From interior architecture to speculative subterranean design, Charlotte Wilson of SJB is one to watch in the Australian design world.
August 11th, 2023
Charlotte Wilson, co-interiors lead and senior associate at SJB in Sydney, is certainly not short of ideas, passion or inspiration in design. From the provocative work that captured wide attention as a student in the UK to award-winning designs in contemporary Australia – such as Yirranma Place in Darlinghurst – Wilson has an already impressive record to date, and she’s set to become a significant voice in Australian design.
The story begins in the UK, specifically the Ribble Valley where Wilson grew up. Bordered by the historic Forest of Bowland to one side and some of Lancashire’s early industrial towns to the other, it’s one of the most beautiful corners of England. “I was exposed to design and architecture at a young age through my dad’s work,” explains Wilson, referring to the family business, Darwen Terracotta, which focuses on hand crafted faience and terracotta façades in both new build and heritage contexts.
Wilson initially studied interior architecture in Leeds before completing her Master’s degree in architecture at the Royal College of Art in London. It was then Make Architects, with its studios in Sydney and London, that acted as the bridge between Australia and the UK. Wilson worked on the interiors at Opera Residences (in collaboration with Tzannes) before returning to London to work on the prestigious One Leadenhall project. The Sydney lifestyle, however, proved an irresistible draw and Wilson moved down under to take up a role as interiors co-lead at SJB.
Working across – perhaps even undermining – the divide between interiors and architecture, Wilson has developed a holistic approach to design. “Throughout my education, I focused heavily on repurposing existing buildings, working at both macro and micro scales. I suppose this was where my fixation on breathing life into forgotten spaces began and where I started to develop an understanding of this sustainable practice.
“I also have a particular passion for brutalist subterranean architecture,” continues Wilson. This latter aspect recalls her work as a student, with projects that included a politicised subterranean London, framed in relation to controversial fracking proposals. She also repurposed a sunken cliffside Cold War bunker, creating a radical intervention that housed a women at war museum. Her Master’s thesis, Deep City, explored the creative adaptive reuse of London’s forgotten underground landscapes.
On one hand, there is the very real, grounded and painstaking work of adaptive re-use; on the other, speculative designs that challenge the limits of design. It’s perhaps in the space between these two architectural worlds that Wilson’s talents and inspirations as a designer come to full fruition. The interest in underground architecture might seem fanciful but, as INDESIGN’s 90th issue on ‘City Futures’ points out in a story about Tokyo Metabolism, the difficult questions about urban life often demand radically imaginative solutions.
Part of this holistic attitude is a belief that architecture, speculative or ‘real’, can and should be used to provoke debate and strive for agency in creating change. “I think architecture holds the power to spark these conversations – although not everyone relates to design, everyone can relate to the built environment,” says Wilson.
The social concerns, meanwhile, extend to questions of housing. Echoing the message conveyed by the recent Sydney visit of Pritzker Prize-winners, Lacaton & Vassal, Wilson is unambiguous in presenting her understanding of design through a social lens: “It should be a basic human right to have access to safe housing.” She’s also deeply passionate about sustainable design but recognises that at the end of day, these practices cost more in Australia (due to a number of reasons). She believes that sustainability has to be the easy option and that in order for this to be the case, the government needs to create more incentives for developers to strive for sustainable outcomes.
In a word, you might say that Charlotte Wilson is invested in architecture and design. She cares about what it can do, and about thinking widely and deeply about what else it might be able to achieve. One of the things she advocates for in relation to interiors, for example, is a move towards using more local materials in order to minimise waste, a topic that necessarily raises thorny questions around domestic trade costs and complex international supply chains.
Back on the aesthetic plane of design, however, where does Wilson find inspiration? “I’m obsessed with Carlo Scarpa,” she answers. “I find his level of detail just fascinating, and I love spaces that evoke an emotion.” Other designers mentioned include David Chipperfield, Tadao Ando and Ricardo Bofill, while more recently Wilson has found another creative outlet in painting.
Italian architect Scarpa was a key inspiration for Yirranma Place. “It was definitely one of the highlights of my career,” says Wilson. “It was such a privilege to bring this beautiful old building back to its former glory, repurpose it as a space for the community and connect it back to Country. The design process was made that much better knowing that the building was going to be occupied by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, whose purpose is to break the cycles of disadvantage in Australia. We strived for a meaningful intervention that, at its core, values longevity whilst sparking joy for those that use the space.”
Yirranma Place is just one project that speaks to Wilson’s multifaceted passions, talents and inspirations in design. Combining sustainability concerns, social questions and a holistic understanding of the power of architecture, Charlotte Wilson looks likely to be a renowned figure in Australian design for the future.
Anson Smart (Yirranma Place), Katie Kaars (portrait)
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