’s an area of our practice that has flourished.
What role did art play in your interest in interior design, studies and early projects?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: I was born and raised in Hunters Hill, Sydney and my obsession with interiors started young. As a child, I used to rearrange my room on a fortnightly basis and loved going to antique stores with my mum. My aunt and uncle operated a restaurant in the sculpture garden of the NGA, and for years I spent many school holidays making a nuisance of myself in and around the gallery with my cousins. Upon reflection, this pivotal moment opened my eyes to the world of art and creative expression.
We then moved to Seattle as a family, where I had the opportunity to travel even further afield, across North America and to Europe and Canada. I recall the furniture catalogues we used to receive in the US mail. Realising that I could change my environment through creativity excited me, especially to reflect my identity.
When I started Decus, I intentionally prioritised our philosophy of personalisation over establishing a signature design style. We’re not defined by a singular aesthetic. Instead, clients are drawn to our approach of layering and detail. I believe for interiors to be meaningful and of real value, they must be imbued with meaning for their owners. At Decus, we help clients distil a clear brief, striving to sculpt a narrative that reflects them as people. From there, we work collaboratively to design spaces that truly respond to and reflect their lifestyles, interests, aspirations, and personalities.
You mentioned, “We consider furniture as a form of artistic sculpture and love the work of Eric Schmitt, Pierre Yovanovitch, Carlo Hauner, Martin Eisler, Joaquim Tenreiro, Sergio Rodrigues, Pierre Paulin […] We strongly believe in creating custom pieces for our clients, delivering interiors that are unique to their needs.” Could you please talk about the intertwined nature of art and design?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: Humans are driven by our senses, and in design, that’s often visual or tactile. As designers, we want to provoke a response from those who enter and experience our environments, whether that means creating a sense of belonging, of comfort, or an environment that encourages calm.
This endeavour isn’t dissimilar to artists who seek to provoke a reaction, incite a feeling, or trigger an emotion. We adopt different mediums to achieve that goal, and the joy is when these two aspirations overlap at the edges.
What are some of your favourite examples of design as art?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: A beautiful interior synthesises and converses art and design, elevating experience, and often transforming a functional space into an experiential opportunity. In our work, we prioritise the touchpoints of an interior – for example, the surfaces and fittings that one comes into regular contact with. Colour temperature, lighting levels, and the general balance of tones and textures are all critical for visual comfort. We emphasise ergonomics to ensure spaces are comfortable, practical, and user-friendly. This, paired with the curation of objects, art, and sculptural pieces, gives a home a sense of personality and individuality.
To me, ‘functional art’ expresses the discipline’s artistry, passion, care, and craft, combined with intrinsic function. This intersection of art and design excites me – and I worship many makers who transform artisanal skills in metalwork, jewellery, ceramics, furniture, and industrial design into poetic expression.
Do you have favourite artists or object/ furniture designers you are drawn to for your projects? If so, what makes them suitable?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: I don’t have a go-to for any one project. But I’ve collated a selection of my current ‘functional art’ favourites: The eclectic work of Eric Schmitt, featuring reptilian scales and robust, melted forms, never ceases to inspire me, while the intriguing, crackled ceramics of Jos Devriendt’s toadstool-like lamps are a playful addition to any space. Then there’s the Scottato cabinet by Osanna Visconti, which explores the lost art of wax casting in bronze. Handcrafted in small volumes, these functional art pieces inherently record the hand of their maker – for me, evoking nothing short of a visceral reaction.
In your opinion, how can art offer something outside of the home or interiors?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: The direct impact art can have on our state of being is fascinating. Light, tactility, colour, and temperature – all of it has an undeniable effect on psychological and physiological wellbeing. It makes you feel something whether that be positive, or in some instances, challenging.
Spaces layered with objects and art, intriguing and personalised, are an ultimate refuge – the feathering of the nest in an increasingly busy, intense, and evolving world. It’s also about having a place to regulate yourself, a place to feel safe, and a place to breathe. I love how art and design can offer those moments of reflection and introspection.
I’d love to hear more about your art collection. Have any pieces changed the way you view the world and how we inhabit spaces?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: My passion for collecting art started from an early age, and it’s a joy I share with my husband, Jeremy Church. Together, we have acquired several pieces across many mediums over the years. One piece we were fortunate to receive as a wedding gift was a painting by George Tjungurrayi, “Untitled 2015”. We chose this artwork instead of a conventional wedding registry with our wedding guests contributing to this work. This will always hold a special place in our hearts. Another, which sits proudly within our home, is an oil painting by Guy Maestri, titled ‘Last Light Over Belmore Falls’ 2013. This was the first artwork we acquired as a couple; my husband Jeremy proposed as the sun set (last light) at Belmore Falls in 2014 from the location Guy painted this piece.
Currently, in our studio, there are two photographs, one by Petrina Hicks, titled ‘Zara 2’ 2005 and the other piece by Jacqui Stockdale, titled ‘Girl in Darkness’ 2007. Both works resonate deeply – allowing me to reflect on how I felt coming up as a young woman, both in life and business. I love how Petrina Hicks’s work steps away from portraiture in a traditional sense and creates a dreamlike state of mind, and Jacqui Stockdale’s work can be quite polarising, and often provokes strong reactions from visitors to the studio. Our collection may be small, but it is mighty and will always be dynamic as each addition changes the dialogue between the other works, which is one of the many joys of art.
“The direct impact art can have of our state of being is fascinating. Light, tactility, colour, temperature – all of it has an undeniable effect on psychological and physiological wellbeing. It makes you feel something, whether that be positive, or in some instances, challenging.”
In your experience, does Australia have a different relationship with design and art than elsewhere?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: I strongly believe one’s relationship with art or design is characterised by exposure, awareness, and perception. As it’s an individual experience, it’s difficult to generalise Australia’s relationship when compared to the rest of the world.
Finally, how do you see the future of interior design and art evolving in Australia? Do you think covid has impacted the two disciplines?
Alexandra Donohoe Church: I think Australian designers see themselves as young and somewhat uninhibited by tradition. While we don’t have a long legacy of artisan skills passed down through generations, innovation and technology set us apart, and we’re picking up pace. Australian design is already visible on the world stage, and I anticipate we’ll continue to thrive.
The pandemic has had an impact on the industry. In addition to the current building boom, freight backlogs and raw material delays, as individuals, we’re considering our homes more thoughtfully, having spent far more time at home. Climate change has a far more significant bearing on how we design, pushing us to consider purpose, consumption, use, recyclability, and waste at every supply level.