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The Power of Storytelling, Collecting Art, & the Australian Aesthetics with Dylan Farrell

The power of storytelling when intertwined with interiors can provide one with a dynamic sense of place that leaves a deep imprint, almost as if it’s a page of a book you earmark to never forget. New York born, Sydney-based interior and furniture designer Dylan Farrell has made a name for himself creating spaces & pieces that dance between personal & universal narratives. And, the result of his designs are most often rich with harmonious paradox. We were recently entranced by his latest collection aptly named Oceania with Jean de Merry & wanted to learn more.

R HUGHES: What ignited your desire to have your own firm?

Dylan Farrell: My wife and business partner, Nicolette, and I believed that we had something unique to say in the industry, both through our methods and resulting aesthetics. We wanted to look at projects somewhat holistically so that we could explore all of the aspects of a given residential design, so we thought the best way to do that was to have equally direct access to the clients, artisans, and service consultants alike – being the principal creatives at our own firm allows for this.

RH: What is the design community in Australia like? And what differentiates your designs?

DF: Australian design, speaking in broad brush, has a more clinical approach than American design… more of a leaning toward ‘case study’ type homes and clean aesthetics that do not interfere with the stunning nature that surrounds even the urban homes. This has advantages and disadvantages. When we came from America, our aesthetic at the time nodded to a more maximalist bent – we were young and aesthetically eager. So there was an automatic point of difference between our design instinct and Australian designers upon our arrival. Practicing in Australia taught us to edit – and I would like to think I have become more refined with age. When I complete a design concept nowadays, my last thought is almost always ‘what can be eliminated’.

RH: You create verbal narratives at the start of each project that serves as an anchor for how you approach the design of the space & client. Can you give an example of one that filled you with inspiration?

DF: We had an early client who asked me to help him create a new construction “Australian Homestead” in the Yarra, a wine country outside Melbourne. He however was definitely not an “Australian Homestead” type. What we immediately understood was that (1) he wanted a modest country style structure to set the mood for a certain desired casual and wistful lifestyle, and (2) he wanted to maintain some sense of classicism in the product. However beyond that, the brief needed much more honing… and a search for an honest representation and expression of the owner.

We had several rendezvous to explore through discussion… and drinks. As we dove deeper, we discovered that he wanted a stripped back cottage with finishes that were “rough as guts” and spaces that could house contemporary, vintage, and antique objects alike. He was a collector in waiting. He wanted odd items that were rare; one-offs; reclaimed junk made into treasure; museum quality art; taxidermy; and he had a period Chinoiserie grandfather clock likely valued at more than my total personal net worth at the time. Cocktail parties were important. He wanted a friendly kitchen, but he did not cook often. All of this, and more, began to paint a beautiful picture.

So I came back with a concept… “James Bond hiding from a villain at his grandmother’s house”. The possibilities were endless, but there was a definitive narrative touchstone that every decision came back to. If we needed to source a table, we would say, “did James Bond bring this table from his city apartment to feel at home?… did his grandmother already own this table?… or maybe James Bond went to the local country thrift shop and found the best version of a table that worked with his sensibilities… what might James Bond get out of a local artisan if they together imagined up a table?….”

Viewed through this lens, it was easy to take chances without losing the plot. The finished product is pretty unreal.

RH: Have you worked on any homes in the States?

Yes, but not in the last 6 years, because proximity in recent years has been an issue. We have 2 children (5 and 8), and being away from Australia for long stints while they were toddlers was not easy. Further, launching a business in Sydney kept me on the ground in Australia. Then add covid, so travel was difficult over the past handful of years.

HOWEVER, now that both the business and children have matured, we are opening a gallery-come-studio in 2023 in New York (Eastern Long Island, targeted). Prior to 2017, we worked on properties all over the world, both independently and then as the Creative Principal at Thomas Hamel and Associates. We have practiced on projects in New York, California, Colorado, Florida and Hawaii, amongst other countries beyond the U.S..

RH: Please share, if you have any, your thoughts on “Southern” design & architecture. And are you coming to Atlanta anytime soon?

