Designer Q&A: Hecker Guthrie

Design Anthology spoke at M&O Asia earlier this spring with founders Hamish Guthrie and Paul Hecker of the Melbourne-based interior design firm Hecker Guthrie. Known for their contemporary designs that feature a strong Australian aesthetic and sense of materiality, the duo talk about where this comes from, their unusual design process and also their hopes for Asia.


Design Anthology: You’re one of the only Australian design firms working in Asia. Why and how is that?

Paul Hecker: We were talking about this before and it’s not because there aren’t some good designers in Australia, because there are. There are some very good designers. I think it’s a couple of things, and dare I say one of the major things is cost. We have the highest minimum wage in the world, so the reality is our design is expensive in an Asian market. The proportion of the cost of what we do, whereas it might 10-15% in an Australian market, might amount to 20-25% in Asian markets because our fee doesn’t change but the build costs do. So when they look at the overall cost, they look at it and go, ‘maybe we should look to more local’.



How do you find it working in Asia on the projects you have done?

PH: Ultimately, there is no issue working in Asia. I think it’s the client that make all the difference, but that’s the same whether you’re in Asia or Australia — the jobs you love are those where you have a good rapport with your client and you respect each other. Those are the ones that work, the ones you enjoy and those are the ones where you get the best result.

So in Jakarta, for example with the Ismaya group, they were a brilliant client. We didn’t know them before, but they approached us and we had never met them so had no idea what to expect. We didn’t know whether these guys were a hokey one-man band or whether they’d done work before or whether their aesthetic was going to align with ours. And as soon as we looked them up, we went, ‘Oh christ, these guys have a dozen thriving businesses, a thousand employees — these guys know what they’re talking about'. And they came to us because they had done their research, which is fantastic and which often clients don’t do. Often it’s on a recommendation and you say, ‘Well, what do you like?’ and they’ll say ‘Well, we’re not sure’ and you know it’s been done purely based on a recommendation rather than doing the research.

So the Ismaya group was a terrific client. They were a joy to work with through the process. They were up for the challenge, and we had a good time.

Hamish Guthrie: But I think they probably recognised their own limitations with the potential for doing some of their own jobs locally as well. Again, this is kind of reading between the lines of why they came to us, and I think it is that they had a very good portfolio of very good projects, but they probably saw something was lacking as well.

PH: I think they also weren’t feeling challenged by Indonesian designers. They had done a lot of very good work, but I think they felt like they were directing the process and didn’t have people that had the confidence to be able to challenge them more. And both of the clients we dealt with had been educated in Australia. And I think working in Indonesia they found that people would just go ‘yes’ and nod their head, and they wanted someone to challenge their ideas and the ways they wanted to approach it.

HG: And chase an aesthetic. This is the theme for the restaurant or the aesthetic of the restaurant and how do we execute it, rather than going on what we would say is a design journey not necessarily knowing where the outcome is at the end of the day, but actually engaging in a process of design. So fleshing out ideas, challenging the client in terms of the brief, and moving through a not necessarily linear process, but more of a natural design process.

I like to think we do bring something else different to the project. And I think there was the challenge of working in Asia with the sort of ‘faster-cheaper’ mentality — things can always be done cheaper and anything you present to them, there’s always a cheaper version of it.

PH: But they were very good. There were certain things that they said: ‘We’re not going to copy. We’re going to go straight to the supplier.’ Again, it’s a big ask in Indonesia because what is expensive in Australia, seems extremely expensive in Indonesia, but we also embraced the idea of making the most of the Indonesian manufacturing world and did a bit of research into its skills. How do we make the most of it? So the things that we really embraced were the steel work, the stone and things like making tiles because they were the bits that they do very well.

HG: Yeah, we really tried to play to the strengths of the region and doing things that you simply can’t do at home.

PH: That’s right. There were things that we were able to do that, unless it’s a casino, we never could have done for a private client. The amount of stone for a hundred-seat restaurant — that just couldn’t happen in Australia.

HG: And those are the things that kind of get you excited working in this region as well — that there is the option to do these things that you can’t do at home. So we haven’t gone out of our way to chase work in this area, but where people have made the effort to come and approach us and seek us out, we’re more than happy to engage in the conversation and hopefully in the project as well.



Is your creative process from project to project quite similar?

PH: Well we are very process-driven. So, all our presentations look identical in the way they are laid out. We have a process of what we call the 'big ideas'. We start the process with the 'big ideas' because what we’re trying to do is get everyone — the other designers working on the project and the client — we want to get them all on the same page as quickly as possible and we do that by giving everyone the same vocabulary. So rather than presenting a whole series of images and pictures and have a client go, ‘Hm, I think I like it’ you want to give them the ability to say, ‘I love all of those ideas, but I didn’t love that idea and I didn’t love that idea.’ So we’ve developed a process that tries to get everyone on the same page, to gives them the ability to comment, and to have the words and ideas to react to the design — to have a position. Otherwise a client will walk away going, ‘I’m not sure — I’m don’t know whether I liked it or not’. And then they just become more worried because they can’t articulate why, whereas we’re trying to empower the client and the designers in the office.

And when we’re working through the process and another designer comes up with an idea, then we say, ‘Well how does that respond to the big ideas’ and it creates a new big idea, because you say, ‘Wow- that is really good! That will work brilliantly in this scheme, so we will make it work.’ Or you look at it and go, ‘This doesn’t sit within this vocabulary of big ideas’.

