In Conversation | Susi Leeton

  • HERO IMAGE PROJECT Oak Tree House by Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors
  • HERO IMAGE PHOTOGRAPHY Peter Bennetts
  • ADDITIONAL WORDS Holly Beadle
  • est living birch tree house susi leeton 01 750x540

    Melbourne-based architect Susi Leeton shares a glimpse of designing, travelling and leading her own practice in this one-on-one interview.

    Susi Leeton launched her namesake architecture and interior studio in 1997. Described as a “leap of faith”, Susi has continued to leave noticeable marks on the Australian residential design scene ever since. For her highly-resolved portfolio, the architect credits overseas trips, meeting new people and learning about different spaces, cultures and ways of living. However, she maintains through all of this that the Australian design community is in a class of its own, nurturing unique ways of thinking and creating.

    In this interview, we touch on Susi’s travels, her twofold approach to design, her love of sculptural staircases and ultimately, how she arrived at where she is today. 

    Susi, you’ve established yourself as a recognisable name in Australian residential design. Could you please briefly explain how you got to where you are today?

    Susi Leeton: When I finished school, I received a place to study both architecture and fine art painting – two things I was very passionate about. It was a fork-in-the-road moment and I selected Architecture at Melbourne University. There, I formed precious friendships and discovered my love for the three-dimensional.

    After I finished studying, I travelled and worked in incredible places with incredible people. However, it was with a leap of faith and a passion to create beautiful, unique spaces that I started my own practice.  

    What were you working on just before you sat down to do this interview?

    Susi Leeton: I was preparing for a photo shoot for a beautiful project we’ve just completed on the river in Melbourne.  I’m also working on a series of paintings called ‘Magnolias’ – just for fun and to remind myself of the delicateness of nature. 

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    Flinders House by Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors | Photography by Lisa Cohen and Sharyn Cairns

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    Flinders House by Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors | Photography by Lisa Cohen and Sharyn Cairns

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    Flinders House by Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors | Photography by Lisa Cohen and Sharyn Cairns

    What insights into the international design scene did you gain during your time in Singapore and Rome?

    Susi Leeton: Working overseas has been priceless (and so exciting) in giving me a depth of understanding of different spaces, cultures and ways of living.

    Singapore was about responding to the climate and environment; integrating inside and outside; creating both warm and cool spaces; controlling airflow and natural light.

    Rome was amazing. I worked in a studio beside the Pantheon and would walk past all these incredible monuments on my way to work every day.  The Pantheon took my breath away every time I stepped inside – to think they built it 2000 years ago blows my mind. I worked with an architect who was a true creative spirit; crossing artistic disciplines. We were designing furniture for Edra; lights for Artemide; set designs for La Scala in Milan. 

    Rome also showed me how to respond to history and respect tradition. I love that handmade artisan work is so highly regarded in Italy. Beauty was in overload – a magical experience!

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    Hawksburn House by Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors | Photography by Peter Bennetts

    What, in your perspective, sets Australian residential design apart from the rest of the world? 

    Susi Leeton: Big question – Australia has an incredible design community. Our freedom and independence; our wide skies and sense of big spaces; not being limited by what can often be the heaviness of tradition. There’s young confidence and a sense of innovation.

    Which of these words, if you had to choose only one, best describes your approach to design; intuitive, intentional or spontaneous? Why?

    Susi Leeton: It would have to be two words – intuitive and intentional. They go hand-in-hand in my opinion.

    Each design requires an intuitive response to the site’s potential; the way the sun falls, the shadows and light, the function and feel of a space.  

    I intuitively listen to the client and intentionally work through the most functional and beautiful options. I often prepare many options before I even show the client one of them. There is a lot of rigour and intent in our designs, even if they do appear intuitive.

    It’s evident you have a love for sculptural staircases! What does a sculptural staircase impart to a home? 

    Susi Leeton: Yes, I absolutely love the fluidity and beauty a sculptural staircase creates in a space. I’ve been passionate about them for more than 20 years. The interesting thing is that they are extremely functional and actually save space. They also allow light to be cast from above and pool on the floor below. They are pure sculpture to me, like a ribbon connecting the levels. Constantin Brancusi is an inspiration for my sculptural staircases; his work is fluid and elegant; there’s such grace and presence.

    What’s one material you can’t go without in your projects? Why? 

    Susi Leeton: I’d have to say polished plaster. When it comes into contact with light, it shimmers and creates this whimsical sort of movement on the walls. It brings spaces to life and imbues poetry into them.  

    What’s next for Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors? What can we look forward to? 

    Susi Leeton: We’re currently working on some beautiful renovations and new houses, while a hotel is also on the cards. We also love doing small projects – they’re labours of love – and we always delight in creating little gems within the landscape. A handful of these projects we’re exploring with past clients and I love that reconnection.

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    Oak Tree House by Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors | Photography by Peter Bennetts

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    Oak Tree House by Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors | Photography by Peter Bennetts

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    Oak Tree House by Susi Leeton Architects + Interiors | Photography by Peter Bennetts

    Design Insider’s Guide:

    Favourite local designer? McGlashan Everist for their Heide Gallery – its connection to the landscape and sense of both open and cosy spaces.

    Favourite design stores? Melbourne has so many inspiring design stores and furniture designers: Paul Barbera, James Richardson, Mobilia, In Good Company, Fanuli, Living Edge, Poliform and Space. I also love checking out Leonard Joel Auctions and other second-hand places.

    Favourite galleries or spaces? Artwork is an essential component of our designs. I love so many galleries: Fletcher Arts, Arc One, This Is No Fantasy, Station, Mars, Vivienne Anderson and Sophie Gannon to name a few. Sally Gabori is my all-time favourite artist – her work transcends time, space and colour.

    Where do you go to look at great design? I try to find the time to flick through some of the big beautiful books I have in my library. Travel, as well, is, of course, a big one. I particularly love French and Danish design – their elegance and sophistication.

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