Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Architects of spin

david katon residence/vogue living via maison lunatique

I was interested to spot this item on Gawker, about a Jennifer Lopez interview which has just been published on Tina Brown’s new Daily Beast website. The story is by Kevin Sessums and was originally written for a fashion magazine [reportedly US ELLE], which allegedly pulled the story at Lopez’s request after she had made some comments about a nervous breakdown and Scientology - and Sessums reported them. Unfortunately for the editor concerned, Sessums did find a buyer for the story after all. This sort of thing is not uncommon in fashion/entertainment publishing, thanks to editors who don’t want their access, or notably, advertising, clipped – or gravy train interrupted. Or perhaps they just want to do favours for mates.

Do stories get pulled in mainstream newspapers because parties lean on editors? For legal reasons, yes. And sometimes, well, who really knows? I once had a newspaper story pulled because a politician leaned on an editor. Granted, it was a gossip story about that politician’s personal life and you could very easily argue that gossip is not in the public interest. I had nevertheless been asked to do the story – and it was just about to go to press when it was pulled.

The Lopez anecdote jogged my memory about other stories I have written which may have been pulled for reasons other than legal concerns. There have not been many. Two, however, do leap out.

One was a very long time ago and due almost entirely to my own inexperience and naivety.

After agreeing to an interview for an international fashion publication, the subject demanded to see the finished story, I foolishly showed him the copy and apparently he did not like what he read. Permission to use his images was denied and sans images, there was no story. Not in a glossy.

His name was Bill Henson.

The second story was about Sydney design firm Burley Katon Halliday.

It was commissioned for the style section of a magazine published by one local newspaper back in 2000, principles David Katon and Iain Halliday agreed to a sit-down interview and the story was duly filed.

The production process was in fact underway when I received word that no images would be available.

Have I ever since shown copy to interview subjects? No, of course not. In this case however, someone within the magazine – who described himself as a personal BKH mate - disclosed the contents of the story to Katon and Halliday. And they did not like the story.

The commissioning editor's hands were tied, she claimed. Most of the high resolution images needed to illustrate the story depicted private property, access to which would presumably have been difficult without permission. That’s the explanation I was given.

It was perplexing because the story was by anyone else's definition otherwise a puff piece – save for one salient detail. And that is, the information that neither Katon nor Halliday is in fact an architect. Or at least they were not architects in 2000. I have no idea if this status has changed in the interim.

Given the myriad reports at the time which referred to the duo as "architects", it appeared to be news.

Frankly, I couldn't see the problem. It was the truth. Katon and Halliday were on the record about it. The Royal Australian Institute of Architects was on the record about it.

So here's the hitherto unpublished story, finally, eight years later:

For all the Burley Katon Halliday signage that is dangling from building sites around Sydney at the moment, you would assume there were no other designers in this Olympics-crazed town.

That is hardly the case of course. Such is the current demand for stylish new restaurants, bars, boutique hotels and apartment blocks, the city's top architects and designers can hardly stop to scratch themselves.

Yet Burley Katon Halliday would appear to have a monopoly on the slickest and most high profile of this work, a fact that is not lost on the Paddington firm's numerous competitors.

"People come up to me and they say, ‘Is there anything in Sydney you're not designing?’" noted BKH director Iain Halliday,

"I just go, ‘Well, it's boom time right’? A lot of designers and architects are very serious and plodding. I mean we just go for it”.

He added, "We're into the total saturation of Sydney!".

And Melbourne, look out.

As if that city does not have enough homegrown design gurus, BKH has already done one restaurant there - Box - and is currently working on a food court to go under the Westin Hotel.

Burley Katon Halliday just finished a Louis Vuitton Cup store in Auckland and it also has designs on the interiors of a fleet of luxury yachts.

By the middle of 2001, Burley Katon Halliday will have virtually colonised a section of east Sydney.

This month sees the opening, on Victoria Street, of a BKH-designed café inside The Elan apartments, plus the 16-room, BKH-refurbished hotel, l'otel. Upon the completion of the latter, one will be able to walk through l'otel's swimming pool-like French blue-tiled brasserie and bar and straight into the Kirketon hotel on Darlinghurst Road.

Since BKH refurbished the latter last June, with silver laser-cut wall panels, grey terrazzo floor and signature Bertoia and Saarinen furniture, the Kirketon’s restaurant Salt and Chinese lacquer red cigar bar Fix have been packed out with Sydney's hipster elite - something l'otel's proprietors are no doubt eager to emulate.

Several streets down, the leviathan, BKH-designed apartment complex Republic 1 and 2 spans an entire building block.

Comprised of two separate residential and retail developments, that are joined together by Kings Lane, Republic boasts 120 apartments, most of which feature majestic floor-to-ceiling glass exterior walls.

Stage 1 opens in June. The larger Stage 2, which wraps around a central pool area, like a minimalist resort, opens next year. Eighty five percent of the complex has reportedly already sold.

But what is more interesting than the sheer volume of smart building work that is being pumped out by this tiny firm, is the fact that neither Burley Katon Halliday director is actually an architect.

That's right. While Halliday and David Katon employ architects to work for them - including David Selden, who is now a partner - both Halliday and Katon dropped out of architecture school to pursue interior design studies.

"And I think it actually makes a lot of architects cranky, because we're selling architecture" noted Halliday, who hasn't let a little thing like a piece of paper get in the way of winning business over more orthodox firms. A case in point Republic: the original architects for which were, reportedly, shafted to make way for the far more glamorous BKH.

As far as the Royal Australian Institute of Architects is aware, BKH is in fact the only interior design firm in Australia that is also putting buildings up.

