INTERVIEW: EMMA MAXWELL, FOUNDER, EMMA MAXWELL DESIGN
Known for her award-winning bar and restaurant designs, Singapore-based Australian designer Emma Maxwell tells Sophie Harper how she cut her teeth on her first project, and discovered a life-long passion for transforming spaces.
Meeting Emma Maxwell for the first time via the magic of Zoom, her in Singapore, me in the UK, was a whole lot of fun and, had it not been 10am on a Tuesday morning, I think we both would have felt quite comfortable with a couple of cocktails to accompany our discussion on interior design. She tells me how she studied sculpture in Melbourne but that after graduating from art school she realised she’d need to find work that gave her a regular income. “I got into advertising because really I like telling stories,” she says. “Creatively I don’t have a firm distinction whether I’m creating a piece of artwork or working in advertising.”
She moved to London where she worked as an art director and made one of the first viral cat videos. “It was for Catsan kitty litter. It was a pinnacle!” She laughs. “But it was actually something really cool to do at the time, it was quite new and innovative.” London felt competitive and pressurised though, so Emma moved back to Australia.
It was having the space and time to think about her career that made Emma realise she didn’t love advertising. “If I don’t love what I do I won’t do it really well,” she says. “I had time to really think about what I wanted to do and being obsessed with interiors, obsessed with furniture, and from having done sculpture, which for me was all about Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi, I realised I’d been obsessed with all of that my whole life.”
It was luck that landed Emma her first design job. One of her contacts from the advertising world owned a recording studio and asked her to do a space for them, which turned into a redesign of the entire building. “It got published in the Australian Design Review and then things slowly took off from there.” Emma found herself taking on a project in Singapore not long afterwards that changed her life. “I was meant to be here for two months, but 13 years later I’m still here!” She describes Singapore as a dynamic and special city. “It’s hyper modern but it’s also got this huge natural element with a bit of a jungle vibe. It’s really cool, a lot of people who move here say it’s like being on holiday the whole time. It’s warm all the time and a pretty effortless place to live – sorry for rubbing it in!” she laughs, knowing all I can see from my window is rain and debris blowing around in the gale-force winds. “The reason I love it here is that there’s so much energy, there’s so much opportunity, there’s so much hunger for design.”
Being based in Singapore doesn’t limit the design practice. The very opposite in fact, as Emma explains she and her team take on projects in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Africa, all over. “It’s an adventure,” she says. “It gets quite addictive, you don’t want the adventure to end because you’re having so much fun!” I have no problem believing Emma when she says this, but I want to know if she finds her work challenging at all, particularly in the beginning. “I was relatively self-taught so it was a huge learning curve but I think that’s benefitted me in many ways. When I started out I didn’t know what an FF&E sheet was, I didn’t know what a full set of drawings was supposed to look like, all I knew was that I had a huge passion and an instinct.” She points out that she does offer great FF&E and drawing packages now, obviously. “It’s a love and endless obsession I’ve got with it. You’re always learning and you’ve never arrived. Design is a journey where all the questions are never answered. It’s a life-long pursuit.”
She speaks frankly about how tough the design industry can be and it’s refreshing to hear how she had to work at her chosen profession until it paid off. “There were a few years when things were a little quieter than I would have liked but you have to stick your heels in and prove yourself, then prove yourself again. Trying to build yourself up from that and build relationships with people took a lot of time. It wasn’t an overnight thing at all, so it’s lucky I love it!”
Talking about style, Emma says she takes each project as it comes and her work really varies but that there are certain things she naturally gravitates towards. “I guess I have a style in so much as liking the juxtaposition of different patterns and different layers and that’s an element that’s starting to come out through my work. I love taking graphic elements and swinging them against lots of looser types of elements.” She tells me how she loves conjuring up new and interesting worlds for people to explore. “I’m really narrative with the way I design things. I guess I’m a visual storyteller. Each new story to me is very different in what needs to be told, and likewise I’d get bored if I kept doing the same thing. I always describe how I design as being like a theatrical narrative structure – so first act, second act, third act… I like to shift people through and give them gentle guidance or pleasant surprises through the space. It’s definitely a release, escapism, but always to feel good. I think resting on your laurels or embracing something that you’ve already done last year or the year before, for me, that’s just boring and I’m not interested in that – I’m interested in discovering new things and telling new stories.”
