Meet the Designer: Sally Caroline

I recently let our Stylephiles in on possibly the best ever DIYer's tip through introducing you to Open Design Studio - the ultra affordable and content rich design resource we've ALL needed at some stage of our interiors journey! The mastermind behind Open Design Studio, Melbourne luxury interior designer Sally Caroline, was driven to create the start-up after years of observing her friend's renovation projects, not to mention providing a constant stream of advice and feedback. And it's really no wonder Sally became their lifeline, with a design pedigree that includes degree qualifications in Melbourne and Copenhagen, a luxury eye gleaned from design gurus David Hicks and Kerry Phelan and over a decade in the biz - who wouldn't want her on speed dial?

We caught up with the incredibly talented Sally (who must have either a clone or a time machine to manage her multiple projects) for a quick Q&A.   Kaz x

PS - Be sure to take advantage of Open Design Studio's FREE TRIAL! Yes... F.R.E.E. This is not a drill - do it now! (or at least straight after you've read this interview :)


Tell me a little more about the origins of Sally Caroline interiors - what journey has led you to today?

Sally Caroline has always been a work in progress. The first seed sprouted when I started my design degree back in 2006. I always knew I wanted to start and run my own business, of course it would tie in with my absolute love for interior design.

I completed my Bachelor of Design across universities in both Melbourne and Copenhagen, before getting a start in the industry with some of my most admired designers in Melbourne. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with and learn from David Hicks and Kerry Phelan. I launched Sally Caroline partly because it felt like the right time to take the leap, and partly for lifestyle reasons - I wanted to spend more time down in Sorrento with my now fiancé. Sally Caroline officially launched in 2014.

I’m sure there’s no ‘normal’ when it comes to being a self-starter... but what would a week at work for Sally Caroline generally look like?

There certainly is no ‘normal’ in the routine of a self-starter! My routine is particularly abnormal because, alongside being a self-starter with two businesses, I also live in two locations! My home base is currently coastal, I have a house there with my fiancé - Grant - and Hungarian Vizsla - Bernie.

My interiors practice is thus split between Richmond and Sorrento. From both locations we service our coastal and suburban projects. Depending on where my key weekly meetings and consults are, I juggle living between the two.

Our projects span the seaside regions of Sorrento and Flinders, as well is in Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast, ensuring that no day is the same, often travelling between clients and sites.

A typical week would include meetings with my team on Mondays.  We’re running 2 companies that work alongside each other, so on Mondays I sit down with my marketing manager and and Open Design Studio manager to discuss strategy and progress, then with my design team to discuss design projects.

Tuesdays I’m often in client meetings, and the first Tuesday of every month I have my EO (Entrepreneurs Organisation) forum - a monthly session with other business owners where we discuss strategies and learnings to scale our businesses. EO has been an absolute blessing for my entrepreneurial journey - training and connecting with other like minded entrepreneurs who all have very different offerings, but much the same conversations in running a company.

The program includes 4 major training days per year and an annual retreat - all geared around business development and strategy.

As an interior designer I’m constantly on-the-go. Between client meetings, site visits, designing and furniture sourcing, I’m often running between meeting to show room, to project site to ensure all things run smoothly and that my clients are always happy. I have most meetings in my Melbourne studio and that’s where my business and marketing planning takes place also. Then there are the occasional interstate trips for my clients who are outside of Victoria.

So the work week varies a lot, no matter my efforts to streamline between my two locations. Variety is the spice of life though, so I wouldn’t have it any other way! I feel very fortunate that my work allows me proximity to both!

Where do you draw inspiration from in your design?

I draw inspiration from EVERYWHERE in my design! As a designer, an important daily practice is keeping current with all the relevant design publishers that are circulating from print to web. It’s good practice to keep abreast of what current local and international designers are doing in the field of architecture, interiors and industrial design. I am energised by the forward movement of my field. I love seeing what today’s minds are producing, especially when I see new products that I can include in my own projects. I am inspired by my favourite designers (past and present) so I always keep an eye on their latest, as well as spend time researching past icons.

Everything I see and my lifestyle itself inspires my design. Sometimes I might come across an accidental still life in nature that changes the direction of a colour palette you’re developing. Sometimes even the shapes of shadows helps you reimagine the furniture styling of a floor plan! Being coastal and urban definitely always inspires. I often seek to create homes that are laid-back and luxurious, that are emphatic of the client’s personal style and lifestyle, whilst sufficiently nurturing their everyday routine. I’m aware that a lot of people out there have similar ‘self-starter’ lifestyles to myself, so the residences I design always consider the functions of relaxation alongside productivity and entertainment.

What is your launch point when you begin a new project?

We start our design process with a strategic briefing session. We usually spend 2 hours or so with our client, running through various questions and discussion points for their future home, clearly defining what success looks like to them. We place huge emphasis on this stage because we believe that a clearly defined direction will yield the most successful project in the end.

From there we move through a structured design process to deliver projects. We actually made a video to detail the stages! You will find it here:

What are the biggest roadblocks you see in people opting to DIY their interiors?

