Burnet Institute by Studio Tate, 85 Commercial Road, Melbourne. Photography: Peter Clarke
Burnet Institute by Studio Tate, 85 Commercial Road, Melbourne. Photography: Peter Clarke

MARKET PULSE – SPECIAL REPORT: There’s a mood in workspace interiors that the industrial aesthetic of previous years is out, and nature-inspired comfort is here to stay. At least that’s what we’re hearing from those in the know, talking to interior design studios and suppliers of design materials.

Built’s industrial-leaning head office by fjmt Studio may have scooped a top prize at the 2022 Australian Interior Design Awards (announced Friday) for its 2020 re-envisioning of an abandoned warehouse in Sydney’s inner-city, but this year designers are leaning into natural and soft aesthetics to give office workers the inspiration they need to return to the office. 

Perhaps as a response to the collective trauma of the pandemic, clients and designers alike are looking for a style that emphasises comfort and calm (no stress here!) in rustic and natural interiors that hark back to a biophilic approach. 

As for stripped-back aesthetics, one designer says that the minimalist look is growing in popularity as a response to the supply chain crisis and rising costs – that is affecting more areas than we previously thought. 

The awards held at the gala dinner Friday night at the Sydney Grand Hyatt saw a focus on sustainability across all categories, with the Award for Sustainability vancement taken home by two projects, 17 Union Street from BKK Architects and Clare Cousins Architects, and FJMT Studio’s Built Head Office.

On the sustainability front, it’s almost a given these days that designers are incorporating sustainability into their work in innovative new ways – however, suppliers are saying that achieving top marks in sustainability and ethical supply chains has never been an easy task.

In what will come as no surprise to loyal TFE readers, word on the street is that Australia is lagging behind when it comes to sustainability in interior design. 

Nature-inspired aesthetics

Natural aesthetics are becoming more popular this year – just take a look at the recently completed 1900 square metre $2 million Burnet Institute office refurb by Studio Tate – the colour palette is all-natural, as design director Alex Hopkins referred to  “an earthy palette of natural hues, terracotta, and eucalypt green”. 

Nature-inspired aesthetics at the Burnet Institute by Studio Tate, 85 Commercial Road, Melbourne. Photography: Peter Clarke

Those same warm earthy tones can be seen in the Finesse Shoe Store by Studio Edwards, which scooped an award for retail design, and a commendation for sustainability advancement for the designers’ strong consideration of environmental impact. The design was praised for minimal intervention into the existing building fabric, and for using prefabricated construction elements that are less harmful to the environment. 

Finesse Shoe Store by Studio Edwards, located in central Collingwood, Melbourne. Photography: Peter Bennetts

And another workspace that took home an award for public design, the Monash Robotics Lab by Studio Bright,  incorporates a soft green tone with hanging curtains that are comparable to the curtains chosen by Studio Tate for the Burnet Institute. The design transformed the ground floor of an existing three-storey 1960s campus building, creating a robust working space with large windows framing the established garden outside. 

Take a look at that shade of green you probably won’t be surprised to know also scooped the grand prize at the recent 2022 Dulux Colour Awards. 

“Eschewing the clinical, sterile palette typically associated with science facilities, this lab is warm and inviting thanks to a play of earthy tones, colour pops and calming greens,” the judges said.

Monash Robotics Lab by Studio Bright, at Monash University in Melbourne. Photography: Rory Gardiner

Talking about these natural tone trends to NSW-based manufacturer FX Australia, director Dianne Sanvito says that in 2022 natural colours are the company’s most popular. 

“Previously for the past five years it was an industrial look that mimics concrete and rust. Now, there’s a resurgence in neutral natural colours like pale pinks and peach. Previously it was minimalist, industrial, masculine. Now it’s feminine – softer tones, softer finishes. The best sellers have a more natural look.

“Neutral, earthy tones in Marmorinos and Stuccos in a  smooth mottled finish are in style now. People want to feel more at home and relaxed in their workplace… These speciality finishes are not restricted to big brands and mansions. They’re looking for something unique that will make them feel special.” 

Olea Restaurant in Lindfield used FX Australia Marmorino for the soft pink hues. Image: FX Australia

Natural aesthetics key to comfortable working environment

Alex Hopkins said that the rising popularity of natural-looking aesthetics can be attributed to companies trying to create a non-stressful and welcoming environment in a bid for staff to return to the office. 

And as the AFR wrote recently: “if you think it’s hard to get staff back to a normal office, try managing an epidemiological institute”. Chief operating officer Mark Tennant of Burnet Institute estimates that only about 30 per cent of staff are back in the office so far. 

“We’re finding, certainly at the moment, everyone has been used to working from home, there’s definite feedback from our clients to say ‘we don’t want a typically commercial office, we don’t want clinical, cold and corporate’. So, to achieve a warm and inviting space we use natural colour tones, and reference the natural landscape.” 