Ironically, and rather unfairly, the RAIA includes BKH's work in its architectural tours of Sydney. This is in spite of the fact that neither director is technically eligible to become a member of the RAIA and nor is the firm's work even eligible for consideration in the country's top annual design awards, that are organised by the RAIA.

"The feeling they have for interiors is second to none" said RAIA spokesperson Stella de Vulder.

She added, "They are architecturally-trained and that's the strange kink - for whatever reason they just didn't complete their degrees. But they deserve to be architects".

So just how did two interior decorators become the style arbiters of Sydney's development boom?

Launched, appropriately, by another architecture school dropout - Neil Burley - the firm started out life 33 years ago as the graphic and industrial design consultancy Neil Burley Design (whose retail clients included the Daily Planet fashion boutiques in the 1970s).

David Katon joined the company in 1979 and the name changed shortly afterwards to Neil Burley & Partners.

Halliday and Katon met in 1981 during one of Katon's brief tutoring stints at Sydney College of the Arts.

Halliday joined the company fulltime in 1984 (making partnership in 1986, with his name added in 1989) and has since emerged as one of the firm's strongest assets.

Throughout the 1980s, Neil Burley & Partners established itself as a premier interior design consultancy, its signature minimalist interiors widely solicited for offices and even museums. The firm won two significant public commissions in the Decorative Arts Galleries at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum and the USA and Australia Gallery at Sydney's Maritime Museum.

A restaurant commission catapulted the firm into the popular culture arena: Darley Street Thai on Bayswater Road, Kings Cross. There was nothing minimalist about this decor - hot pink lacquer paintwork, khaki fibreglass Eames chairs, a gold leaf ceiling and 1.5m chrome candlesticks - however it showcased not only BKH's supreme flexibility, but their knack for generating fashion copy.

Neil Burley left shortly after this time to pursue private interests (which include the Anibou Gallery and the Sydney Antique Centre on South Dowling Street).

A slew of restaurant commissions followed, including Paramount at Potts Point, Sailor's Thai at The Rocks, The Summit and the just-opened, newlook Cicada. Retail work has been nonstop: for Wayne Cooper (his Surry Hills studio, Tamarama house and Brave boutiques), Dinosaur Designs, Orson & Blake, Scanlan & Theodore and Marcs.

The 1990s witnessed the evolution of BKH interior design into interior architecture, as Katon and Halliday suggested more and more structural changes to the houses and apartments on which they worked.

"As interior designers we don't just take spaces and tart them up" said David Katon. "We treat the architecture as well, knock the walls down and change them quite dramatically. So where does it become architecture and where does it stay interiors?

He continued, "In the end people would like the detail we would give them because a lot of architects didn't get that interested back then in kitchens and bathrooms. They have since. They saw interior design as a fluffy thing and architecture as the all-important thing".

Added Halliday, "They were giving away half their business".

Inevitably, BKH started scoring commissions to not just fit-out apartments and houses, but to build them.

The company’s property design portfolio now embraces the luxury end of the market with 28 Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay - whose least expensive apartment sold for $3.3million - and a new development on New Beach Road, Darling Point.

Burley Katon Halliday’s forte is what Katon refers to as the "middle, but groovy middle" range of apartment blocks in east Sydney, where prices start at $300,000. The company has built three of these in Surry Hills alone.

"In terms of what this market is asking for, in this area, Burley Katon Halliday is spot on" said Anthony Pavlakis, marketing director for Cramer Property Agents, which sold the top two bedroom apartment in Republic 2 for $875,000. Neither boasts harbour views.

Pavlakis added, "People are willing to pay a premium for something that is well-designed and that has a credible name and Burley Katon Halliday have created a strong brand name for themselves."

Needless to say, the time for opening a second BKH office - perhaps New York – may be rapidly approaching [edit: the company did subsequently open offices in New York].

"If you think about it, where does our market end?" asked Katon. "You can cross the harbour to Mosman and do a bit of work there, but not a lot. Normally the upper north shore is bit a too conservative. You can do a bit of work on the Palm Beach peninsular. A developer doing something at Alexandria should think to come to us but probably wouldn't, because he'd think it's too upmarket”.

He added, "Then there's the eastern suburbs and the city east, down into the groovy part of Surry Hills, where everyone thinks they're living in a warehouse in New York. And our work doesn't go very far beyond that. But I think it should".


Anonymous said...

I wondered why Bill Henson was on your shit list, along with Collette Dinnigan, Ksubi, and Kelly Cutrone. Now I know.

Patty Huntington said...

i'm sorry, but when have i written about bill henson? i think i referred him in passing recently when talking about some V magazine images, simply because the brouhaha had just erupted and it was in context, but that's about it. but please correct me if i'm wrong and there is some kind of litany of henson criticism which bears my byline - to which i am unaware. he also happens to be a close friend of a close friend of mine and in fact i occasionally socialise with him as a result. this incident happened a long time ago. but it did happen and it's kind of funny really, given the whole censorship debate.

i gather anyone who is the subject of critical reportage axiomatically has to be on a reporter's "shit list" in your books. i think you'll find it's other people who have "shit" or blacklists, not the other way around. i recently reported that another company had ripped off dinnigan's logo and that i particularly liked her finale of the recent david jones show. just wrote its third bad review of her show. that's unfortunate, but i'm a reporter.

Mina said...

If you like/support Colette Dinnegan's work in any way why would you highlight negative press about her - slow news day?

Mike said...

Well actually I think a slow news day is the reports from SMH. And I don't actually know why you have been misinformed but Kelly Cutrone was the one that found herself in hot waters and as a consequence blamed Patty because she was cornered.

If you love something or someone isn't it better to tell the truth than to lie that you like whatever they are doing, even if it hurts or bad? Think about it. The fashion industry has been in self-denial for too long.

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