So our process is always the same, whether we’re doing a hotel, a residence, or retail or whatever

HG: And the ideas that underpin our projects are very consistent across every project as well. We don’t necessarily know what the final design outcome will look like at the end of the day. People don’t necessarily come to us for the aesthetic, they come to us for the design process and unique outcome at the end of the day.

PH: About six to seven years ago we thought we needed to try to formalise what we do and a lot of processes so that we can get people on the same page. So out of this seminar at the time, we came up with an acronym that is ACE. And it stood for Authenticity, Considered, Enthusiasm. And they’re the three things that need to be embodied in every job that we do.

So with authenticity, it immediately talks to the materiality and those sorts of things: pure forms. And as soon as you veer away from those things you’ve got to have a bloody good reason for it. It’s not that you can’t break the rules, but you want to know what the rules are that you’re breaking.



Let's talk about the interior design industry in Australia for a moment because it seems to have come a long way in just the last ten years or so.

PH: It’s true. And we’ve ridden that wave.

BR: I guess when we were just starting out our careers, it was predominately the big offices that were doing the design. And there were usually the interior design departments in those big offices, which were doing what we would deem 'traditional interior design'. I guess at the time that we set up the business, it was during a period of diversification in the industry. There were many more breakaway people doing start up companies in design. People I guess breaking that mould.

PH: And now it’s a tsunami — which is fabulous! Have you been to Melbourne lately? It is — it’s going nuts! And I think fundamentally it’s a good thing.

HG: In general, what’s happening in interior design is happening on a number of fronts within the larger creative and manufacturing industries with craft and bespoke product. And there’s a market for it as well, obviously.



Was it driven by demand or is there an alternative explanation for this recent maturation of the Australian design aesthetic?

HG: I think it was that drive to find that point of view. I think it really was that response by the market.

PH: I think it was born out of a need to prove ourselves — to the world, generally. The fact that we are great travelers as a nation, I think the fact that we are able to look at the world with a certain perspective that we’re not part of Asia proper, we’re not part of Europe, we’re not part of America, we’re not part of South America — just the fact that we are this singular island nation that is reasonably homogeneous but quite distant from everything else, and that we are the world’s best cherry-pickers. There came a point where we didn’t feel comfortable with the way we were portrayed to the world — we are not crocodile Dundee, you know. I think we felt there was something to prove.

HG: You talk to a lot of people who come from a European background and it’s very … people feel like they’re in this world that they can’t necessarily break into or out of and there aren’t these opportunities that there are for Australians.

PH: And we are this new frontier. This brave world of —and again not wanting to sound like the frontier town — but the truth is there is an element of that. For good or bad, I think most people think they can give it a go and give it a shot.

HG: But I think the way we started  was having respect for each other as designer and by aligning ourselves in an environment where we can feed off each other and inspire each other and collectively raise the bar. And again, we weren’t getting big commissions, but we were making the most of all those opportunities. How do we make the most of every project andpush ourselves? These are still ideas that drive us today.

PH: And we are aware that there are like 50,000 people behind us waiting to come to the fore.

HG:  I think we worry less about that now than we did when we were starting out because you have a clearer sense of who you are and your aesthetic and how you approach a project and it’s become less relevant what other people are doing — you can’t offer the same thing to a client. You know, what we offer to a client is going to be completely different to another designer in the market, so we’re not going to try and necessarily compete.

PH: You do just have to stay true to your own course.

HG: And respect people’s decisions to go elsewhere because we’re not offering the same thing.



Well it’s interesting to see how much your design scene has developed in just the last decade and to now see those waves of influence being felt in North America and Europe — people are looking to Australia as a design bastion.

HG: There is that continual rise of the Asian design scene, as well. They’re getting more respect in their own countries as well as clients who would have otherwise searched for a designer in Australia, Europe, America or otherwise are now seeing they can source those same solutions internally, in their own economies. I mean if you look to China now, we’re seeing more really good designers coming out of there and Japan obviously has a really strong pedigree of design running through their history and culture for a very long time. But the strength of a designer, whether it be in Australia, Japan or China is those designers who are really responding to the local cultural sensitives, giving their design a strong sense of origin and a strong sense of context.

PH: And I think that is really what we’re rallying against. There is this sort of homogenisation of design and you get to a point that you can’t even recognise where things are from. And to be honest I say we’re lucky because we’re from Australia and we’re allowed to cherry pick, but when you’re from China, for god’s sake don’t cherry pick- embrace your own culture. You have enough good stuff there!

HG: And that’s where it gets hard to describe the Australia aesthetic because our influence is so broad. I mean, we are sort of looking at not only the Asian inspiration, but we’re looking at Scandinavian and Anglo-inspiration from our experience of growing up in Anglo households.

PH: I would say my experience is much more English than it is Australian even. My mother’s from England so my sensibility probably is too.

It maybe not be an aesthetic, necessarily, but those sort of Anglo-domestic references that we tend to go back to which are very familiar at the end of the day. And they are things we’re also looking for in other cultural landscapes that might inform us as well.

And what you were saying earlier about being a 'traveler nation', and so much of Australia does participate in the diaspora at a certain age, but then they do come back, having been exposed to all sorts of sensitives for space and design.

PH: Yes, yes indeed.