A strong sense of empathy drives Nick Tobias to seek inventive solutions for his clients’ projects.
ARCHITECT NICK TOBIAS is a man of many mentors – while some are family members, others he had the instinct to seek out. Each has shaped the man he is today and, as a result, the work Tobias Partners now produces. “While my home life as a child was quite tumultuous, my glamorous French grandmother was a constant creative force. She educated me in art and music – not only how to look and listen – but also how to make it. We did a lot of craft projects together,” he says.
This was twinned with the influence of his godfather, architect Professor Victor Berk whom the teenage Tobias would accompany on site visits in Berk’s Lamborghini. “The building sites were like Lego on steroids for me with their cranes and trucks, and so when anyone asked, I said I wanted to be an architect,” says Tobias.
At the University of New South Wales he chose the revered and formidable architect Neville Gruzman, at the tail end of his teaching career, as a tutor and absorbed valuable practices that still inform his work today. “Gruzman wanted to imbue us with his processes, his principles and philosophy. It was very much about perfecting functionality before form was considered.”
Balance these influences with a stint working for Burley Katon Halliday in the ’90s with its disciplined approach, and a worldly education provided by Melbourne interior decorator John Coote who mentored Tobias in classical interiors and architecture. “We travelled to the UK, France, Italy and New York and his perspective opened my eyes to these deep connections between art, architecture, politics, society and urban design. It was like knowing a computer code that I could reapply in a contemporary way,” he recalls. By undertaking installations, catwalk designs for fashion shows and small interior projects his practice grew, fast tracked by his choice of skilled and capable collaborators.
Tobias describes his attitude towards his clients as one of extreme empathy, and the mix of projects he has undertaken show a diversity that is clearly client driven. With new builds, such as a house on a steep site in Sydney’s Whale Beach or the regenerative reuse of a church as a retail space there is a certain restraint at play. “With the Whale Beach House we wanted to deconstruct the five storeys so that it disappeared in the landscape, whereas with Parlour X in the church we were there to facilitate the dynamic of the business, not assert an overly architectural presence.”
Yet when it is appropriate Tobias knows how to make a statement. His Wentworth House in Point Piper is described as a higgledy-piggledy assortment of buildings set around a courtyard, that the client wanted coalesced into a family home. “We created a simple scheme to connect old and new elements with a copper roof which at once created a sense of unity while adding diversity through its asymmetric design,” he says.
Interior projects carry a great deal of weight in the practice and one of the most finely calibrated in recent times was the celebrated restaurant The Bridge Room in an art deco building in Sydney. “[Owners] Ross and Sunny Lusted were involved obsessively with every nuanced detail and as a practice we embrace that approach as the best outcomes are often achieved this way,” he says.
Tobias has a passion for communicating the benefits of architecture, even judging a TV show looking for Australia’s most beautiful home. “I wanted to explain concepts such as sustainability and dispel some archi-myths to a broad audience. If I had to take off my shirt and dive into a swimming pool to do it then so be it,” he adds. tobiaspartners.com.
“It was very much about perfecting functionality before form was considered.”
WHAT HAS INFORMED THE DESIGN OF YOUR STUDIO? Sophia Leopardi: Our design studio is many things – it’s a second home, the place where the majority of our time is spent, a space to be inspired and inspire our clients and collaborators. We wanted it to reflect our work and the values that underpin it. It’s where we create and we love it. WHAT INITIALLY APPEALED TO YOU ABOUT THE SITE OF YOUR STUDIO AND WHAT DID THE ALTERATIONS ENTAIL? We had been searching for a space to more accurately demonstrate our design philosophy, and the derelict 300sqm space in the 100-year-old State Heritagelisted Darling Building, uncovered on a walk to the pub, was an enticing opportunity to work with a storied building and create our own. Past the pigeon poo, water-stained walls and carpets, the natural light showed what was possible and the more open floor plates on the lower levels showed how this could be enhanced with the removal of some walls. We contrasted the gritty, exposed building fabric with carefully detailed insertions and, with a limited budget, the studio was opened up to maximise the wonderful light. Modest insertions of steel-framed glazing, recycled 1920s partitions and found objects set the scene, but it is not a salvaged aesthetic. WHAT WERE SOME OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR YOUR STUDIO? David [Burton] and I share a separate but connected workspace off the main studio. We both have computers, natural light and music. For myself, I like to have butter paper and felt-tip pens, always a selection of materials, scents (it’s got to smell good!), and some visual inspiration – sometimes a magazine, sometimes a found object. For Dave, it’s his drawing board, Pantone pens, and trusty Luxo lamp. WERE THERE ASPECTS OF YOUR RESIDENTIAL DESIGN PRACTICE THAT YOU APPLIED TO YOUR OFFICE SPACE? We have revelled in the many residential alterations and additions we have worked on over the years that have become the foundation of the studio. Our studio was a platform to demonstrate the reverence we have for history, how this can be amplified and contrasted with the new function and story to come. Our strategy was to touch as little as possible and as much as necessary. Repair was celebrated, understanding that an object or space can be more beautiful for having been broken. The flashes of gold throughout are a nod to the Japanese art of kintsugi. Our design process is both interactive and reclusive. Inspiration can happen at the most opportune and random moments and the planning and