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Deconstructing the Boys Club

Indesign Luminary Sue Carr was recently named one of Australia’s most influential women. We chat to the entrepreneur, industry influencer and inspired architect about breaking down barriers in A+D.

  • Sue Carr

  • Norton Rose Signage

  • University of Sydney Business School

  • South Yarra Residence

  • Courtyard Residence

  • Courtyard Residence

ALICE BLACKWOOD: Firstly, congratulations on being named one of Australia’s most influential women. I note that your name is listed under the Business Enterprise category. Tell me about the significance to you personally, and for your business, of being included in this elite list?

DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER OF CARR DESIGN GROUP, SUE CARR: This award is such a great honour and I am thrilled to be included amongst a group of impressive and inspiring women.

These awards celebrate and highlight extraordinary women across a diverse range of endeavours whose tireless commitment to creating change would have otherwise remained unrecognised. This commitment to change has often been the result of a deep passion or a motivation for challenging the status quo. For me, it was both.

I was very fortunate at a young age to realise a passion for design and to then turn this passion into a lifelong career. In 1971, whether it was sheer ignorance or bravado, I decided to open my own practice, and I have never looked back.

At the time, interior design was seen as more of a cottage industry and, unlike Europe and the USA, Australia was naive in its realisation of the importance of design or in its support of a creative culture that could offer significant opportunities to develop the industry to its full potential.

Equally challenging was the lack of opportunities in women’s leadership in Australian business and society. The 1970s saw a construction and development industry dominated by men who considered interior designers as someone to choose the curtains and cushions.

Along the way I embraced leadership positions within the tightly knit ‘boys club’ of construction and development, attaining professional parity with men at a young age. I hope my tireless dedication to education and advocacy for women in design has paved the way for a generation of young females who have looked to me and other women in this profession as role models and a key inspiration in their own careers.

My motivation in establishing my first practice, Inarc, was to build the reputation of interior design as a worthwhile and recognised profession, one that works alongside architecture not beneath it. I realised that design had the power to make a positive difference to the environment that surrounds it, and my focus was to help clients succeed in their objectives by using design as a major instrument of that success.

I was never discouraged by gender inequality. Through ambition and a conviction for good design, I fought hard to raise the professional profile of interior design from an afterthought to a core discipline and a vital component to the built form.

Whilst awards such as Women of Influence are incredibly gratifying, of significance to me is that every day I do the one thing I love most with a team of dedicated, talented and innovative designers. They provide such inspiration and energy, which in turn creates a strong dynamic office culture. It is the sharing of the ideas, the experiences and the expertise that produces the best work.

Tell me about the significance of this achievement for women working in architecture, within Australia?

For over a century, women have played an important role in shaping the architecture and design industry in Australia. Today more than 40% of architecture and interior graduates are women. Yet despite this, women leave the profession at a much higher rate to men and are significantly underrepresented in senior and leadership positions. Australian research suggests the reason for this point to work/life demands and negative perceptions about women’s leadership abilities.

Awards such as 100 Women of Influence promote, recognise and celebrate women leaders who are making a difference to our society. These award programs are providing inspiration and a launching pad for many women in realising their own career ambitions or capabilities.

Importantly these programs focus on the achievement of women, highlighting to young women that it is possible to push boundaries, to achieve equal parity with men and to balance successful, prosperous, exciting careers with a fulfilling personal and family life.

I hope that I have played an integral role in the evolution of Australian interior design and architecture. In a career spanning nearly 50 years, I have dedicated myself to championing innovation through tumultuous times; increasing awareness and understanding of the importance of good design; raising the profile of the once fledging industry; growing and championing opportunities for women’s leadership; and significant contributors to the Australian interior design industry in Australia.

What are the specific qualities upon which you are judged or considered for this list? And what was the winning combination that led to your success in this instance?

The business category recognises women who have developed a substantial business, led its strategy and direction, and continue to remain active in its operation.

In 1971, I launched my own practice Inarc. At the time, interior design was seen as more of a cottage industry and, unlike Europe and USA, Australia was naive in its realisation of the importance of design or in its support of a creative culture that could offer significant opportunities to develop the industry to its full potential.

Despite the successes along the way, it has not always been smooth sailing. Throughout my career, I have experienced and felt the pressure of a number of recessions, which for many architecture and design firms spelt the end. However I saw this as an opportunity and so as the 90’s recession took hold, I forged what was to become one of Australia’s most successful and prolific architecture and design partnerships when I partnered with Denton Corker Marshall to become DCMI (Denton Corker Marshall Interiors).

I suppose it has been through relentlessness self-belief and a dedication to learning, that I have been able to forge such a gratifying and fulfilling career. But, I have not done it alone. Throughout my career, I have been the beneficiary of much support. I have been very fortunate to be supported by my wonderful family, and by a team of incredibly talented and dedicated designers and architects.

The ability to be supported from home and work, to learn from the people around you and to draw on the incredible friendships is paramount to business success. These people have encouraged me to take risks, open doors and unlock incredible opportunities.

BLACKWOOD: As an industry influencer, what would you like to see change, or improve within the A&D industry? (A good opportunity to raise an issue that you feel isn’t being addressed well enough… or at all).

For over forty years, I have tried to play an integral role in the growth of Australian women in leadership in the fields of architecture and design.

From a young age, I pursued my passion for design, strengthening my skills through study and experience, and then looking to inspire others along the way. When times were tough either financially or personally, I tried to put this aside and instead continued to lead, engage and inspire my team and importantly create a workplace of trust, respect, teamwork and collaborative achievement.

Shaping our city’s environment, women have played a lead part in Melbourne’s design story. Yet interestingly – although not surprisingly – women are less recognised in the industry than their male counterparts. Again, this needs to change.

Was it tougher for women ‘back then’? As a design professional, I don’t feel being a woman has been a disadvantage, nor an advantage. I’m just someone who has a passion for what I do. One of the difficulties I did find ‘back then’ was explaining to my clients the role of an interior designer. At the time many believed, maybe because I was female, that I was responsible for choosing the curtain fabrics, the cushions and adornments. In meetings, they couldn’t comprehend why an interior designer was involved before the building was even constructed. Many consider, even today, that interior design is an inferior discipline to architecture.

Key lessons in effecting change are many. It means being authentic and genuine, knowing yourself and not being afraid to speak up and show people who you are. It means challenging the status quo, bringing new problem solving ideas to use and the development of egalitarian, collaborative cultures.

The quality of design education has grown from strength to strength. We are seeing students (a lot of them women) graduate with a strong and dedicated focus on the foundation elements of design and a platform from which they can create distinct, responsive and dynamic environments. The fresh outlooks and intelligence that new graduates bring to the practice are considerable, I love watching as ideas grow from the page to life as they sketch, model, sculpt and digitise.

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