DF: I would love to come to Atlanta, and we are openly looking for collaborators in the US, especially in the South where I have less professional experience. 2023 will be about growing the community of my design practice, and we are hoping to work with all sorts of professionals and specialists in the US.

As for “Southern Design”, I have a great admiration for certain easy-going-eclectic aesthetics – often much less wound up than Northern Atlantic design. Specifically, we are often inspired by the work of Bobby McAlpine and Jeffrey Dungan. Regardless of differences, I hope to have moments of similar eclectic comfort in our own works.

RH: How do you balance the furniture design & your own interiors practice? How do you approach both in relation to each other?

DF: I like to think we have three different wings of common practice under the same roof. There is our interiors practice, our collection with Jean de Merry, and our freestanding object design practice. They all bleed into each other to create a fluid balance.

Our collection with Jean de Merry has almost been a separate personality that I view as a fantastic cabaret performance. It is a collection of inspired statement pieces – they are bold, opinionated, and filled with specific intention. They are not designed to be sympathetic and gently slide into every decorative mix.

Conversely, our interiors, whether they are bold or more reserved, are an empathetic response to a deep collaboration with a specific client, a unique house

or block of land, and an endless negotiation with scores of other decorative objects and motifs. Those solutions need to sensitively address all the personalities and sensibilities in a room. And though I do encourage our clients to be confident, our interiors viewed in whole are rarely as boisterous as our individual works with Jean de Merry.

In keeping with that reality, we also design objects that are not yet part of a specific collection, and these less promoted and often one-off objects and furnishings are usually birthed by necessity (lack of a solution in the marketplace) in response to a very specific interior brief.

All of the above said, each of these aspects leak back and forth into each other in terms of inspiration and logistics – and this is intentional. We want our practice to be fluid, so solutions flow freely, in a gravity-like path that leads to a well of inevitable design solutions.

RH: We’ve read that you are influenced by paradoxes when designing. What about them leads you to use the materials that you do?

I think of design like a great conversation or an engaging piece of music. There should be ups and downs, changes in topics and tones, opposition as well as consensus, and genuine investment in the moment. Perfect harmony can be great, but as Diana Vreeland suggested, too much of it can also be boring and clinical. So I like to invest in paradox to create metaphorical texture… or if you want to stick with comparisons to harmony, I decidedly invest in the use of occasional dissonance in addition to harmony.

So when I want something to feel shiny, I first polish it, and then I ponder placing it next to something that has a hyper-weathered surface. If I want a graphic to pop with vivid and lively color, I first develop a punchy color concept, and then I consider placing it on a minimalist canvas of chalky white plaster or dulled concrete. These intentional points of difference push the desired expression and create an engaging visual rhythm that is more interesting than the beat of a single snare drum.

RH: Something so striking about your designs are the art pieces that feel referential to the space & its respective clients. How does art shape your design process? Do you bring your clients to the art or do you work around the clients existing art?

DF: Art is critical. It is considered at the very beginning by addressing what the client has or desires as well as the client’s personality if the desires are not immediately defined. It is then again considered loosely inside a budget that is developed at the earliest stages of the project. It is again considered at the earliest stages of mood-boarding as we develop the concepts. We then consider art placement at the earliest stages of planning, deliberately designating spaces and vistas for art placement. So, we have a loose plan for art before we ever start building or purchasing. I cannot imagine considering an interior without thinking about the art it might exhibit.

Clients mistakenly think that to have an amazing collection of art, you need to take out a second and third mortgage. Th

is is true when one wants to consider blue-chip artists with established contemporary reputations. However, art should be about a personal preference rather than a measure pronounced by a community of gallerists, auctioneers, and museum board members. Do not get me wrong – I love what I will here call ‘high-art’. But just like a Bentley: just because I cannot afford one does not mean I should give up driving.

I recently picked up an artwork by a Sydney graduate student for, speaking judiciously, well under $10K AUD at about 6 foot x 6 foot. It is on the center wall of my studio, and I love it! I then referred work by the same artist to a new client, who could surely have afforded something more dear. I am hoping it is also a good investment, but that is beside the point in this instance – they loved the work. Conversely, we recently helped a client acquire a work of similar size for just shy of seven-figures, and they too were enthralled with the acquisition and motivated by investment potential.

