In Conversation with Architects Stephen Jolson and Mat Wright

  • HERO IMAGE PHOTOGRAPHY Lucas Allen
  • WORDS Holly Beadle
  • In Conversation with Architects Stephen Jolson and Mat Wright

    We catch up with Jolson co-directors Stephen Jolson and Mat Wright to explore their perspective on design, craftsmanship and sustainability – and what they’ve learned in the decades since the firm was first established. 

    Stephen Jolson founded his namesake architecture and interior design practice in Melbourne in 1999 and was joined shortly after by firm partner Mat Wright. For nearly two decades, the duo has delivered residential and commercial projects that fuse the three main design disciplines: landscape, architecture, and interiors. Jolson’s spectrum of work extends from bespoke architecture and interiors like their Arc Side project in Bayside Melbourne to larger residential projects like Point Leo Estate on the Mornington Peninsula. Each of these projects culminates in a portfolio that speaks to the resounding clarity and simplicity of Stephen and Mat’s approach to design.

    With more exciting projects on the horizon, like the monumental Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, we thought it timely to get to know Jolson’s distinct take on residential and commercial design and architecture.

    Can you each please briefly discuss your road to part-direction of Jolson and how the firm came into being?

    Stephen Jolson: I started the practice in 1999. I previously worked full time as an architect and moonlighted doing private work, including a bookshop and an interior for an apartment. When I received a large commission for a private residence in Cape Schanck, which ultimately became the Concrete House, I needed to establish a practice officially. The Concrete House is a prominent project on the national golf course, so I had enquiries for other houses on the Mornington Peninsula, and we did the Earth House, and it just rolled on from there.

    Mat Wright: We met in 2006 working on a project together. I joined Stephen’s practice in 2011 and became a director four years later in 2015.

    Stephen Jolson: When we met, we had very similar philosophies about working. This stemmed from the pursuit of design with a level of detail and seamless integration of architecture, interior design and even landscape. It’s taken me decades to realise that architecture isn’t just about a facade. It’s really about an experience. The experience does not stop at a facade or perimeter of a building. We conceive space from the inside out and the outside in; there are no boundaries. So what we are trying to do in our work is to become experts in these disciplines, bound together.

    Stephen, we took a tour of your Melbourne home in issue #39 of est magazine. At its core, the home is a celebration and exploration of place. Do you think the home makes the place, or the place makes the home?

    Stephen Joslon: I think it’s a combination of both. I think where my home evolved is a direct response to the fabric of the building as an existing warehouse. That set up a series of parameters to work within and respond to. However, I think the people create a sense of home within it. As with all homes we design, it is a series of objects and art pieces you collect along the way. For me, home is really about my family and about how we choose to engage with the building.

    Stephen, how is your home a case study on your approach to design – and core design values?

    Stephen Jolson: One thing I believe my home has taught me is the ability to think about longevity. When this place was built 16 years ago, it was from a very different type of brief to how it functions now. At the time, I had one young child and was trying to think about our family’s future needs. The reality is you blink, and your children have grown into teenagers. It’s about how good design can last a test of time. I believe good design should transition over a long period, and I think the house has done that successfully.

    Mat, what would you say is the key to achieving a union between landscape design, architecture and interiors?

    Mat Wright: There needs to be a fundamental understanding of each discipline to allow them to work together seamlessly. More specifically, the architecture or enclosing of space protects and nurtures, yet there is a great desire to stay connected with nature and landscape. This can occur through the aperture and focus placement, by window placement and view corridors. We like our architecture to “contain” landscape in the architectural form. This may include built-in planters or internally protected courtyard gardens.

    The play of light on interior texture and form can be influenced by the adjacent garden colour or just as easily by structural components and loose furnishings. We feel that allowing the garden’s sound to permeate the interior elevates the senses, such as the sound of a gentle breeze or the calming sound of running water. We also believe in respecting the time it takes for trees to grow and, at times, bending the architecture to accommodate a mature tree.

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    Arc Side by Jolson | Photography by Lucas Allen

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    Arc Side by Jolson | Photography by Lucas Allen

    As we continue to champion the notion of designing sustainably, what more could Australian architects and designers be doing to design sustainably?

    Stephen Jolson: As a practice, we take a high-level approach to environmentally sustainable design.

    Mat Wright: As architects, it’s essential to never forget the basics of natural energy sources – orientation, sunlight, wind and landscape.

    Over the years, we have developed an in-depth sustainability brief that acts as a comprehensive starting point to discuss the topic with our clients. From using recycled materials to reducing waste to investing in eco-friendly technology, this document forms part of our initial briefing process. All architects and designers should be doing something similar with their clients.

