AUGUST 14, 2019

Interior designer Karen Batchelor and architect Phil Burns talk about the design philosophies that underpin this successful Melbourne design studio.

A building’s interior should not be considered in isolation of its architectural shell. This is the philosophy of Melbourne-based practice Matt Gibson Architecture + Design, whose architects and interior designers work in partnership on each project to ensure a single design thread is woven inside and out. “There’s always an integral connection between the interior and exterior,” says Karen Batchelor, the studio’s head of interior design. “We don’t think of them as two separate things.”

Exploring opposites: inside and out, old and new, light and dark.

This has been the studio’s approach from day one. Matt Gibson opened his practice in 2003 after working as an architect with renowned interior designer David Collins in London and the experience continues to influence his studio’s designs today. “Interior materials, such as a concrete or timber flooring, may extend from the living room to outdoor decking to create a sense of continuity of spaces,” says Batchelor. “Or we may bring the outdoors inside through internal courtyards or lightwells. We like to explore how we can connect the architecture and the interior as one.”

Employing around 10 architects and designers, the practice is also highly regarded for its ability to create connections between old and new. “We love dichotomies in design,” says Phil Burns, an architect and longstanding member of the team. “We’re interested in the relationship between opposites – old and new, inside and out, light and dark – and where the opposites meet.”

Modern insertions into heritage buildings.

This interest was recently explored in the studio’s transformation of a majestic Victorian terrace in North Melbourne. The brief was to create a contemporary home for a family of five that celebrated the building’s heritage while also solving some of its inherent challenges, particularly a lack of natural light and connection to the outdoors. The studio’s response was to restore the Victorian grandeur of the front section of the home and create a light-filled, timber-lined pavilion at the rear. A double-height void over the dining area at the back brings additional light and ventilation to the space. Materials, such as exposed red bricks reused from the original building, create a strong connection to the past.

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Victorian terrace in North Melbourne by Matt GibsonArchitecture + Design | Photographer: Derek Swalwell

“The rear external wall features the same brick to create a link between inside and out,” says Batchelor. “The original materials, such as bluestone, red brick and white marble fireplaces also influenced the overall interior palette. We chose blackbutt as it has a complementary tone, and this led to similar tones in the furniture. Curved forms in the rear of the house also reference some of the ornamental Victorian elements at the front.”

Melding indoor and outdoor spaces can also solve design challenges, says Burns. He cites the studio’s Hiro-En House in Kew, another Victorian house which was recently renovated for a family of five. “Part of the brief was to create a connection between the rear living area and the outdoors, but it faced the harsh western sun,” Burns explains. “We turned this issue into the driving force of the design.” Their solution was to adapt a traditional Japanese concept called hiro-en, where a deep verandah is added to a room to create a transitional space between inside and out. To reduce the glare, the western side of the living area is wrapped in a stainless steel mesh curtain. “The curtain is translucent by day and opaque at night,” says Burn. “When the glass doors are open, it billows in the breeze and looks quite dramatic.”

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Hiro-En House Kew by Matt Gibson Architecture + Design | Photographer: Shannon McGrath
Mixed Use House: a new take on the Australian family home

Renovations of heritage homes form the majority of the studio’s work, however it applies the same design ethos to new builds. The Mixed Use House in St Kilda is a recent example. Located on a narrow block between two apartment buildings, the home faces a row of Edwardian houses and commercial spaces. “It’s located in a mixed-use zone on a mixed-use street and it also needed to be a mixed-use house to accommodate the needs of the client’s grown-up kids, who won’t be moving out any time soon due to Melbourne’s house prices,” says Batchelor.

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The Mixed Use House in St Kilda by Matt Gibson Architecture+ Design | Photographer: Shannon McGrath

The facade is broken up as a series of boxes stacked over five levels. On the inside, the boxes act as individual living “pods” that cater to multi-generational living. “There’s a balance between living together and not living together, or not living on top of each other,” says Batchelor. It’s another dichotomy that drives a creative response from Matt Gibson Architecture and Design. “Our aim is to enhance the lives and future memories of a building’s inhabitants,” says Burns. “Contrast is inevitable in design and is one of the strongest tools that we have.”

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The Mixed Use House in St Kilda by Matt Gibson Architecture+ Design | Photographer: Shannon McGrath

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