How These Australian Interior Experts Got Their First Start

Lauren Powell

While many of us may dream of a career in the interiors industry, it’s hard to know where to begin when there are endless possibilities, roles, and opportunities on offer. To help, we spoke to five successful Australian interior experts who revealed how they got their career break and who have all taken different paths and been on inspiring journeys. Read on to find out how these creative women got their foot in the door—and then never looked back.

Nina Maya, Founder, Nina Maya Interiors

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Nina Maya Interiors

“I began my career in fashion, after studying a four year Bachelor of Design, I travelled to Italy to live and work for an Italian fashion house—it was there that I honed my skills and gained confidence to start my own ready-to-wear label. I moved back to Australia to launch my new business and my first big break was having David Jones pick up my first collection and having the opportunity to dress Megan Gale and Cate Blanchett on the red carpet.

Six years later, I was living in London and was lucky enough to spend some time travelling around the south of France. During these trips I became so inspired by all the incredible design museums and grand homes that my passion changed directions from fashion to interiors.

It seemed like a natural progression as it utilised a lot of the same skills in colour and print. I loved designing fashion, but really enjoy applying my ideas, colours, and prints to a much bigger canvas. Designing interiors allows you to be much more free and less restrictive, as long as you have an open minded client who is willing to explore new territory with you.

I was very lucky to have some wonderful early clients who were fans of my clothing that then trusted me with their homes. My first big break was the refurbishment of the Ambassador of Australia's residence in Beijing followed later by a large-scale makeover of the iconic Opera Bar at The Sydney Opera House. I love working in the world of interiors and have never looked back!”

Sarah Ellison, Style Editor, Real Living Magazine

“I’ve been an interior stylist for around seven years. I always wanted a creative career, in fact, it really was the only option. I just never saw it any other way. 

When I was in my early twenties, I really wanted to work in fashion and have my own label, so when I was 25 I went to East Sydney Tafe to study fashion. This was great for my creative confidence and also reinforced how driven I was.

After attempting my own label for a couple of years I realised it took more than just creativity to have a successful business—but hey, I was young and this was just the beginning of the ride that got me to where I am today.

While I was studying, I had been working for interiors store Empire in Sydney and I guess my creative drive shone through, as I was given the role of merchandising and I also had a hand in the buying.

I had been left a little deflated after my unsuccessful venture into the world of fashion and decided that if I was to find a career that would make me happy I would have to switch the goal posts a little, and that's when I decided to really give interiors a go. For a while, I imported textiles from Sweden which I wholesaled to boutique stores in Sydney.

My break came when I started assisting on interior shoots. While working at Empire, I got to know all of the stylists really well and I assisted full time for around two years. I loved it, it was really hard work but I was so lucky to have worked for some of the interior stylists I consider to still be the best today—Kirsten Bookallil, Glen Proebstel, and Matt Page.

I think that assisting really is the only way to learn the ropes in styling—it’s not something that can be taught. I think just watching how different styles come to life through different hands, seen through different eyes, and taking the best from each person to create your own vibe.

I worked on some test shoots while I was assisting, mainly just to test my own ability and to build some kind of portfolio.

Then Real Living was looking for a stylist and lucky for me one of the stylists I had been working for passed my name on to my now editor, Deb Bibby. Deb really believed in me and together we have been able to shape the magazine to be a true reflection of our collective styles, and in turn, shape the way people style their own home to some extent. It's truly a privilege.

I’ve been at Real Living for over five years now, I can’t believe how fast it has gone. My job is deadline based and can be pretty stressful, but some days I do pinch myself and think, “am I really getting paid for this?”

One of my favourite parts of the job is all the inspiring, talented and creative people I meet along the way. It's also opened me up to a range of new opportunities including my own line of wallpapers and some other top secret things that are in the works.

I think good stylists are people who can work really hard. The job isn’t just mental, it's physical too and the fact that you're putting your ideas out there for everyone to see and critique can feel exposing in the beginning, so there’s also an emotional side too.”

Lucy Fenton, Owner, Fenton & Fenton

"It was a trip to India that really inspired me to open my first store, Fenton & Fenton. I travelled a lot and it was when I was travelling through India that I was just blown away by the craftsmanship and the incredible aesthetic that you simply struggle to find reflected anywhere in the western world. The business idea was really hatched after a couple of Kingfishers one night after a long day exploring the crazy markets in Jaipur—the idea just kind of hit me and I never really looked back.

