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Indesign Luminary: Nexus Designs

It’s with sadness that Indesign has heard of the passing of Janne Faulkner – a true pioneer of design in Australia. Here we republish the Indesign Luminary feature from issue #57 of Indesign.

  • (L-R) Janne Faulkner and Harley Ansteen of Nexus Designs.


March 2nd, 2018

Fifty years ago, with the post-war home-building boom underway in Australia, moves were afoot to transform suburban living. Janne Faulkner and Harley Anstee were at the forefront of that change. Through their ground-breaking Melbourne interior, graphic and product design practice, Nexus Designs, they have helped define interior design in Australian terms, and through their extensive colour consultancy work, they have, more than anyone, brightened everyday lives in houses all over Australia.

Through Nexus Designs’ long history, Faulkner and Anstee have collaborated with some of the most highly regarded architects in the business: Graeme Gunn, Daryl Jackson, Philip Cox, Denton Corker Marshall, to name a few.

Faulkner's early work was with Merchant Builders.

Faulkner’s early work was with Merchant Builders.

They’ve designed interiors for Government House, Canberra; Admiralty House, Sydney; Yulara Tourist Resort, Uluru, Northern Territory; Southgate Retail Complex, Southbank, Melbourne; and the Australian Chancery Complex, Saudi Arabia. They’ve also created signature store designs for high-profile national retailers, such as Country Road, Crabtree & Evelyn, Laura Ashley and Ken Done stores, and worked on thousands of private residential interiors.

At the same time, Faulkner and Anstee have consulted to numerous building materials manufacturers: Bluescope Steel, Boral, The Laminex Group, Johnson Tiles, Dulux etc. and worked with many product manufacturers: Sorbent, Telecom, Sheridan. They have also produced four books on interior design, and won perhaps too many awards to mention, except that Janne Faulkner AM (1982), an IDEA Gold Medallist in 2011, was inducted into the Design Institute of Australia’s (DIA) Hall of Fame in 2013, and that Anstee became a Fellow of the DIA in 1992 and was awarded its 20 Year Citation in 2007.

The Australian House

To put all these achievements in context let’s skip back to the 1960s, when a small but concerted push was underway to create houses that were truly Australian. In contrast to the International Modernism that had seduced many architects, this locally-focussed modernism called for affordable, well-designed suburban housing that was responsive to Australian conditions, integrated with native landscapes and appropriate to our way of life. In Sydney, project homebuilders Pettit & Sevitt and architects Ken Woolley, Michael Dysart, Bruce Rickard and others addressed these issues as part of the ‘Sydney School’.

Merchant Builders project.

Merchant Builders project.

In Melbourne, the movement was led by Merchant Builders, which was formed by David Yencken and John Ridge, and architect Graeme Gunn who designed the company’s first three display homes, built in Glen Waverley, in 1965. Merchant Builders was hugely successful from the start and, by 1967, it had taken orders to build 170 homes.

At this point, David Yencken met Janne Faulkner at a dinner party. They talked all night about architecture, had “a very, very interesting conversation,” and the following day Yencken offered Faulkner the job of running the joinery factory at Merchant Builders that produced Nexus kitchen cabinetry. With her innate style and confidence, Faulkner was soon furnishing the display homes as well, and Nexus Designs grew from there.

Janne Faulkner

Although untrained for the role, Faulkner quickly proved equal to Yencken’s faith in her potential. She grew up just outside Launceston, where her dynamic parents, Stuart and Mary Maslin, had established Hagley Farm, the first farm school in Tasmania, which, as an exemplary model, was visited by a flow of academics, writers, educators and patrons. Of this innovative and creative environment, Faulkner says, “All we talked about was architecture, books, music, art – it was part of my whole background.”

After she matriculated, Faulkner travelled in Europe and Scandinavia and worked in London and Oxford for a few years. She returned to Tasmania, married Bill Faulkner, Managing Director of his family’s business, Huddart Parker Shipping Company, and had two children. The family moved to Melbourne in the early 1960s, where she proceeded to renovate three houses in succession.

“All we talked about was architecture, books, music, art – it was part of my whole background.” – Janne Faulkner

Faulkner would never have been content as a society wife, which was what was expected of her, and she had always taken a great interest in architecture and art – her great-aunt was an artist, as is her daughter Sarah. In combining these two interests through interior design she invented for herself a highly creative and fulfilling career, at a time when the practice in Australia was fledgeling.

Nexus Beginnings

“I started right at the beginning with Merchant Builders, which was so lucky!” says Faulkner. “In those days Merchant Builders was like the Bloomsbury Group in London – a whole range of quite brilliant people, [who were] very idealistic.” Along with Gunn, the company drew together some of the most respected designers of the time, including architect Daryl Jackson, landscape designer Ellis Stones and graphic designer Bruce Weatherhead.

In creating the interiors Faulkner was given a free rein, furnishing the display houses “right down to the last tea-towel and ornament”. “We used completely different things to anybody else, so it was a very different look,” says Faulkner, who mixed well-designed Australian furniture and classic imports with early Australian pieces to create a “lived-in feeling”.

She used Marimekko fabrics, stained timbers and bold colour. She put kilim rugs on the timber floors, “used carpets and curtains only where we absolutely had to, and very simple tiling in the bathrooms,” she says.