The biggest roadblocks I see usually revolve around the following:

  1. Unclear briefing/Insufficient Schematic Design.

This is when people have a rough idea of how they want their house to look and function without taking the right time to resolve properly - sometimes making decisions on the fly or selecting items as they build.  This leads to limited choices (as the good stuff has a lead time) or poorly considered decisions because they are unclear on their overall vision. We spend time initially setting the vision, planning and documenting well before a build commences to ensure the finished product is the best it could possibly be.

  1. Insufficient knowledge, information and mindset.

There is a common misconception people have from industry to industry. Most people think another person’s job is easy and then form unrealistic expectations of the task. Interior design and building are highly complicated jobs, and it’s a matter of not knowing how much there is to learn till you get into it.  I have spent a decade styling, designing, building and renovating homes, both for myself and clients, and I am still learning!

Most DIYers often realise this only once they’ve sunk their teeth into the process. Things take more time and resources than expected, and their lack of skill and experience starts to show. This would be a lot easier if there were more comprehensive information out there to help them understand the process before they delve into it, and then guide them through step-by-step. That’s what I’ve aimed to create with Open Design Studio!

  1. Common renovating errors

There are many and I’ve made my fair share over the past decade! Friends often call me to help solve their rookie renovating errors.  These include planning mishaps, not maximising natural light, hiring the wrong build team, copying straight from a magazine, the list goes on! Most are avoidable with research and experience.

  1. Fear

So often we’re talking to members about their fear of making the wrong decisions and the agony of delaying because of it. This often happens around areas of big decisions which are genuinely costly. For some people this holds them back from doing anything at all. More so with ODS, we love that we’re educating, empowering and supporting people to master their renovations with the right information.

How do you find the process of collaborating with clients?

Collaboration is the most exciting part of designing for clients! I find it to be highly rewarding and extremely important (I feel that goes without saying, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who think and work otherwise) part of the creative process. The best part of my job is creating and realising a brief together with a client. My process is about meeting them in the middle. We don’t just ‘draw houses for clients’ and we also don’t tell them how to live. It’s about sharing your skills and experience with them to help bring shared ideas to life. For us, collaborating runs smoothly with little room for error because we’ve created systems that ease the process. We start with clear briefing before going through a systemised design process with milestones. Our clients are always engaged in the creative process.

What are the most common obstacles you have to overcome when working with clients?

Strong communication is critical for working on such intimate and personal projects - designing a place for someone else to live. What is interesting with working with so many different clients is that they all have their own unique way of communicating, making decisions and collaborating. For us, the first ‘obstacle’ (if we could call it that) is to first determine their language and process. Being on the same page is key so we move the project forward after establishing a common ground for communicating. By this, I consider things such as whether or not they like to see specification sheets and dimensions, or do they visualise in 3D? Some clients are chill to just go with our recommendations. Others are energised by ideas, context or process. We serve them best after we figure out what makes them hum.

Do you think there’s a common perception that professional interior design is only available on big budgets?

Yes definitely! Unfortunately this is often correct. Professional interior design services cost what they do simply because they take a lot of time, sometimes teams of people and require a lot of professional skills. They’re often large scale projects that demand the collaboration of many trades and an interior designer’s job is not just to design the project, but also oversee and manage its build!

As an interior designer with a successful business, tell us about what led you to create Open Design Studio?

Open Design Studio came about after years of observing and hearing about my friend’s renovation projects around me. As an interior designer, I’m always approached for tips, advice and feedback on people’s home projects. After realising how little comprehensive and practical information there is out there to help my friends, I felt the desire to do something about this. I started to bottle all of my advice and templates for close friends and it grew into a community of like minded people mastering their own projects!

Sharing our love of design is a natural extension of my design ethos and passion. It just made sense, and it feels really good! I love that I now get to help renovators design their homes properly, with a long term view, teaching them things that it took me my whole career and all its lessons to learn!

Where do you source your furnishings, decor and those ‘special’ finishing pieces?

These can be found from anywhere! I always encourage buying less but buying well. I favour buying fewer, better pieces and gradually adding to a collection.  Authentically designed, beautifully crafted items of the highest quality will never date. There is no substitute for impeccable quality. When I select items for a client - a chair, a vase or a chandelier, that piece will always have a story. It will be designed by someone innovative and iconic - produced by a furniture house rich in history. When my clients make purchases, they’re buying into that art form, collecting a piece of that history.

I have my favourite local suppliers and joiners as go-tos for key pieces. I also buy a lot of antique and vintage from Australia and abroad. You never know when you might stumble on a special treasure, so I’m always keeping my eyes peeled - especially while travelling!

What do you think is the most important aspect to consider when reimagining a space?

For us, all homes need to be beautiful in form and genius in function. A large part of the interior designer’s job is to design homes that are beautiful and emphatic of their client’s style. For us, we place emphasis on how they practically function to nurture the everyday routine of our clients also. They need to feel and function as good as they look. They need to last. Ultimately, they need to feel like ‘home’ - a place to rest, to grow, to dream and work towards your goals! It needs to represent you as well as it serves you.

What would your dream brief be (with limitless resources, budget & time!)

Ooh, can I have 2? Firstly I’d love to do the interior refurb of a luxury private jet. Secondly, a Parisian penthouse!