Hidden Powers series presents… Mel O’Brien and Dean Cotter (Maxwell and Shirley)

05 December 2018

Billy Blue Senior Academic Mel O’Brien has been with the Interior Design and Decoration team for eight years, leading the team in Sydney, while also writing new courses and teaching within the program. With a passion for architectural research, Mel has just completed her Masters of Design with a paper on modular housing in the affordable housing market.

Mel is also one half of multidisciplinary design practice Maxwell and Shirley alongside her business partner Dean Cotter. Focusing primarily on residential projects, they work across interior design, decoration, and styling for a variety of client and project types. At the core of every project that Maxwell and Shirley undertake is the premise that the moment of design is not limited to the design process, rather this moment continues during the occupation of space. The experience of how people exist and live within spaces interacting with objects is the primary goal - the design process is merely a vehicle for getting there.

What is your hidden power?

M: I don't give up! It's incredibly handy that this is also Dean's hidden power! Together we make a bit of a force to be reckoned with!


(Short St Residence - Sago Design)

Why are you called Maxwell and Shirley?

M: When we met we were just out of uni, working as juniors at the same architecture firm and we had these terrible but beautiful post prestige cars. Mine was a 94 3 series BMW that was all gold - her name was Shirley (because Shirley Bassey sang Gold Finger).

D: I drove a matching 95 Audi A4 that was dark green where the paint was still sticking to it and its name was Maxwell after Maxwell Smart (because nothing ever went right for him).

M: They were much beloved cars and a part of us and how we started!

D: A big reason why we started time together is because we just fixed cars!


Conway Atkins House - Sam Crawford Architects

What project are you most proud of?

M: We had some clients who had a beautiful home and who just weren’t really sure how to live in it. It’s almost like they were intimidated by the architecture of their own space and felt nervous about putting a foot wrong. Having conversations with them about how they want to use the space, their lifestyle etc. we were really happy to be able to help them live in a space that now they’re besotted with. They spend lots of time at home in their space.

D: We did the fit out in a series of stages and different commissions and when we went back all of the furniture was moved around in different places to what we suggested and the client said “oh I decided to move this to here as this is where I sit with the sun.”

The design process in selecting the furniture and the finishes is the very start of it. The real moment of design is when it’s seen and people are using the space.

M: We have a really interesting point of view because we work as both stylists for photoshoots in homes and we also work as interior designers for clients. What looks good for a photo shoot isn’t necessarily how people are going to live in their home and so for us it’s all about how people actually live in their home and how that continues to move without us being involved.

We never want someone to feel like they should be scared to move a coffee table because we told them to put in there!


Conway Atkins House - Sam Crawford Architects

Where do we get our inspiration from?

D: The inspiration comes from the client - each job is different. We don’t have a specific strong aesthetic that is mapped to Maxwell and Shirley.

M: The client drives where the inspiration comes from and this is really important to us.

D: And also means our brief changes- we’re not just doing the same fit out. It’s coming from the client.

M: Dean and I have complimentary but very different personal aesthetics. Dean knows how to clean a room and I do not have that skill!

D: It’s our drive as Maxwell & Shirley to recognize the aesthetic in the client.


Mona Vale Residence - Sago Design

Do you need different skills working in commercial and residential?

D: You certainly need different approaches. Working in commercial you are dealing with a client that is not necessarily emotionally tied to a space, the client is dealing with their own information around budgets, a whole board or community of people.

M: Residential – people are emotionally tied and it becomes something deeper. You need to be more sensitive to a residential client. There are few professions where you get so close to a client - you know their morning routine! There is more complexities with commercial clients.

M: The interesting thing about our practice and feedback we’ve been given by suppliers is that our decision making process is very clear and I think that comes from our commercial background. We’ve been describes as been all-on or all-off! You have to be really decisive and know what you’re doing and back yourself.

How do you seek out new clients as an emerging designer?

M: Get stuff done and get it photographed - even if you do it yourself. Make yourself viable, have a good social presence. Don’t post lots of other peoples stuff. Do a home vignette and take some photos. A lot of designers have home vignettes on their feeds.


(Short St Residence - Sago Design)

Do you need an internship to have a career in Interior Design?

D: Not necessarily.

M: Contact companies in a way that’s personal. Not bunches of flowers but make an effort. Send an email. For example, tell them about your graduate exhibition and follow up with a phone call. Make sure you are backing yourself.

D: So much of the industry is talking to people. You don’t have to be the extrovert in the room to achieve this. It’s also much about going to events and networking to a few select people. Be personable and polite.


(Short St Residence - Sago Design)

How does professional practice and connections influence Billy Blue course development?

M: As a Senior Academic at Billy Blue College of Design, I want the graduates to be the most useful and professional interior designers that they can be and they need to get that out of the courses we deliver and it’s so important that there are strong industry links – if there’s not then everyone is barking up the wrong tree! My own professional work and work at the college are completely entwined.


(Short St Residence - Sago Design)

Do you need a Bachelor degree to be recognized as an Interior Designer?

M: It depends on what kind of work you want. If you want to work for a really big firm then a bachelor degree will help you – it also gives you a couple of years to find a sense of maturity as a designer and to nail Revit which can be incredibly useful to have working in a big firm. That said, I love our diploma. We’ve seen some really incredible professionals come out of the diploma. I’m lucky enough to go to events and run into students that have started up their own practice or working in small scale fit outs.

Any final words of wisdom?

M: Keep working. There is always something to learn, someone to learn from, and a skill to improve. You’re never done. And that’s a big part of the joy of the built environment industry! That and the free champagne at parties….

D: The main thing I’d like to get across is just ….START! The partnership that Mel and I have through Maxwell and Shirley is so rewarding. Choose your partner well – make sure it’s someone that compliments you. Being paid to do something you love is one of the most amazing things!

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