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How Judith changed Nicole’s career

By Paul Denham
There’s been a lot of press lately about Judith Neilson and her many building projects around Sydney. A philanthropist and art collector, she is reported to have the largest collection of Chinese contemporary art outside of China, Judith commissioned William Smart’s Smart Studio Design to design and build her award-winning private residence Indigo Slam in Chippendale, Sydney. As well as supporting the arts, Nelson is proving to be a patron of architecture as well. In 2015, she gave $10 million to the UNSW Built Environment faculty to research ways architecture may be able to provide new emergency housing solutions for people affected by disasters and conflicts. It turns out that that is not the only connection to UNSW Built Environment. 
One of our alumna, Nicole Leuning, works at Smart Design Studio and has spent the last 18 months working on Judith’s residence as the Project Architect. Nicole graduated from our Architectural Studies degree in 2002 and has been working at Smart for the last seven years.
Nicole Leuning, UNSW Built Environment Alumna & Lead Architect pictured here inside Judith Neilson's residence, Indigo Slam. Image: David Roche.
UNSW Built Environment sat down with Nicole to discover what it’s like to have a client like Judith, the challenges faced with an out-of-the-box brief and how she ended up at UNSW Built Environment.
How did Indigo Slam come to you as a project?
We had worked with Judith on the White Rabbit Gallery. When she bought the building for the gallery she saw that William had done a plan for the previous owner so she bought that building, saw the plans for that conversion and asked William to look at it again for the gallery.
Judith rang William again and told him she had bought a block around the corner, “Can do you my house this time? If you can’t I’ll call Frank Gehry.”
Luke Moloney, another UNSW Architecture Alumnus, was the initial project architect and I took over from him so the main house was partway through construction when I came aboard.
Have you had to change any of the original design plans?
It’s always an evolving process. Judith was a very strong champion for maintaining the design. She also totally trusted us. As a result, this project required less changes than a normal project. However the design always develops as the work progresses.
Is Judith a rare type of client?
Judith’s brief was different. She had a very strong, conceptual process. She wanted a piece of art to live in. She didn’t want any curtains and that was a challenge for such high rooms. There was to be no pool. She wanted a 60-seat dining room and she wanted less outdoor space than you might expect. She felt she would get more use from the amenities in Chippendale but there is 1100 square meters [of living space] over four floors.
What have you done with this house that you have never tried before or has never been tried before? Has there been any game changers?
The blinds an awning windows were innovative. They were designed by Advanced Design Innovation and had to be operated manually. Everything had to be operated manually and last 100 years. That was challenging so we used more traditional trades than is typical and many itmes were hand-crafted for he house.
Has Indigo Slam changed your career?
This has certainly changed my career. It was a fantastic opportunity to work on such a project and it has now been recognised with a number of architectural awards.  Judith is really an architectural patron.
What about the building? What inspired the shape?
We established a design language for the exterior of folding and cutting and peeling. The depth of the facade also creates a beautiful separation from the street. Only three of the original walls were retained, that was it. It’s really a new building.
Did you do design stuff as a kid?
I took technical drawing at high school and I had two great teachers. In year 10 we all entered a house-design competition whcih I won and that set me on the path, I think. My two teachers were a real inspiration. And it’s a combination of arts, maths and science. It’s a cross over profession. So, from about year nine [in high school] I wanted to go into a design field and found that architecture suited my interest in both the arts and the sciences.
What made you decide to choose UNSW Architecture?
I decided to move to Sydney and I asked my colleagues and the UNSW Architectural School had the best reputation. I worked very hard but it was good experience.
What design object has you excited right now?
I’d have to nominate my new lamp, the Workstead Floor Lamp, with its elegant profile, adjustable positions, heavy cast iron base and beautifully crafted brass details.
The Workstead floor lamp. Image: Supplied by Nicole Leuning.
Might be interested in a career in architecture? Check out our degree.
All images above of Indigo Slam. Images: David Roche and Sharrin Rees.

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Page Last Updated: 19 Dec 2016