How we land on final art selections is never the same. Sometimes clients have a large collection already before we meet. Some buy from our personal collection of acquisitions in our studio. We also have relationships with dozens of galleries that give us first look as newly acquired or represented works. Equally as often, clients have their own routes to purchase art, in which cases we always prefer to consult with the clients to assure that the works are properly considered inside of the interior design.

RH: We believe that certain objects & furniture pieces are considered art. Do you view your collection of furniture as inheritable objects? And what makes an object or piece of furniture a smart investment?

I definitely think certain furnishings should be and are considered works of art. My desire would be to make mostly inheritable objects, but whether or not we are accomplishing that, I will leave to others to decide. However, if an object is well-built, unique in its expression, and not patently subject to trend, I believe it will naturally find its place in a line of inheritance or vintage significance otherwise.

RH: Why did you choose Jean de Merry instead a Circa or Arteriors? What has that process been like?

DF: Jean de Merry chose us! We received a call from them about a decade ago; they had seen design works I had created while working with Thomas Hamel, and they asked to have an ongoing relationship for an evolving capsule collection. I had been an admirer of their furnishing and interesting promotional campaigns for some years prior. It was flattering to receive consideration from such a company.

It is interesting to have a third-party design brand oversee the finalization of our design concepts, especially designs that are more ‘poetic’ than industrial. During engineering and logistical analysis by JDM, our design concepts often are required to evolve. But I believe in JDM as wise practitioners, so I always leave room and consideration for their feedback and alteration to our designs, as they have certain essential commercial practicalities in mind that I might not when designing for a one-off fabrication. Further, unlike certain other companies, JDM has a penchant for artesian techniques, which is a special draw. In the distant past, I had a fruitful career of creating licensed furniture designs for more commercial/industrial brands. Those designs usually did not inspire. There is something about the artisan approach that makes an object more personally engaging – JDM has that ability, and we appreciate it.

RH: What continues to inspire your unique collections? Movies, people, fashion…

DF: Add music, especially. Inspiration sincerely comes from everywhere. Even attitude, eg Gore Vidal. I think the key to having a fruitful practice (and interesting life) is to keep an open mind and always evolve. More specifically, recent items on/in the inspo mix and boards…

RH: What about travels…What location has inspired you most?

DF: Well, I have no choice but to say “Australia”, as I am here as an expat. I will be in Tasmania next week, which I find an amazing place; and then Byron a couple weeks later, which is wonderful in a different way. Australia has been a forever inspiration in so many ways.

Just a month before Covid hit, I spent another long stint in Bali, Indonesia, which I also have found wildly inspiring. I find both the contemporary and traditional aspects of Balinese culture completely intriguing.

RH: What’s your most treasured possession?

DF: I really have transient feelings about possessions, so I do not really put too much stock into any objects that I might own. But if pressed, perhaps a pair of oversized clear, red, and indigo Murano Glass perfume decanters that were given to me as a gift by a client… or a 18th century etching of a party scene inside a colonial Hudson River cabin, the work titled “Snap Apple Eve”.

RH: We are big on monthly playlists at R HUGHES. What’s your go-to song at the moment?

Spirit of the Beehive, “The Server is Immersed”

Image Credits:

Featured Image / Photo credit: Dylan Farrell // Interior Design in progress by DFD. JAX Table with artworks by Nick Vasey.

Dylan Farrell Portrait // Photo credit: Dylan Farrell // Portrait of DF in studio with LADY LEVELLER, Custom Tension Lamp, and antique side table. Artwork by Scott Richler (Gabriel Scott).

Factory Image // Photo credit: Dylan Farrell // SPIKE Pendant in factory displayed for aesthetic review

Art Image // Artist Sophie Victoria, work Entreferen

LEVELLER Chair and RACHIS Table // artworks by Scott Richler (Gabriel Scott) and Paul Rousso.