“My first job out of high school was as a receptionist for SJB. I was 17 and I moved on to become a design assistant there,” says Decus Design managing director Alexandra Donohoe Church. It was a fitting beginning for the talented interior architect who went on to do a stint at Bates Smart and worked for Paul Kelly and Luigi Rosselli before launching her own Sydney-based practice, Decus Design, in 2009.
“I started my company at the tail-end of the GFC which is obviously a really excellent time to start a business. I was retrenched from a small firm that worked on hospitality work (pubs) and I thought I’ve always wanted to do my own thing and work on houses so it was now or never. I didn’t have a business bone in my body though,” says Alexandra who now has ten full-time employees. “I wouldn’t want the company to be any bigger as I interface directly with all of our clients. I’d rather do low volume, high quality work as you get to do more of each job properly,” says Alexandra.
The details oriented designer certainly is across every element and admits her last client handover was a ten day process. “We made all the beds, hung all the artwork and put all the plates in the cupboards. Not every client can afford or wants that but we found it particularly rewarding. We work collectively and when it all comes together everyone has a great sense of satisfaction about their involvement,” says Alexandra.
As for defining her aesthetic, Alexandra describes it as having an element of tension. “I like spaces that aren’t matchy matchy, where not everything fits together like a cookie cutter or puzzle. I like something in the space that is jarring but it all sort of balances out as a whole. Creative tension can result in beautiful outcomes – I don’t see it as a negative,” says Alexandra.
As for inspiration, travel is the main source and Alexandra goes on an overseas buying trip at least once a year – alternating mostly between Europe and America. “We did New York one year, London the year before, LA, Paris, Milan. Our last trip included Copenhagen, the south of France, Sweden and Finland. The year before that we went to Malta, Corsica and Sardinia,” says Alexandra who is always prepared with jam-packed itinerary for each city that includes a hit-list of restaurants, bars, showrooms, art galleries and cultural sites.
Unsurprisingly, the ideal Decus Design client has a sense of adventurousness. “We love someone who is willing to give things a go. Unfortunately clients in Sydney are obsessed with resale value and so all people care about is what the next person is going to like. You can’t really design for the masses – the only thing you can design for the masses is beige and brown. But you don’t necessarily need lots of money to create an interesting space – just a willingness to get on board and get excited,” says Alexandra.
One such client is the owner of one of Alexandra’s more recent projects – a home in Sydney’s Woollahra. “She was like a hurricane in a good way. She has a huge amount of energy and either loved or hated our suggestions. Her husband was very reserved and dry – he had one room (the wine cellar) and she had all the others! She was really good because she was super adventurous and made lots of bold choices,” says Alexandra who experimented with different detailing and materials throughout the home that culminated in the project being short listed for three categories in the recent Belle Coco Republic Interior Design Awards.
“I’ve always had a thing about not entering awards because I never thought my work was good enough. We haven’t entered any until now due to the insistence of our practice manager Bonnie,” says Alexandra who was shortlisted for every category that she entered in the recent awards – no doubt a sure sign of the future.
Photography: Felix Forest, Anson Smart & Nick Cubbin