“I would like to be considered as an architect who is very good at what she does, and that I happen to be a woman.”
– Melissa Bright, Director of Studio Bright.
When I ask Melissa Bright, the Director of Studio Bright, to talk to me about why women are critical to the design world, she tells me that she does not give in to society’s tendency to undermine and misconceive the quality of skill and leadership that women bring to any profession. At a time of immense momentum for the empowerment and equality of women prefaced by national breakthroughs like the #MeToo movement and the political dialogue around equal pay, I speak with Mel about the myths surrounding gender, the decisions that drove her most to success, how she manages being both a mother and the Director of her studio and what she considers fundamental to ensure that she employs the best talent in the field.
Born and raised in Melbourne, Victoria, Mel paints a vivid depiction of what it was like to grow up with a father who advocated for equality and illustrated his belief in his treatment of Mel and her brother as equal, with the expectation of nothing less in return. Although the first to stand up and defend equality, Mel has tried to focus her attention on doing her best work. “I l would like to be considered an architect who is very good at what she does, and I happen to be a woman. From that, one of my biggest pieces of advice is do good work and let the work speak for itself, however, I am not interested in people who say women are less good at anything. I have seen fantastic work created by architects of both sexes and equally, less profound work. The conversation about capability is fixated on the wrong elements, it’s about hiring talent.”
With an uneasiness for the historical rationale around childbirth and maternity leave that continues to preclude women from landing positions in competitive professions,Mel tells me that she has always surrounded herself with women who diminish any stereotype of women as weak or incapable. Referencing the Always #LikeaGirl ad by director Lauren Greenfield, Mel states that somewhere along the line society teaches girls to believe that they are weaker – a perspective she refuses to accept. Having launched herself into the construction business at a young age, Mel didn’t allow herself to feel uninvited based on an assumptions about what women are capable of coming from those who try and mitigate women’s equality. Her close friends, Clare Cousins, director of Clare Cousins Architects and incoming National President of Australian Institute of Architects (AIA), and Amy Muir of MUIR architecture and Victorian Chapter President of AIA, both run their own businesses and continue to overachieve in their work. “I think it’s important to nurture, employ and mentor women because biases, unfortunately, continue to exist. There is also something about surrounding yourself with strong, independent thinkers who are determined to get to where they are meant to be, who refuse to be categorised as weak or less capable – I only know those women.”
Mel considers the biological truth that women are the childbearers a factor that should never limit professional success, yet recognises the role of a supportive partner in balancing motherhood and work After having her second child, Mel and her husband swapped and she went back to work. “I was desperate to get back out there, to nurture my business and produce incredible work. Having a supportive partner who understands your work and can communicate what they need is critical. When I look around me, those who are successful have that kind of partner.”
While strikingly ambitious about her work, Mel is equally adamant about being active in her children’s lives. Prior to launching Studio Bright (formerly MAKE Architecture) in 2006, Mel fought to change the perception around limitless work hours and advocated for sustainability. “Having a lot of self belief was necessary because you can be made to feel like you are letting the team down. I fought hard for what I needed to produce my best work.”
“At MAKE, the team put 200% into their work in order to be able to leave work and enjoy life. People get the logic wrong if they think it’s about working less hard and producing less work. In actuality, it’s the opposite. To extract the best out of people, they need to have a good life outside of work. I created a studio that is conducive to that.” Wanting to work with great people, Mel states that perhaps it is selfish of her but she wants to work with and be surrounded by great people. “The best people are attracted to a work environment that is aware of the importance of supporting a good life outside of work. I wanted to build a studio that cultivates good relationships and creativity.”
Located next to Richmond along the Yarra River in Melbourne, Studio Bright is housed in a recently completed barn fit out on a rural-like property in the inner city. With a landscape surrounding, the studio is designed to open up entirely, allowing for fresh air and natural light. A studio of twelve architects, including Mel’s husband, Studio Bright have two organic boxes of fresh produce delivered each week and enjoy making fresh lunches together. “I’m proud of what the studio has manifested into because it represents building a nice life for myself and the people of MAKE – designing a good life.”
With a multi-residential building in Sydney and a church in Melbourne in the works, Mel tells me that, while she is excited to take on bigger projects, the small houses continue to be incredibly unique to create. Having started out with only a few bathroom and kitchen renovations, Studio Bright’s reputation for the design excellence of their houses has landed them in a great position, with some exciting opportunities shaping for the near future.
Thank you Mel for your insights into how you understand the world and industry around you. It has been incredible speaking with you.