We sit down with leader in Australian residential architecture, Polly Harbison, to learn more about how robust materials and ‘rituals’ drive her design approach.
Polly Harbison’s ability to shape architecture around people and the natural environment has allowed her to oversee a line of sophisticated, consciously resolved residential homes. Practising out of Sydney with a small team of talented architects by her side, Polly draws on the Australian bushland and coastlines to formulate unique, site-sensitive designs based on the idea of ‘barefoot luxury’. They are sanctuaries by the sea and oases in the trees, each fostering a deep sense of ritual through the experiences that they offer. In this exclusive interview with est, we delve deeper into Polly’s well-rounded approach to design – from how it started to where it’s taken her.
Could you please briefly detail your road to architecture?
Polly Harbison: I realised during my last years at school that, despite mainly doing maths and economics subjects, what I enjoyed was designing jewellery, which was something I was doing just for fun. That prompted me to look into a more design-orientated course at university – and with very little knowledge or prior interest in architecture, I signed up!
How has the way you design changed over time?
Polly Harbison: I used to make physical models and found that process to be a great tool in conceptualising buildings. With new technology, that tradition has turned into 3D computer modelling. So in that sense, the way I begin the design process hasn’t necessarily changed but matured. Moreover, every design problem is unique, so we have to evolve the way we design to accommodate constantly.
In your opinion, what distinguishes Australian design from the rest of the world?
Polly Harbison: I think there is great depth and variety in Australian design. I view our approach to design as similar to how I view our approach to food; there is this overwhelming openness to assimilating different ideas and embracing creativity.
What distinguishes Polly Harbison Design from other Australian designers?
Polly Harbison: Our designs are based on the idea of a ‘barefoot luxury’. We try to create very relaxed buildings integrated with nature and essentially robust backgrounds to be filled with life.
You design spaces that are concerned with life’s daily rituals. How do you elevate this sense of ritual in specific parts of the home?
Polly Harbison: For me, luxury is not about expensive items. It’s about experiences; rituals. Standing beneath stars and moonlight in a hot shower on a cold night is bliss. I love waking up to the sound of birds and early morning light. I also appreciate that being cocooned in darkness is a morning luxury for some people. Houses that can respond to what people like to experience sensitively and tap into sensory elements are so important.
You also design spaces that are inherently connected to nature. What about the natural world inspires your approach to design?
Polly Harbison: Natural landscapes are a masterclass in the ageing process. The enhancement of time is integral to the natural world. It is hard to design buildings that age as well as natural landscapes, but it is certainly something we aspire to.
What about the current design landscape excites you?
Polly Harbison: There have been some really fantastic apartment buildings that I’ve seen from design firms that are raising the bar. I hope our cities will benefit from people seeing better apartment buildings and demanding this from developers. SJB Architects are a great one to watch in this space!
What can we look forward to from Polly Harbison design for the rest of 2022?
Polly Harbison: Our firm will stay small and focused, with the ambition to make our contribution to the built environment a positive one. Anticipate more robust, simple buildings that are both site-sensitive and a delight to live in.
“For me, luxury is not about expensive items. It’s about experiences; rituals.”
– Polly Harbison
Design Insiders Guide:
Favourite local designer or favourite design store?
Polly Harbison: This isn’t related to architecture, but I recently splurged on a beautiful Carl Kapp dress. I loved the experience of his small shop filled with incredible fabrics – he is completely focused on his craft rather than showing off the clothes. It is so inspiring to engage directly with makers.
Favourite galleries or spaces? The Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island are incredible to experience – nature has created the ultimate sculpture gallery overlooking the wild ocean.
Where do you go to look at great design? I love books. I would also love to travel more; the world has so much to offer in architecture and design.