I think I was lucky as I was young and had no responsibilities at the time. To be honest, I didn't think too much about the financial viability I just dived in headfirst, no business plan in sight. As soon as I touched down in Melbourne I quickly set about finding a shop to lease, on a shoestring budget. At the time it was the idea of having a little store to house all my treasures sourced from far and wide that really excited me. The idea that I would be travelling the world sourcing products sounded like a dream come true so I just set about it making it happen.

It was never a hobby for me, it was my sole income from day one and I guess that forces you to stay focused. That wasn’t hard for me as the thrill of finding new pieces, artists, and creating new designs has always been such an adrenaline rush. In this industry you have to be ever-evolving and re-inspired and in turn inspiring others—you can’t sit still or things get stale.

I really do believe the key to running a small business successfully in any industry is organisation, originality, and hard work. There are so many things that need to be addressed every day and if you do not stay on top of them it makes it very hard for things to run smoothly. You quickly learn it is not glamorous and along with owning your own business comes a hell of a lot of paperwork and mundane jobs that can become all-consuming if you allow them to. It’s important to keep yourself focused on the things you love that drove you to start the business in the first place. You have to love what you are doing because there are constant challenges and if you didn’t love it I can imagine it would be tempting to give up!”

Megan Weston

“Drawing, painting, and creating have always been a part of my life and are as natural to me as talking. I never mapped out a strategic plan to become an artist, I just spent my time doing what I loved. My aunty was an artist and would sit and draw with me for hours when I was just a little kid. I still have the drawings we did together even though she has passed on now. I was never held captive to the demands or expectations of others with regard to my art, it was always just something for me. This gave me an enormous sense of freedom which I have learnt is a really important part of the creative process. 

With an innate love of colour, pattern, and texture, I was initially attracted to a career in fashion and went into retail management. I ended up working at a local interior store, which gave me an increased understanding to how art can work within a commercial context. I was always painting though, and, eventually, I was selected as a finalist in the 2011 Waterhouse Art Prize at the South Australian Museum. I guess my first big sale and when I knew this was becoming a viable business was when I received an email from an American lawyer who purchased 10 giant artworks to be shipped to California to fit out his new office. Then with the help of my partner I was able to transition into painting full time. Another big moment was when Jennifer Hawkins commissioned a number of artworks, and it all snowballed from there—including coverage on The Block television series and the rise of Instagram to showcase my work. However, social media has been a double edged sword in many respects as it also lead to some copycat and IP infringement issues.

It’s been such an honour to have been well received in the broader community and I love having happy clients. Jennifer Hawkins, Megan Gale, and Darren Palmer have all been such great supporters. It’s always a thrill to make the front cover of a publication, especially given that creating art is something I love to do. The fact I’ve been able to transition it to a successful commercial business is simply a bonus!”

Alex van der Sluys, Kate Heppell, and Hayley Pannekoecke, Founders, Kip & Co

“We’re Melbourne girls all with pretty diverse backgrounds and careers—from an accountant, to a naturopath to a lawyer. Kate and Hayley [sisters] successfully ran a little organic shop and yoga studio that gave them a taste for small business and their entrepreneurial ambition that would ultimately kick off Kip & Co.

The Kip & Co story started as a little dream—no big ambition or great expectations. The three of us, always looking for a challenge, decided the time was right for us to start a business, something that was creative, online, and would produce a product we wanted to buy ourselves. After many, many ideas, we realised the answer was staring at us every morning when we woke up—bed linen! Back when we started, there was a big gap in the market for fashion-forward, bold, bright linen that matched Australia’s fun and playful aesthetic. 

We never really labelled ourselves as either ‘hobby’ or ‘business’, we just always put everything we had into Kip & Co because we’re excited and interested in the brand—and because we have fun working together. At the same time, we haven’t ever let Kip & Co take over our whole lives—we’ve got a very progressive flexible working business, and are serious about work-life balance. Kate has two little ones and Hayley has three. For us, that commitment is absolutely one of the reasons that Kip & Co has worked so well.

I think there are a few different reasons that Kip & Co has resonated with customers, and there are definitely tips and tricks that could apply to any new business. First, you need the right business partners—having a good mix of skills is important, but more than that you need people who are on the same page, and are able to encourage, support, and motivate each other. Secondly, you need to do something different to stand out from the crowd —you don’t need to invent a new product altogether, but you need to put your stamp on it so that there is a reason people come to you. Thirdly, you need to invest right at the beginning in the customer channel—get a banging website, spend some time and money on a killer photo shoot, and have a social media strategy.”

Looking for a job in interiors? Find out about the best design courses that could the start of a new creative career.

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