Feature Interview

Mark & Damien of DesignOffice

Collingwood, VIC, Australia

Ashley Gladwish

Founding directors Mark Simpson and Damien Mulvihill lead DesignOffice as a studio with equal focus on establishing the strategic foundation of a client’s brand identity and creating enriched environments.

Conducive to their enjoyment of both problem solving and reconceptualising design ideas, Mark and Damien want DesignOffice to be known for its creative skill and perspective independent of both scale and typology of work. Having met while living in London, their friendship grew into a creative partnership with the creation of DesignOffice in Australia.

Now just over 10 years old, the award-winning Collingwood-based studio is well sought after for its pragmatic approach and originality. We speak with Mark and Damien about how they built a strong professional partnership from friendship, the traits they believe foster a great working team, and their recent work with boutique developer Milieu across the Hertford Street, Peel and Congress projects in Melbourne’s inner north.

“We love the problem-solving side of design. Regardless of scale and typology, it’s about an approach.”

– Mark Simpson, DesignOffice.

Congress Wine & Espresso is the first venue designed by DesignOffice for Milieu Hospitality. Photographed by Dave Kulesza.

For Mark and Damien, the design process starts with analysis. Initial diagrams are developed and tested concurrent to the exploration of materials and visual language in order to define a specific design response – the creation of wine and espresso bar Congress being no different. Located on the ground level of the 8-storey Peel building, the challenge was to make Congress the structure’s heart and soul, to utilise its heredity in being developed by Mileu but also make Congress distinct.

“Being able to mix your passion and profession is a rare privilege and one we don’t take for granted.”

– Damien Mulvihill, DesignOffice.

Founding directors Mark Simpson and Damien Mulvihill of DesignOffice. Photographed by Dave Kulesza.

The double-height, dark-stained timber spine and glass wall divides Congress from the adjacent entrance to the Peel residence, defining the space. The acoustic transparency across the structures was intentional to ensure those entering Peel would hear the humming of conversation from Congress, paralleling the tonality of a vibrant yet relaxed family living room. Wanting guests and residents alike to look inwards, Mark and Damien created an immediate, macro view across both spaces. The core palette of dark timber, concrete and stainless steel is shared with another level of richness added to Congress through black punctuation, olive green leather and navy linoleum. Warm light sources soften the stainless steel and focus attention on the choice of materials across the staggered levels of flooring and seating.

With three cafes in close proximity to Congress, Milieu wanted to resonate with evening dwellers for both experience and comfort. A variety of convivial seating types encourage work and play from late afternoon onwards. Aimed at ensuring guests make the most of their purpose for visiting, Mark and Damien manipulated lighting to make some areas more conducive to different changes of pace over others.

"Congress is designed for the enjoyment of food, drink and conversation. The design is centred around the creation of emotionally resonant moments and settings for patrons." - DesignOffice.

Initially appointed to design the 36 interiors of Peel, DesignOffice was commissioned by Milieu for their first urban new-build project, Hertford Street Townhouses, a landmark for their portfolio in terms of inner city development. The longevity and variety of work with Milieu illustrates DesignOffice’s breadth and also their commitment to ongoing relationships with clients, working across projects of varying scale. Understanding and at times re-defining a client’s brand identity, Mark and Damien work to ensure that a client’s desired outcome for a project continues to align with a client’s bigger brand story, especially if it is the first model of many to be rolled out.

Stemming from Damien’s work on Liberty London, Mark’s experience in creating Canteen UK and in their roles at Universal Design Studio and Allies and Morrison, Mark and Damien believe that it is the years they spent working within large architectural firms that allowed them to establish DesignOffice differently. “Our interest in the nuance of space has allowed us to work with both multi-national corporations and small boutique businesses and establish DesignOffice to be comfortable taking on both. The experience of living in other countries, and a shared passion for travel means that we are continually absorbing influences in all aspects of life. There is something about being in different environments that allows you to really think about the spaces we design and why.”

Photographed by Dave Kulesza.

Keeping a purposely small studio of 10 to 12 people, Mark and Damien value the quality of work and culture that is often a by-product of people collaborating and being involved on each project. “We try not to separate architects and designers or create silos of design typologies. Everyone works at one big desk and it’s very much a collaborative, relaxed environment where we can share knowledge and problem solve. We value nimbleness, lack of ego and the willingness of the team to do the very best they can.”

Congress is designed to be quietly aligned to the Peel apartment interiors, also by DesignOffice, yet distinct in its own personality. Photographed by Dave Kulesza.

Mark & Damien of DesignOffice - an award-winning practice with over 30 years of collective experience.

From friendship to building their professional partnership, Mark and Damien tell me that with any partnership you will inevitably spend a lot of time together so it’s important to like each other. With the creative element of their personalities such a core part of their everyday, they consider it a bonus that they can do what they love and spend time together as friends. “We both value the others’ opinion, something you need in the creative process. I think we make each other better designers because of that. We were advised once that good partnerships need an accelerator and a brake but that those roles change depending on the situation – there’s truth to that.”

Congress was designed by DesignOffice as part of the ground floor for Milieu Hospitality’s 8-storey Peel residential building. Photographed by Dave Kulesza.

With very exciting projects in the works, DesignOffice continues to take on challenging projects that illustrate their independence from set typology and scale. In appreciating the value and true essence of the different spaces they encounter in their work and travel Mark and Damien continue to lead DesignOffice as a studio with a strategic understanding of the bigger picture as well as awareness of the importance of subtle details and the emotional resonance of space.

Photographed by Dave Kulesza.

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