Despite the extraordinary array of talent and competitive spirit showcased by the HIA’s Awards, some people have a habit of turning up regularly as winners or at least among the finalists. It’s a bit like Wimbledon , really.
Elizabeth Luke of Sydney took out her fourth Australian Bathroom Designer of the Year award this year – her earlier wins being in 1998, 1999 & 2000.
Like so many bathroom and kitchen designers, Elizabeth got into the business in a roundabout way.
‘I was a teacher who found myself on my own with two babies, no money and no house. I thought, I’m not going to be able to raise these children and educate them.
So I looked at what else I could do. I’d always wanted to do interior design at school, but I didn’t have the confidence then. But I thought, – now’s the time, here I go – and that’s how it started.’
That was in 1985. Elizabeth wanted something she could do from home, working around the children, and she had to build up very gradually.
It has taken me a very long time because I had to let the kids grow up too. When they were old enough to go to pre-school I got a job in decorating with a local home furnishings company and worked there until I was offered a job running a furniture showroom.’
That didn’t last and, anyway, Elizabeth decided that fundamental design was her line ‘not decorating, which tended to involve patching up things that were wrong in the first place.
So, working in a cake shop during the day, she studied nights for four years to get a Diploma of Interior Design (from London ). After that, because she understood the importance of structural considerations in design, she studied a Certificate IV in Residential Building at TAFE to give her building qualifications. These days that gives her the clout to argue the toss with tradespeople who tell her something can’t be done.
She now has an office in a kitchen and bathroom showroom (not her own) where she can walk clients through potential equipment and finishes, rather than let them ‘buy something on special’ that just won’t work. She still does her drawing at home.
Elizabeth specialises in bathrooms – by default’, because that’s what she’s known for now. She likes the specialty because it’s difficult, a challenge. – Bathrooms are a can of worms if you don’t know what you’re doing.’
‘You’re working with so many limitations ‘space, plumbing, doing something different, while also meeting the demands of the client’s needs and tastes.’
Elizabeth is no slave to fashion. ‘I’m told quite often that my bathrooms are comparable to what’s done overseas, but I’ve never been overseas.’ No sign of a cultural cringe there. Nor are her own personal preferences, as distinct from experience and knowledge, important.
‘I feed off the client, I draw out what they want and then set out to make it work. If I have a client who wants to do something I don’t think will work then I try to talk them out of it.’ For Elizabeth that’s a matter of professional responsibility, not of imposing her own tastes.
‘I like to deal with the people who are going to use the bathroom, and the rest of the house.’ Her bathroom designs sometimes lead on to concepts for further renovation.
Elizabeth welcomes the trend toward simplicity and streamlining and today’s freedom when it comes to choice of colours (‘not being stuck with white and ivory any more’). She’s also enthusiastic about the opportunities opened up by new textures and potential to use materials in different ways.
Corrugated iron? – Yes, I’ve wanted to use it for years but haven’t had a client adventurous enough.’ Almost wistfully, she adds: ‘It’s almost too late now because it’s been done. Same with concrete. You think of all these things but, without the right client you don’t get the opportunity.’
Elizabeth ‘s success story is no fairytale. It has been a long hard slog, with the business taking 10 years first to become viable and then to become the success it is today.
What drives her is that she insists on ‘doing things really well, I put my heart and soul into everything I do’. So, she’s finicky about detail. -When you design a bathroom you’re working in millimetres and every little thing is critical. I have to draw designs myself so I can think them through while I’m drawing, making sure the ideas work and adjusting them if necessary ‘for example if the tile size doesn’t work.’
‘If I’m putting in a recessed cabinet I don’t just stick it in the wall. It has to be worked out consistent with all the other design elements.’
Her company, Luke Interiors, remains a one-person show, largely because she feels the need to exercise control of all that detail and to maintain personal contact with clients attracted to her in the first place by her personal reputation.
The test of a good bathroom? ‘It has to be functional, of course, but ‘you have to love to be in there, to escape. Everyone’s stressed out these days.’ – That’s a familiar theme among the bathroom brigade.