Australian super-designer Greg Natale talks to Effect about his world-famous interiors, his influences, his process – and 1980s TV.
You don’t forget the first time you see one of Greg Natale’s interiors. And while it’s the audacity of his work that hits the top notes, they resonate because these are compositions built on sound architectural principles. “I’m a modernist at heart,” Natale tells us – and it’s this grounding in the clean, functionalist substructure that allows the rock-star elements to thrill.
While there’s a timelessness and solidity to the clarity of his vision, the joy of his work is in the untrammelled energy that emits from spaces like his Mosman project or the Toorak penthouse – the latter brilliantly described by Natale as channelling Alexis Carrington’s apartment in 80s TV drama Dynasty. When we heard this, we knew we had to interview him.
The distinctiveness of Natale’s work is weaved through his use of colour, pattern, and also its tailored and curated cohesion. Is this recognisable quality something Natale himself sees, or even courts? “I think it’s important for a designer to have a signature,” he says. “There are some amazing designers I know in America, but they’re just not getting noticed because there’s not this strong handwriting. From day one, that was something I thought was very important – to have a really strong signature, to have a handwriting.”
Natale has nailed a critical truism in all creative endeavours, from music to art to writing: great work needs to be recognisable in order to cut through in our attention-saturated world. But can that strong identity be a burden as well as a blessing?
“It needs to evolve,” say Natale. “And that’s hard, because what happens is, once you hit on a winning look and a winning formula, everyone comes to you. And then you can get bored and you want to explore different things.”
Natale reflects on his own ascendancy: “I was sort of known as the king of Hollywood Regency in Australia. And 10 years ago, when that style went global, my phone just rang off the hook and my office exploded. We went from three people to 20 people within a couple of years. But now I’m evolving it into something different. A bit more maximalist. Still clean lines, and the patterns are still there, but the colours are new.”
It was the sets of Space Odyssey and The Shining and Dynasty that really made me decide that I want to do this. And it’s been a vocation.Greg Natale
This evolution is evident in Natale’s latest book, The Layered Interior. “I was exploring a lot of brass, a lot of red and pink, which I had never done previously. Exploring fresher colours, but still giving my clients that glamour and maximalism that they love. And colour, colour, colour – my clients definitely come to me for colour.”
The title Natale has chosen for his book is apt. His work reveals not only layers of design, but many layers of influence. There’s that Dynasty influence, for one: “I’m a child of the 80s. I watched Dynasty and all those set designs – and it was actually sets that inspired me to be an interior designer in those formative years. It was the sets of Space Odyssey and The Shining and Dynasty that really made me decide that I want to do this. And it’s been a vocation.”
Unsurprisingly, Natale’s Italian heritage has also exerted an influence. “When I first went to ltaly as a kid, I was blown away by the amount of marble. There was marble everywhere – marble slabs on the stairs, on the window sills, on the kitchen bench tops. We never had carpet or stone; everything was tiles or marble. That’s a really big influence on me.”
This runs alongside many other strands of DNA. The one-time art and architectural student also draws on his academic hinterland: “I’m a design history buff and I love art history, so I’m always researching about past trends.” Then there’s travel – and in Natale’s case, a lot of it. At the time we speak, Natale is dashing between his studio in Australia, clients in New York, suppliers in Italy and presenting at Maison et Objet in Paris. “Travel is a huge influence on me – probably the biggest, now,” he says.
In the different cities he visits, Natale sees ideas everywhere, from houses to museums to retail. On the latter, he says: “Retail design is so inspirational – the level of design is incredible.” And while Natale remains committed to residential projects, he clearly relishes the challenge of his burgeoning hospitality and retail projects. Do these require a fundamentally different approach?
“There’s definitely a different design aesthetic,” says Natale. “It depends on the project, but when I’m designing a commercial space, I get to explore my cleaner side.”
He references the ground-breaking offices he and his team created for Australia’s biggest clothing brand, Cottoned On: “They wanted it to feel like a hotel. When I can, I do like to explore a more minimalistic aesthetic.”
Design is about language: once the project has a language, then it’s actually quite simple.Greg Natale
Across both residential and commercial, the process is the same: a starting point, then the flexibility to let the project unfold and reveal itself. “There’s always a formal briefing meeting. And then there will be a starting point. It could be the property itself – or it could be my client’s personal style,” says Natale. “It could be an art collection, or maybe a piece of furniture. And then we’ll keep building and building until we’ve come up with a concept and the language.”
He adds: “Design is about language: once you’ve got that concept, and the project has a language, then it’s actually quite simple.”
It’s hard not to like Greg Natale. He’s built a highly successful business across several verticals, and he conjures up extraordinary, complex interiors. Yet he’s down to earth and straight talking, keen to engage and with infectious enthusiasm for the work. It’s a combination that has made him seriously in-demand with clients throughout the world.
We end with Natale circling back to the fundamentals of the business: that distinctiveness, and balancing it with the reality of the designer-client relationship.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “you always have to give the client what they want. But you still have to cut through and make sure that your voice is heard.”
The Layered Interior by Greg Natale is published by Rizzoli
Read more: Interior Designers I Interiors | Design | Vintage | Australia