David Flack has always been surrounded by things getting built. The child of a construction business family, he grew up seeing that buildings, and the spaces inside them, don’t just exist, but are born of parallel stimuli, a variety of materials and human ingenuity. As he got older and came to look at the world from a design perspective, he formed an understanding of structures and interiors as both straightforward places of shelter and nuanced social environments.
This is manifest in his distinctive design practice, wielded through Flack Studio, which he started in Melbourne in 2014 and runs with his partner in life and business, Mark Robinson. The pair bring a lot of themselves to the studio, which Flack says has aided their success. They stand out in the marketplace, he believes, not just for their design work but for the values and personality they espouse. “Both of us have these vulnerabilities and a rawness that we don’t want to hide, and we don’t feel the need to hide,” he says. That approach has seen a swift rise to recognition, with the studio enjoying a number of high-profile residential and commercial interiors projects including, recently, Sydney’s brand new Ace Hotel and the lofty Melbourne home of singer-songwriter Troye Sivan—the latter earning the studio its debut entry to Architectural Digest’s AD100 2022 for interior design.
But for Flack and Robinson, the big joy in their success is freedom to use it responsibly. Their respective stories—Flack’s of growing up as a queer kid in Bendigo, and Robinson’s of growing up in poverty, largely homeless—have certainly shaped how they use their business platform to engage beyond the often exclusive rooms they create. The studio runs popular “open days”, inviting the community to visit, relax and enjoy their extensive book collection. “It’s so nice, people come here who don’t even know each other, and then they’re sitting there talking about a book,” Flack says. “It becomes this lovely collective.” That engagement has spawned more direct impact initiatives: when, in 2021, they put the call out for book donations for Cubbies—a local community hub and adventure playground for families living in social housing— they received thousands, in time for Christmas.
These localised efforts have generated a larger interest in actively re-shaping who does and doesn’t have access to the design world on a larger scale—embodied in their plans for the new Rhonda Alexander Mentorship program for young people who face barriers to opportunity. The program has been rescheduled multiple times due to COVID, but represents Flack Studio’s future-thinking, which, Flack says, we can only expect to see more of.
You ditched plans to move to London to start your studio. Were you experiencing a strong urge to do your own thing at that point?
Not at all. To be honest, it kind of happened accidentally. At the time I’d only had about four years’ experience, which is really not a lot. I had no aspiration of setting up a studio; my intention was to move to Europe to work for an international studio. But I started receiving calls before I was set to move and before I knew it, I had cancelled my plans and had a studio. I was working on little things for friends, and I kind of fell more in love with design, as my confidence grew in operating as my own beast. When we did make the decision to set up, I knew it would be a studio that represented me and my values and became something different.
Your practice is highly research-based; both aesthetic and material research, but also research into the person you’re working with. How do you go about gathering this information and distilling it into the design process?
A Flack client is always pretty well researched themselves, with both residential and commercial, both of which we tend to approach in the same way. Clients often only want to work with us, and if they’re shopping, we’re probably not the best fit, as our approach is client-based and we won’t compete against another studio. When we meet, it’s as much us interviewing them as it is them interviewing us. When you land into that relationship, you want it to be right.
Especially with residential, I always have a bit of a sixth sense with the space and the person.
Quite often clients feel like they need to provide all the answers, which we’re never interested in; we want problems. It’s up to us to prepare the brief and solutions. If you’re coming to us, of course we’re going to deliver you something in which design and function are paramount. But I want to get to the cream: your personality. We are not interested in Pinterest boards; if you’re engaging us, why wouldn’t you be ready for our IP, our brain, to start interpreting your home?
But conversely, when it comes to research on the space, the house will tell you what to do. The era of architecture will be in relationship with what was happening parallel to that time. We always find little crossovers through research and an idea is born from there. Still, the reason I love residential, and good commercial, is because you develop such beautiful relationships with the clients. That journey is so intimate, and there’s nothing better than when you key-turn a house at the end. There’s a lot of trust required in that process.
There’s also often a sense of play expressed in your work, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle. The Caravan work comes to mind; the Memphis Milano lamp with the lamington display. So classic.
How cute was that? That was a turning point in the studio too. It was 2016, we were only two years old, so to get such an amazing international brief was really cool. We definitely turned it up a notch. I think humans are complex; a space should be equally complex. It’s beautiful to create nuances throughout a home or space. I think they should have humour and a little bit of fucked up-ness too. You can’t only have pretty.
You did experience a lot of success with Flack quite quickly, and recently you’ve worked on some pretty high-profile stuff. I’m sure there’s been an evolution in style there, but I’m interested in how your understanding of design, or good design, has evolved too.
Design is actually really bloody hard. I was very lucky to meet Mark, my partner and business partner, and when we first started dating, he taught me the ability to not get caught up “doing”, and to focus on designing. Being able to still have the ability just to focus on design and ignoring the noise is our studio’s biggest strength. We don’t believe in pushing paper around the desk. We go hard in documentation; we research really heavily, and we don’t do options. We do one really killer option, all the time. We try not to get bogged down in things, but we’re continually re-evaluating. We’re only just getting into our stride, and now it’s really about solidifying who we are. The opportunities are there, but we want to maintain being small—doing less, doing better.
You said you set out to make a studio that reflected your values, and that’s evident in the work you do with community. One example is the Rhonda Alexander Mentorship program, which is named for a high school teacher who was quite important for you, correct?
Yeah, my art teacher. She passed away in 2020. I was a queer kid in Bendigo, and I always felt like an outcast. I didn’t have that many friends. I knew there was going to be a new life for me when I moved to the city, but she gave me that one form of escapism that allowed me to flourish. She was a huge part of my life. And Mark has a really interesting life and is such a courageous character. Both of us have these vulnerabilities and a rawness that we don’t want to hide, and we don’t feel the need to hide. That becomes reflected in our practice, and how we engage people around us. The mentorship program is really about finding a little David and Mark who don’t have the opportunity, or don’t think they can belong in design, or whatever it may be; we’re going to get friends from all walks of life to be mentors. We were meant to have it in October, then we postponed it to March and then again because of Omicron, but we’ll be able to lock something in now. And we have 18 mentees, not 10 as originally planned—we were so moved by the applications, we couldn’t narrow it down.
You’ve also supported Cubbies, most recently through book drives. Tell me about that.
That relationship came about around the time Trump got elected and Brexit was happening and there was so much austerity in the world. It was all so depressing. But we saw things happening just on our doorstep that we could focus on contributing positively to, and that spawned the Cubbies relationship. It has a nice connection to shelter and belonging, which we feel a deep connection to.
What is so important to you about this kind of work? Do you think it’s common in the design industry, or could people do more?
I don’t think it’s common at all, though I am seeing changes across the design community. I think slowly we are recognising that we have to do more, which is a great thing. For us, in a way, it’s more satisfying than doing the design work, because when you realise you’ve got a platform that has a voice, the community you build around that is so engaging. When we do our open days, we get such good responses, and it just feels like the right thing to do. It’s so nice to share knowledge and be inclusive, and it’s really not that difficult to do.
What would you encourage your peers to do more of to drive positive change, whether in the design industry itself, or on other issues?
I think it’s just about being engaged and active. We can all say we’re doing something, but you’ve actually got to make the time to do it. It might be really small steps, but it doesn’t take much to engage. For us it’s about being ourselves and creating great work, whatever that work is. I don’t really think about myself as an interior designer anymore, we’re just creators. It’s nice just to ditch all the preconceptions. We can kind of do anything, anywhere. It’s liberating.