For creativity to blossom though, inspiration has to come from somewhere, and although Emma practically recoils when I talk to her about trends, she concedes that actually inspiration comes from many places. “I’m inspired by travel – remember those days? But I do travel a lot and I’m passionate about art and I love exploring lots of architecture. When I’m in Italy all I do for 12 hours a day is walk around and look at the beautiful buildings. I saw Siena Cathedral a few years ago and the beautiful 13th/14th century tile patterns – all of those sorts of things build up layers and the language the medieval cathedrals hold in regards to the theatrical rationale, their raison d’être and all of the contrast where they used a lot of graphical elements as well as the sweeping frescoed ceilings,” she gestures with her hands in a sweeping motion above her head as to fully describe the setting, “so it’s a lot of those elements that inspire me.”
I ask Emma what she hopes people will feel when seeing her work for the first time. “That’s one of the primary things I think about when I design,” she says. “When I’m first communicating with a client I say ‘well we need to think about how the guest is going to feel in this space’. It’s such a challenging time at the moment – you might have had a rough day, you might have had a disagreement with your boss, your car might have broken down – so I like the idea of design, especially for hospitality, that as soon as you walk through that door, sweeps your worries away and you can forget about the stresses of the outside world even just for a little while, just to think ‘I feel so much better now, I can sit down and enjoy this negroni I’ve been craving all week’. That’s how I like to design. It’s designing on a very empathetic level.” It’s also one of her favourite things; designing a space from a very human perspective. “The most exciting thing is that first day when a new project finally opens and you can stand back and watch how people move throughout the space – to me that’s just the coolest thing in the world; to see people responding to the space.”
Most recently Emma has completed works on Ginger at PARKROYAL on Beach Road, in Singapore. “The hotel group asked me to renovate the whole ground floor of one of their hotels. Basically a restaurant, a bar and the lobby.” The inspiration for the design, Emma tells me, was the name in the first instance. “Ginger is a native flower in Singapore and they have this beautiful presence, they’re these large upright gorgeous, gorgeous flowers.” With a focus on Singaporean and Peranakan cuisine, which uses a lot of local botanicals, Emma set about creating a Singaporean Eden. “I wanted to create an environment of telling the story about Singapore’s botanicals.” Commissioning textile and wallpaper designer Kerrie Brown to create fabulous wallcoverings for the project, the two Australian visionaries came up with a floral cornucopia to transform the previously oppressive space. “It was really dark, really heavy, and at first I thought, ‘what on Earth am I going to do? How am I going to make this space feel radiant and light?’ I wanted all those touch points that make people feel uplifted when they’re inside.” Emma used natural fibres and a lighter, more natural colour palette of greens and pinks with Peranakan elements included too. “That was really exciting for me having lived here for so long and loved it so much, and it’s part of our everyday lives so it was me being able to tell my Singaporean story – it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time.”
Revelling in the fact that since opening, the restaurant is doing incredibly well and has been embraced by the local community, Emma says, “Apparently it’s really hard to get a booking! It’s great to be talking about how wonderful the design is, but really what’s so great is that we’re enabling a hotel, during a difficult period, to do as well as it possibly can.”
She tells me how lucky she feels to work with the brands and people she does, and when I ask what she has lined up for the year ahead I can tell she’s looking forward to getting stuck into some progressive new projects. “We’re working on ANA InterContinental in Tokyo, which we’re so excited about! It’s a project on the 36th floor that will be a really feminine, luxury focused restaurant and a cigar and whiskey bar, so that’s a really interesting one – it’ll be a secret little bar where you’ll enter via this little 1920s style lift. We’re also working on a Marriott project here in Singapore, which is a Palm Springs concept, it’ll have a 1950s/1960s Mad Men-esque type feel and it’s just so much fun. It’s a really refreshing brief to get and it’s working with a company here called Proof & Co who are bar programming and cocktail designing specialists responsible for quite a few leading bars on the world’s top 50 list, like the Atlas Bar here in Singapore. We’ve also just picked up a Sofitel project in Singapore and that’s a really beautiful historical building so that’s really exciting and again, we’re doing the whole ground floor for that. So we’ve got plenty going on to keep me out of trouble!”