Nature-inspired aesthetics grounded in biophilic design principles have been found to reduce stress, improve mood, and boost productivity. Studies have even found that using green pigments in interior design induces a significant reduction in heart rate.

The Burnet Institute’s design was specifically informed by the client’s work in the field – undertaking public health research to address major health issues affecting disadvantaged communities in Australia, and internationally. 

The office itself houses a private collection of photography from teams working in Papua New Guinea, so the design narrative was informed by “thinking about them going into the field into rugged and rural landscapes”. 

Growth in demand for natural products 

It doesn’t just end at aesthetics, as flooring supplier Spectrum Floors noted speaking with The Fifth Estate – demand is up for materials that tick the all-natural and sustainable box. 

“Natural products are becoming more popular,” said national sales manager Lloyd Hack. “Rubber ranges [the company’s most popular material] are durable, cleanable, with various designs and low VOC pigments options. 

“Growth in demand is at, as an estimation, I’d say 14-20 per cent over the past 12-18 months. That’s a significant amount, [demand for natural materials has] been progressively growing. While there’s less demand for other options like PVC that are full of nasty chemicals.”

While when it comes to VOC (volatile organic compounds – carbon-based chemicals that easily emit chemicals into the air at room temperature), for most designers it’s a given to avoid.. 

Ms Sanvito said: “low VOC is the norm – I would assume everyone is doing that. And other materials that minimise the impact of omitting nasty harmful particles, it’s all standard conversation these days”.

Recycling and repurposing

Ms Hopkins believes that sustainability is nowadays being achieved in a more aesthetically pleasing and comfortable way than it was previously, because the materials are more readily available to designers and builders. 

“People want products that incorporate waste – repurposing waste into interesting materials, like recycled furniture and timber.” 

Studio Tate used ethically-sourced natural timber, and recycled fabrics and Kvadrat Maharan recycled carpets for the Burnet Institute. 

The existing built form was retained to avoid knocking down existing walls, and Ms Hopkins said that in a bid to reduce waste (and due to budget constraints) the design studio chose to repurpose and refinish existing furniture in the space, which was “an easy win” for sustainability. 

“Office furniture is often put in landfill, and typically doesn’t get repurchased. So for us, it was an easy and straightforward decision.”

Studio Tate used ethically-sourced natural timber, and recycled fabrics and Kvadrat Maharan recycled carpets for the Burnet Institute. Photography: Peter Clarke

Minimalism as a response to supply chain crunch

Ms Hopkins said that another factor contributing to the boom in upcycling is the current supply chain woes and rising cost of materials – which is affecting the built environment sector in more ways than we first expected. 

“It’s tricky across all sectors,” she said. “In the workplace it’s a business cost, so private organisations might have more of a budget, while socially minded organisations might have a lower budget. 

“Talking to builders, we say we would prefer to see quality and have less stuff, rather than spreading too thin and having poor quality. If we have to choose one less piece of joinery we would rather reconsider and try to remove it to ensure that the rest of the project is of a very high quality.”

The effect, she said, is that designers have to think outside of the box – and choose a more minimalist and stripped-back aesthetic to ensure that the final delivery remains affordable. 

Mr Hack said that he has seen an increase in price of materials by around 12 per cent over the past 12-24 months, while Ms Sanvito said that in the paints market the war in Ukraine has had a big impact on materials and shipping (more to come on this). 

“Businesses are shutting down that produce components for raw materials. Transportation costs, packaging, raw materials, and freight, have increased across the board. Everybody is feeling it. Some materials have seen between 10-30 per cent price increase, and sometimes monthly,”Ms Sanvito said.  

“It’s uncharted territory, we are seeing collaboration and open mindedness,” Ms Hopkins said.

Australia still lagging behind on sustainable materials

Sustainability is a lot more complex than just sticking to natural and recycled materials. Yet while demand for sustainability is only growing, Ms Sanvito told The Fifth Estate that many in the built environment sector don’t understand the complexities of ethical sourcing and supply chains. 

She said that there is a lack of incentive from the government for small businesses to get sustainability certified, and that Australia is behind the bandwagon when it comes to the global sustainability effort. 

“I think people are talking about sustainability a lot but not necessarily buying it [in Australia]. In Singapore they support the philosophy of looking for certified products, but in Australia it is still not front of mind.” 

Spectrum Floors’ Lloyd Hack echoed her sentiments, stating that an increased interest in indoor environment quality in Australia was “following European trends” and standards. 

There’s also the sustainability issue tied to importing. 

“In Australia, many design professionals will specify a foreign product that is imported, when there’s actually many products available here. When you support Australian products manufactured in Australia, that is improving the overall sustainability because you’re not shipping from across the world.” 

In order to maintain its Good Environmental Choice Australia certification, FX Australia needs to meet a “strict criteria” of 42 different levels for “the best materials or product quality, company hierarchy and fairness, and waste”. 

“It’s the overall picture of being sustainable. We started this company many years ago before sustainability became fashionable, but this is our core value. It’s an enormous cost for a small business, and we have to be audited every two years.” 

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