Alexandra donohoe church creates elegant, inviting spaces that she strengthens with exceptional artwork and furniture.
Alexandra donohoe church was only in her teens when she began eagerly studying the furniture catalogs that filled the mailbox of her home in seattle. Her australian parents had settled there when she was seven years old. "The pacific northwest in the nineties was neither cosmopolitan nor the navel of the design world, but what did i know?" Laughs donohoe church, who had joined us for a video interview from sydney, where she and her design firm decus interiors are based. "I was flipping through the catalogs thinking about how i could redo my brother's room and my own, and then i switched everything around."
Despite these harbingers of a career in interior design, donohoe church went on to study landscape architecture after graduating from high school in sydney. The family had returned to australia when they were 14 years old. "I remember in training we were looking at design technology and thinking 'designing spaces for a living, you can't really do that – it would be too much fun'."
When she found she just couldn't remember plant names, she switched to a degree in interior design and "became obsessed with interior design, style movements, artists and designers. It was a real love affair."
It is still a love affair for the 39-year-old today. She worked for several design firms in sydney before joining an office that designed exclusively residential interiors. "I found it wonderful to design for the end clients and liked the process of acquiring this deep understanding of how they live, what their preferences and values are," she says. "I had the feeling of having arrived. That is what I wanted to do."
In 2009 donohoe church started her own business and worked alone from home. It was a nerve-wracking time, she says. "I was twenty-seven years old and still very inexperienced and naive when it came to entrepreneurial issues, customer management and legal matters. But I think if I had waited longer to gain more experience, I wouldn't have taken the risk. That is, actually, it was even advantageous not to know much. I didn't have a mortgage and I didn't have any children. So I didn't have much to lose – that's already a fantastic condition!"
It initially took on smaller projects and collaborations. Gradually, she received larger orders and hired a team to handle them. The decisive moment, she says, came when she was contacted by a couple who had seen her work in a magazine: they commissioned her to completely redesign a house in the coastal region of western australia. "This was the first time we had the opportunity to select unique furniture and integrate a significant art collection," says donohoe church. "This was a real turning point in terms of learning experience and mechanisms of design"."
Since then, things have only been going up for her. At decus interiors (the name comes from the latin word for ornament), she now leads a team of ten to twelve designers ("depending on who's having a baby at the time!"), who are managing a number of high-end residential projects, including a landmark building in sydney and a complete new build there – the company's largest project to date.
Donohoe church describes decus' style of working as follows: "we take an order, explain it to us, and deliver back an extension of the customer's personality." Her company, she says, is passionate about the psychology of spaces and the design of environments – much more than setting a typical aesthetic. "In the meantime, however, i have noticed that customers expect a certain look," she adds, "while i don't want our projects to all look the same, i can understand that our ideas are welcome."
These ideas include "overlapping textures and the construction of multiple layers of furniture and art superimposed over the basic structure. For me, it's very important to bring some excitement into the space. I don't want everything to fit together. I like a bit of competition, communication between art, mobiliar, space and exterior architecture."
The pandemic, working in a home office and the lockdown in australia were difficult, but also offered advantages: "i looked at it as a time to read all the books i'd always wanted to read, tackle tasks i'd been putting off and focus on our design projects. Our clientele is also limited in their activities. Let us give you something to look forward to."
We asked donohoe church about their most challenging and interesting projects.
You had mentioned the project in western australia – can you tell us something about the development?
There was a fairly consistent aesthetic [in the area] – big, clunky, boxy houses. The client couple wanted something different.
It explained to us what character it imagined and then left us plenty of free space. We have completely changed the floor plan of each floor and added a complete level, which should serve mainly as an area for the children. The other rooms were more public and appealed more to adults. The upstairs was very lively, downstairs the atmosphere was more sophisticated and elegant. It's a place where you live barefoot, just steps from the beach, and we wanted to be able to transition effortlessly from that informality to a cocktail party for two hundred people. In the end, the couple had a house that was very different from those of their friends and neighbors.
What is an important property you purchased for the property?
Very important is a pair of solid cast bronze doors with starburst motif from an estate in los angeles that we bought through 1stdibs. I wanted to use a vintage object to give a special character to the first element you see when you enter the house, because everything else in the house is new.
Left: in the foyer next to the living room is a bronze "bloc" console by eric schmitt, which donohoe church calls her "absolute favorite piece of furniture". The painting hanging above is by fred williams. Right: the "cointrin" lamp by stephane parmentier illuminates schmitt's "double bulb" dining table, surrounded by "ginger" chairs by poltrona frau. On the wall in the background: hozana, 2008, by john coburn.
You mentioned the couple's important art collection. How did you take this into consideration when choosing furniture and colors?
We selected all the furniture before deciding where to place the artworks – in the end everything fit very well. The couple has a wonderful collection of australian art, and I wanted to expand the furniture selection to include some objects from other countries. In a small foyer next to the living room we placed a bronze console by eric schmitt, my absolute favorite piece of furniture. The floor had to be reinforced in this area and we needed six people to bring the sculpture into the house.
In the children's area upstairs, we wanted to create a bright and fresh atmosphere. We installed lights by doug johnston and lindsey adelman that harmonize very well with a piece of art by howard arkley. We also used very bold colors in the pool house – a sturdy missoni fabric for the stools, along with some of the native artwork from the client couple's collection.
Left: donohoe church designed the interior of the four-story present in sydney twice – for two different families – designed by porebski architects. Right: the second couple was a bit older, very active and had grown children. The wife wanted to feel like she was relaxing by a pool on the mediterranean sea.
They designed a house in sydney twice – for different clients. That must have been interesting.
It was! The first family had rebuilt the house in 2015. The four-story building sits on a steep, compact lot on tamarama beach, a very exclusive neighborhood. We designed the interior with the architect at the time – very neutral, lots of black and white – and designed all the joinery. Then the new owners called in 2019. They had raised five children in a traditional, old-fashioned home and – now that the kids had left home – wanted to "have a little fun". The wife wanted "the feeling of relaxing by a pool on the mediterranean".
Left: terrace furniture in restrained colors – nothing to distract from the fantastic view. Right: above the fireplace hangs a painting by tim storrier, in front of it stands the armchair "tosca" by flexform next to a coffee table "catapult" by decus interiors.
So it was a completely different project, with different needs to consider. We moved all of the living quarters and the kitchen to the upper floors. The bedrooms and lounge have moved down a floor – they now open onto the pool and terrace. Below are the study and the guest suite, and the lowest level houses the garage, the gym and the wine cellar.
Your taste seems to be very internationally oriented. Work with australian designers too?
There are wonderful australian designers we work with and commission projects from. But i spent my formative years in the USA. We have traveled a lot there – and in europe as well. So my perspective is quite international. Since the nineties, i have been a big fan of certain designers – often french, named pierre. In pierre yovanovitch's work, for example, I'm fascinated by the complete absence of trends, and I think it's fantastic how the objects in his rooms communicate with each other. Pierre paulin is also a design hero for me.
I am actually using 1stdibs more and more. The app has made things a lot easier, and I think it's great that you can connect with designers all over the world.
Their original stance was that designing homes would be too much fun to do for a living. Is this true?
"Yes, that's right! But there are also challenges. Left-brain creativity collides with right-brain intentions, and the two must be brought together. You have to deal with finances, schedules and parameters, be extremely detail-oriented and at the same time consider your creative impulses. Occasionally you're a marriage counselor or an accountant – and sometimes you need to be able to read minds.
But even after a good twenty years in the business, I still find it very exciting to put together a presentation that you hope your clients will like. At this moment you are quite vulnerable to say 'here is our proposal. I hope you like it.'"