    You speak of nurturing a synergy between design and construction. Can you describe this synergy?

    Stephen Jolson: After working for a few decades, you create relationships with different types of builders. Through the experience of working together, I think that that is where you gain experience to inform how you design, and it is how your ideas become buildable.

    Mat Wright: We believe it’s important to have a seamless site experience. We aim to create an incredible working relationship with our builders, who elevate the projects with their expertise, more so than what we can on the drawing board.

    Stephen Jolson: The design is only one element. So much happens in construction. Therefore, we don’t like to drop the ball during that stage because so much can occur as things are being built.

    Mat Wright: Working together to improve each moment is fantastic.

    We’re interested in how you work with craftspeople to achieve bespoke outcomes in your projects. Are there any particular projects that stand out for your exploration of craftsmanship?

    Stephen Jolson: I think all of our projects are crafted and I think that our clients come to us because they actually want to invest in the outcome.

    Mat Wright: It also depends on your definition of “crafted”; it’s a series of smaller details in some projects. In others, it’s more subtle elements integrated into the fabric of buildings through forms and finishes.

    Stephen Jolson: I think that each of our projects represents a similar level of craftsmanship in very different ways. They each have different parameters, a different celebration of context, and are ultimately a different interpretation of the client’s brief. Our job is actually to articulate and balance all those things. So our approach is very complex and individualised. I think that’s where we’ve focused our energy on being bespoke and not being prescriptive.

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    Bridging Boyd by Jolson | Photography by Lucas Allen

    What advice would you give to your younger selves entering the field of architecture and design?

    Stephen Jolson: I don’t think I fully appreciated the amount of psychology that goes into our profession when I was younger. I’ve learned over the years about forming good relationships and what it takes to be what I would now consider a good architect. Often, it’s not just limited to design. Design is something that evolves and is a slow process. I would say to myself, don’t ever underestimate the contribution that each step along the journey has made to the present. I think you also need to know that design is a conversation, and you need to open up the conversation to good people around you. You don’t have all the answers and collaboration with a broader team is critical.

    Mat Wright: I’d advise looking deeper into your theories when you are younger. It’s important to test your ideas and be ready to adapt and evolve. I think sometimes you come out of uni with a prescriptive idea about what things should be like, and over time I’ve learnt to be more nurturing and humane.

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    Earth House by Jolson | Photography by Earl Cartar and Scott Newett

    What can we look forward to from Jolson in 2022?

    Stephen Jolson: We’re in the process of delivering four projects we’ve been working on over the past few years during COVID, which celebrate the holistic approach we’ve been speaking about, so we are excited to share these this year.

    Mat Wright: All four projects are quite different, so it’ll be exciting to see them come into fruition.

    Stephen Jolson: Each project represents the level of rigour and bespoke craftsmanship that goes into formulating individual responses for very unique and differing clients.

    Stephen Jolson: One of the projects is a memorial room for Melbourne’s future Jewish Holocaust Centre, in collaboration with Kerstin Thompson Architects. This is a project that is deeply meaningful to me personally and professionally. I feel honoured to be able to have this opportunity to use my career and profession to pass on a legacy of the Holocaust to my community as well as the wider multicultural community in Melbourne. It seems even more pivotal now than ever with some of the global injustices taking place around the world. It’s an interesting project where you have what is perceived as a very small room, which carries an enormous weight.

    Mat Wright: We are also beginning construction on our sixth collaboration with bespoke developers Orchard Piper, which will be Jolson’s largest scale building to date.

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    House of Bricks by Jolson | Photography by Lucas Allen

    Designer Insider’s Guide:

    Favourite local designer?

    Stephen Jolson: Artist Del Kathryn Barton.

    Mat Wright: Artist Robert Owen.

    Favourite design stores?

    Stephen Jolson: Rosanna Orlandi Gallery in Milan.

    Mat Wright: I am really enjoying visiting stone galleries at the moment, I find them particularly inspiring.

    Favourite galleries or spaces?

    Stephen Jolson: Museum Gipsoteca Antonio Canova in Possagno.

    Mat Wright: Neues Museum in Berlin.

    Where do you go to look at great design?

    Stephen Jolson: I’m always referencing my design inspiration from a moment travelling. And it’s not necessarily finding design at design places. It’s about finding design through engagement with just being in the streets and some very obscure places. It’s about finding the texture from street life.

    Mat Wright: I agree. I think that’s when your mind and body are the most open to seeing things – when you’re travelling. It’s the incidental moments of visiting a gallery or the interaction of eating a meal – remembering how the experience made you feel and wanting to recreate part of that in the work we do.

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    Point Leo Estate by Jolson | Photography by Lucas Allen and Anson Smart

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