“I used to go to Saint-Paul de Vence (on the French Riviera) to the Maeght Foundation and buy lithographs by Matisse, Miro, Picasso, everything for absolute peanuts. It’d make you drool now!”  – Janne Faulkner

She sought out local craftspeople and included handmade chairs, lights and tapestries, and she completed the interiors with artworks. “I used to go to Saint-Paul de Vence (on the French Riviera) to the Maeght Foundation and buy lithographs by Matisse, Miro, Picasso, everything for absolute peanuts. It’d make you drool now!” she says.

“You could buy Matisse lithographs for $150, the real thing, which are now $9,000, $10,000, $12,000!” She’d put these together with contemporary Australian art and craft – “In those days you could buy things very reasonably – Brett Whiteleys, Fred Williams – so we were really fostering the arts in Australia and people just loved it.”

Harley Anstee

Faulkner purchased the imported furniture for the display houses from Design 250, one of the few such stores in Melbourne at the time that stocked Brands like B&B Italia, Cassina, Arkana and DUX. Anstee, who had studied interior design at RMIT, worked at Design 250 for 10 years developing an extensive knowledge of furniture of all kinds.

Anstee would organise the upholstery of the furniture. “Then he’d help with lighting and accessories, and help unpack it and put it all together. We got on really well from the beginning,” says Faulkner, and in 1975, with a burgeoning workload, she invited him to join her at Nexus Designs.

In addition to furnishing the display homes, Faulkner and Anstee had an automatic introduction to all Merchant Builder clients, and with the enthusiastic publicity they received in the homemaker magazines, their practice flourished.

By the early 1980s, Nexus Designs had separated from Merchant Builders, relocated to South Melbourne, and was involved in residential and commercial interior projects around Australia. Offices were later established in New Zealand in Sydney, and staff numbers rose.

Nexus Philosophy

The approach that brought Nexus Designs early success has “remained the same since Day One,” says Faulkner. It is based on a belief in longevity, rather than the disposability of fashion. It involves working with the Australian landscape, Australian colours and Australian art, using classic furniture and a concern for comfort, practicality and simplicity together with a feel for naturalness in materials.

“It was always based very much on the Australian environment and the fact that Australia has a very different way of life,” she adds. “We’re much freer… you know, people want to take off their shoes and walk on timber floors and then walk straight out onto the sand.”

“We’re much freer… you know, people want to take off their shoes and walk on timber floors and then walk straight out onto the sand.” – Janne Faulkner

This thinking was galvanised, when in 1983, Philip Cox commissioned Nexus Designs to create the interiors of the Yulara Tourist Resort at Uluru, Northern Territory, where the collective aim was to create a place that was intrinsically Australian. The project became an icon of the times, and Faulkner was proud to have orchestrated the inclusion of one of the first Aboriginal art collections to be used in a commercial interior.

Yulara was an early large-scale commercial project for Nexus.

Yulara was an early large-scale commercial project for Nexus.

Given that it entailed “the entire village as well as the two hotels and conference centres”, the whole project was a significant undertaking for Nexus Designs, which took five years to complete with a staff of just four. An issue that became apparent as it progressed was that no local building products were available in colours suited to that particular landscape. Nor were the manufacturers of different products consulting on their colour ranges in any way. As Faulkner explains, “The Johnson Tile people didn’t talk with Dulux paints, so they didn’t know what colours were being put out.”

Australian Colours

As a result, says Anstee, they worked with various companies to help them introduce Australian colours into their ranges, “and we got them together so they all coordinated.” As Nexus Designs took up this pivotal role, many manufacturing companies sought their advice, and in 1984 the company started an in-house Product Development division.

Then, in 1985, to better present and promote clients’ products to their particular markets, they introduced a dedicated graphics team. Anstee, who had often liaised with The Conran Group in the UK and admired its work over a range of design disciplines, fostered this expansion, and the three facets of design have continued under the Nexus banner.

The company’s colour consultancy work has spanned several decades and Anstee is acknowledged as an industry leader in the field. 


Nexus Now

The “fantastic partnership, based on enormous respect” between Faulkner and Anstee, (they have different skills, but similar ideas) has been the sustaining force behind Nexus Designs through the years. But what else contributed? “You’ve got to be brave,” says Faulkner. “You’ve also got to give the client a very good reason for what you do. Philip Cox taught me that. You’ve got to have deep knowledge,” says Faulkner, who reads four or five books a week.

“You’ve also got to give the client a very good reason for what you do. Philip Cox taught me that.” – Janne Faulkner

They both encourage staff to read widely, to go to art exhibitions, to travel, and to be broadly informed. “In architecture and design the very best practices are deeply grounded with a very definite philosophy”, says Faulkner, who has always maintained the philosophy of Nexus Designs is based on a cultural premise, through which inspiration is drawn from architecture, art, landscape, technology, music, literature and history.

It is this deep knowledge that Nexus Designs has somehow translated into a quintessentially Australian style.

Nexus Designs was featured as an Indesign Luminary in issue #57 of the magazine. We have republished after hearing of the passing of Janne Faulkner – a true luminary figure of our industry.

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